An imam of a mosque hit by armed anti-Islam protests has said that the incidents had led to an outpouring of support from local churches and other communities.
Usama Shami, the president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that armed protesters had intimidated worshippers but “there had been positives”.
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Hundreds of anti-Islam protesters, some of them armed with assault rifles and dressed in military fatigues, picketed the mosque in the US state of Arizona, carrying placards depicting Prophet Muhammad and shouting slurs at worshippers and counterprotesters.
The two groups of demonstrators were separated by a column of US police and no incidents of violence were reported.
Organisers of the anti-Islam march chose the mosque because two men who carried out a failed attack on a US exhibition showcasing drawings of Islam’s prophet in the US state of Texas last month had attended services there.
Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi were shot dead during the course of the attack in Dallas on May 4, for which the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group claimed responsibility.
Imam Shami told Al Jazeera the two had attended services but were not affiliated with the mosque and were not influenced by its teaching.
Below is an edited transcript of Al Jazeera’s interview with Shami:
Al Jazeera: How did you find out the protest was going to take place?
Shami: We were contacted by the local and federal authorities. There was an initial protest on May 17 but it did not get a lot of attention and there was no incident at that time.
Al Jazeera: Have there been previous incidents at the mosque?
Shami: We’ve had individuals who would come in front of the mosque and make hate speech but it was never something that was organised.
Al Jazeera: Did the Garland [Dallas] shooters have any affiliation with the mosque?
Shami: They used to attend, but it’s like any other mosque, anyone can come. One of them came to the mosque in 2005 and again in 2011, when he was put under probation he stopped coming. The other man, Mr Soofi, came infrequently to the mosque, so maybe that’s why they were trying to connect the two men to the mosque.
The mosque had no influence on them and one of them was under surveillance, the FBI were watching him.
Al Jazeera: Have the authorities been supportive of the mosque?
Shami: The local authorities, the Phoenix police in particular, have been very supportive. They’ve been at these events in force trying to maintain the peace. They were worried about a possible incident with the protesters who had weapons, they thought they might use those weapons.
Al Jazeera: What was it like for worshippers seeing armed men outside the mosque?
Shami: They felt intimidated, especially the ones with children. Some of them stayed at home, afraid of exposing their kids to that hatred. Also they didn’t know what would happen, we don’t want children and families being hurt. They were very intimidated … these guys [anti-Islam protesters] had assault rifles.
Al Jazeera : Do you think anti-Islamic sentiment is becoming more pervasive?
Shami: The images coming from the Middle East at the moment, especially with ISIL, have had a psychological impact on people. There’s also an entire industry in the US to promote Islamophobia and to make money out of it. The Islamophobes are taking advantage of people who are not very well informed … you have groups who want Americans to be scared of their Muslim neighbour.
Al Jazeera: What role have US politicians played in perpetuating that feeling?
Shami: A lot of Tea Party Republicans get their funding from sources that support Islamophobes. Many politicians get money from Islamophobic groups … you have this industry that feeds on itself.
Al Jazeera: How have local communities responded?
Shami: The same night the protests happened, a church down the street organised a counterprotest and the number of counterprotesters they got was higher than the anti-Muslim ones. Yesterday we had an event where various interfaith groups came to the mosque, about 900 people, some of them with flowers. A lot of people realise they need to speak against hate … there is a positive side to this.
Follow Shafik Mandhai on Twitter: @ShafikFM