Hundreds of protesters descended upon a mosque in Phoenix on Friday for a tense demonstration in response to an attempted attack on anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller and far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders at a "Draw the Prophet" event outside Dallas in early May.
The Washington Post reports that 250 "mostly armed" protesters were present at the rally, which was met by a counter-protest of roughly the same size protecting the mosque. Riot police separated the two crowds, which eventually dispersed.
According to Facebook posts by the organizers, the two gunmen killed in their failed assault on the "Draw the Prophet" event were frequent visitors at the Islamic community center. Demonstrators were encouraged to "bring American flags and any message that you would like to send to the known acquaintances of the 2 gunmen."
The message (and the firearms) they ended up bringing was pretty clear. As the tweet below emphasizes, it's hard to imagine that a protest of 250 heavily armed Muslims could be described as "peaceful" in the press.
A bunch of heavily-armed white folks show up outside a mosque, screaming slurs and destroying Qurans? It's a free-speech rally. But when people of color and white allies mobilize across the country to protest police violence in cities like Baltimore, everyone loses their minds. Conservative columnists like Richard Cohen demand that the police crack down and restore "law and order," using language that sweeps peaceful demonstrators and real agitators under the same table.
Was Friday's protest peaceful in the sense that no one was hurt? Sure. But the intent of the rally was not to promote peace. It was to threaten the mosque and its defenders with reprisal for the actions of others.
To put this protest in context, since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, right-wing extremists have racked up a body count matching or slightly beating that of Islamic terrorists on U.S. soil. (When wounded are taken into account, jihadists likely win by a larger margin.) In 2013, U.S. News & World Report noted that homegrown Islamic terrorists are relatively rare, writing that "of the more than 300 American deaths from political violence and mass shootings since 9/11, only 33 have come at the hands of Muslim-Americans, according to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security."
Another study by Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers found that the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism is likely exaggerated, concluding that the vast majority of Muslim-Americans abhor violence and their communities are self-policing against radicalism. Compare that to the words of protest organizer Jon Ritzheimer, who told CNN's Anderson Cooper that "True Islam is terrorism."
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has become increasingly concerned that right-wing militias and "sovereign citizen" groups which reject government authority have begun to be as big or larger a threat to Americans than the Islamic State.
Clearly, Americans should be wary of the threat posed by armed radicals of all stripes. But they should also keep in mind that the potential violence ready to be waged by self-declared patriots could be just as ugly as anything a few deeply misguided Muslims could cook up, and that peaceful Muslims can be key allies in the fight to keep all Americans safe.