A few months ago, Phoenix became the center of international attention, under the leadership of the racist nativist activist Jon Ritzheimer. He organized a protest outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix. With handguns and rifles in tow, Ritzheimer and his biker rally gathered to denounce Islam and bring light to the religion’s “violent” nature. I had a chance to visit Phoenix this past Labor Day weekend while heading over to camp at the Grand Canyon National Park. Since then I have been contemplating for some time now on this whole shenanigan.
When I found out about the upcoming new set of rallies organized across the United States by Ritzheimer, I felt I needed to share. Its not just that he’s organizing these events, free speech to everyone, but that he seems to be digging deeper in his role as a racist nativist scoundrel. The question is where are Arizona’s leaders?
On Being Leaderless in Arizona
I generally have avoided Arizona because its not a welcoming environment for folks like me. Its actually the only place in the territorial United States where I was asked for my papers while on a road trip. Luckily I carry my US passport with me everywhere, but as an American citizen we shouldn’t have to produce papers while traveling between states, thats the beauty of the Constitutional system. The fact is if I were white I would not be asked for papers, but because I look like I could be undocumented, i.e. brown, I got asked to prove my citizenship.
Arizona was a state I boycotted, I made it a point not to fill up gas within its boundaries, to not stay in hotels or to buy food or eat at any of the restaurants. Even though I have gone through Arizona many times in the past six years, I probably didn’t dent the economy, but I felt good with my personal boycott.
Now, like the demographic shifts taking place around the country, my family is caught up in the internal migration to Phoenix. So in the context that Arizona is seeing an influx of non-white migration, people like Ritzheimer are afraid of the changes that may be coming to their bastions of whiteness. Ritzheimer has tapped into that sentiment of nativist xenophobia. He has single handedly made Arizona groundzero for Anti-Muslim organizing in the United States.
Ritzheimer is currently planning the upcoming global rally against Islam. You would think the politicians in Arizona would see the demographic shift taking place, that they would be aware about the national stage Ritzheimer is taking. That politicians like Senator John McCain, the venerable elder statesmen that made a stand against bigotry during his failed Presidential campaign against President Obama, would know about these developments.
Yet, when Senator John McCain was confronted with a line of questioning by journalists regarding the anti-Muslim environment in Arizona on August 31 at the Southwest Airlines Phoenix headquarters town hall, he responded with that “the world has never been in more turmoil” and that:
“I’m not familiar with that movement,” the Senator said before going off on a tangent about how “unequivocally, without a doubt, the religion of Islam is an honorable and reasonable religion, [and that] ISIS has nothing to do with the reality of Islam.”
In a follow-up question, he was asked how, as the senator of a state simmering with anti-Islam fervor, he would deal with what looks to many like a powder keg ready to explode.
Looking slightly annoyed, McCain said, “Frankly, I think most citizens in this country and in Arizona know that Islam is a peaceful religion. I’ve never heard of this movement, and I like to think I keep up with everything going on.”
You can read the full article here at the Phoenix Times.
The fact that Senator McCain came up completely blank to probably one of the biggest pieces of news that has come out of Arizona this year is a sad reflection of the disconnect with the state he represents. To him this threat to religious freedom and the values of inclusive pluralism that has defined America simply did not exist in Arizona.
Politicians are part of the problem when it comes to the rising xenophobia and hatred that is sweeping United States. Leaders have a part to play in all of this, to constructively bridge the distance between paranoia and hatred toward a reality where we can work on challenges from places of mutual agreement. We don’t have to think alike, or let our guard down. But we do need to work together.
Love is Stronger Then Hate
While Ritzheimer and his narrow-minded minions were speweing their hate at their rally, on the same day, interfaith protestors also gathered for a “rally of love and inclusion” to show support for the Muslims who were gathering for prayer. Standing in the middle was the Phoenix Police Department, keeping everything safe and preventing emotions from escalating into tragedy.
That day is a clear reminder of a divide that still exists in America, where we yell and shout over and past one another. After all these years, have we not built up our dialogue skills, our listening skills and our conversation skills? Instead of a thin blue line separating hostile parties, why not be able to get beyond Google searches and hate filled websites? Why not invite those who can lead and moderate dialogues?
I was honored to experience what dialogue looks and feels like through my fellowship with NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, an innovative LA-based organization that focuses on shifting the paradigm around the commonly tumultuous relationship between Muslims and Jews. That same relationship was then turned into support and mutual engagement through numerous challenges that both communities faced, including Rizheimer’s rally.
For me it was touching to see that the following week the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix was visited by hundreds of people from various Phoenix religious institutions to celebrate mutual shared principles and values, including the the First Amendment Right to worship and believe in whatever one wants without the threat or intimidation to one’s religious practice. This event was rightfully called “Love is Stronger Then Hate” and these are the leaders we need to see more of.
As the bikers and interfaith ralliers took their “sides,” my NewGround training kept running through my mind. With a new rally planned to take place across 20 different locations in the United States, I once again am reflecting on how we are missing an opportunity.
Its so easy to end up dehumanizing each other; Ritzheimer kept falling into that trap interview after interview, soundbite after soundbite. So instead of being able to articulate his legitimate concerns, he fell into demonizing all Muslims by throwing a shadow on the entire religion, on a billion followers. He spoke past the people he was trying to engage in his line of questioning, and the conversation devolved into a constant need for Ritzheimer to defend himself against charges of racism, bigotry, and scare tactics by the media.
NewGround’s program builds bridges between communities by providing opportunities for us to look at our behaviors and triggers and to grow from our interactions. In order to create new relationships and humanize each other, it is essential to take a pause and use the skills, such as intentional listening, to look and hear one another on a deeper level then what the conflict presents. There is this great video put together by NewGround Alum Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon which puts intentional listening to use in a very practical everyday scenario:
When you look beyond the surface, you will oftentimes find the root of the issue has nothing to do with one another, but rather the relationship we have with ourselves and our ability to cope with life. Human beings have the habit of projecting our inner pain and trauma onto one another in the form of hate and bigotry, which then ends up triggering the cycle. We build bonds over our dislike of “the other,” when in reality there is no “other.”
…Becomes a Possibility
Another image from the Phoenix protest came when Jason Leger, standing next to Ritzheimer also wearing a profanity-laced T-shirt, started to engage with congregants of the mosque and found himself invited to watch the evening prayers and continue to discuss his concerns. Leger told local media “[k]nowing what I know now, because I have talked to them and spoke to them, no I would not do that [wear the shirt] again, just because I don’t want to offend or hurt those people.” [link]
Leger’s protest was not about Islam, but rather about his deep conviction around freedom of speech. His hostile approach was keeping him from being seen and heard, and vice versa.
Leger took a difficult step that is needed across the country – one of introspection and a willingness to hear the other. He took a step to understand himself better and therefore be able to cross the rally line. He demonstrated for us, in this intense situation, the power of intentional listening.
Intentional listening is not a hard concept to master, and as Leger demonstrated the skill is innate when we tune into it and allow our fears and triggers to stop distracting us from engaging in meaningful dialogue and conversation. In NewGround we don’t agree on everything, in fact, we retain the right to respectfully disagree, however we don’t loose sight of the common humanity that we share, nor the mutual values and principles we agree upon.
These steps are not easy to take, and it’s only through organizations such as NewGround can we hope for others to learn the deep lessons of identifying the true heart of the conflict.