A demonstration of white privilege

Whose rights should matter more – those of armed hatemongers or those of a vulnerable community?

Demonstrators shout during a rally outside the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona [REUTERS]
Demonstrators shout during a rally outside the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona [REUTERS]

In the United States, mosques have become common gathering sites for two disparate groups – Muslim worshippers, and anti-Muslim hatemongers.

On May 29, the two converged in Phoenix, Arizona, in front of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix. 

In a nation where 58 percent of the population has never met a Muslim, and more specifically, a state that boasts the Minutemen, armed xenophobic militias, and a robust history of anti-black racism – “Arizonan Islamophobia” is an especially frightening breed.

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An estimated 500 anti-Muslim protesters descended in front of the Islamic Community Center, some armed with guns, clad in army fatigues, lifting signs that read: “Stop Islam”, and donning shirts reading “F**k Islam”.

Behind a backdrop of the mosque’s minaret and Muslim counterprotesters, the anti-Muslim rally promised to “take back America”.

The firearms the demonstrators openly brandished, combined with the signs and slurs they fired in the direction of the Muslim American counterprotesters, made that promise seem far more like a threat.

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The police line between the two factions, notwithstanding the threat posed by the anti-Muslim rally, did not shatter.

They were on-site to preserve the free speech rights of the anti-Muslim action, and “protect both parties”.

Seemingly everybody in front of the mosque carried a gun, except the Muslims.

However, despite this fact, it is the unarmed Muslim bodies that are largely regarded as “threats” and “terrorists”.

While nativist, white factions – armed to the teeth and explicitly vowing violent action – are continuously extended the protections denied to non-white protesters. 

The idea that free speech is protected equally across racial lines is a fiction.

The racial identity of the protesters are as, and sometimes more, important than the content of the speech.

This was vividly evidenced on the violent crackdown on the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that swept through the US, and on Friday, police protection of the anti-Islam protesters in Phoenix.       

Friday’s protest in Arizona was as much a display of white privilege as it was an anti-Islam protest.

The overwhelmingly white throng of 500 anti-Muslim protesters – who spewed racial and religious slurs, donned camouflage as if prepping for war, and brandished guns and other weaponry – embodied every element of a “violent mob”, or an “imminent threat”.

In fact, the demonstration was spearheaded by a biker gang.

The whiteness brandished by the anti-Muslim protesters – within a state where racism and xenophobia infamously thrive – was the most potent part of their protest.


Indeed, if black, Latino or Muslim American protesters acted the same, police would be on-site to suppress, not protect.

The whiteness brandished by the anti-Muslim protesters – within a state where racism and xenophobia infamously thrive – was the most potent part of their protest.

It was a type of visual speech that did not have to be uttered, but demanded the highest grade of police protection.

Whiteness, time and again, spurs immediate imagery of peace, patriotism and Americanness – regardless of how menacing and violent it actually is – which typically results with the state protecting it far more than it punishes it.         

Juxtaposed, Phoenix and Ferguson highlight that the content of speech is not as salient as the colour of the speaker.

Demonstrations of whiteness, and the privileges and power they historically and currently command, were as core to the anti-Muslim protests as their hateful messages.

This factor, combined with the fact that the target of the hate speech were Muslims and Islam, augments the First Amendment rights of the anti-Muslim protesters.

The enforcement of the First Amendment can be funny and fickle. The US Constitution’s foremost law presumptively protects the speech of actors like the anti-Muslim protesters in Phoenix.

But it also safeguards the free exercise of religion rights of their targets – Muslim Americans.

In the US, neither racism nor Islamophobia are per se illegal. The First Amendment’s protection of free speech, which falls short of inciting violence, affords racists and hatemongers with the right to stage protests. This protection of speech, no matter how hateful, must be preserved.

Yet, the long-term effects of the anti-Muslim protests are far more concerning than the immediate threat they posed to Muslims on Friday.

While carrying weapons, organised, and seemingly ready to pounce on Muslim American counterprotesters, the anti-Muslim action aimed to cultivate and spread armed Islamophobic actions throughout the state. Friday’s protest was hardly a rogue action, but on account of its head organiser, John Ritzheimer, the first of many.

An emergent, armed anti-Muslim movement in Arizona will create a culture where Muslims in the state will fear worshipping in their mosques, donning headscarves and beards, and practising in their mosques.

Protecting this speech, which rises from the very same nativist element that target “illegal immigrants” and black Arizonans, comes with the reciprocal cost of diminishing the religious rights of Muslims in the state. 

Begging the question – whose rights should matter more: The rights of armed hatemongers that encourage and embolden violence towards Muslims in Arizona; or the free exercise rights of a vulnerable community, trapped within a state where xenophobia, racism, and now Islamophobia thrive?

Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.