The prominent Muslim civil liberties organization, the Council on American and Islamic Relations, has been keeping tabs on Islamophobia throughout the country for decades. But in the last few months, leaders tell New Times, it’s maintained an extra-close eye on Jon Ritzheimer, the local ex-Marine and face of the anti-Islam crusade in Arizona.
“We’ve been monitoring him since the biker rally,” says Liban Yousuf, CAIR Arizona Civil Rights Director – referring the May 29 demonstration outside of the Phoenix Islamic Cultural Center that brought hundreds of protesters and counter-protesters to the streets to defame or defend Islam – “but in the recent videos [he’s posted on social media], he’s really ramped up the violent rhetoric.”
It’s made many Muslims in Arizona feel unsafe and threatened, Yousuf adds. “All that screaming, yelling…we periodically send updates to the Phoenix Police Department and the FBI to let them know about [the things he says or does].”
The PPD declined to comment on the subject, deferring instead to the FBI. Special Agent Anthony Farinacci from the Phoenix FBI office tells New Times that on principle, “the F.B.I. does not comment on on-going investigations,” and therefore cannot “confirm nor deny the existence of any ongoing investigation.”
Ritzheimer has posted at least seven inflammatory videos of himself ranting about the “evils of Islam” and the “hateful teachings of the Quran,” since the May rally. Earlier this week, we wrote about what we thought was Ritzheimer’s latest video — in it, he films himself driving and ranting about how Islam was to blame for the most recent shooting incident that left five people dead in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (The video currently has 856,271 views, 30,947 shares on Facebook, and dozens of comments from readers showing their support for Ritzheimre's statements.)
But after we published the story, we learned that Ritzheimer had in fact posted another video the previous day called “the real reason for the Chattanooga shootings!” It’s unclear why, but within hours of putting it up, Ritzheimer deleted it from Facebook. He did not, however, remove it from YouTube, where it has 352 views.
In this video, Ritzheimer strays from his usual filming-while-driving video, and instead takes the camera out to the desert so he can film himself shooting a Quran with a semi-automatic weapon and then later a handgun.
“I’ve been watching the news and they’re saying FBI is still investigating – they’re trying to find a motive for the gunman out in Chattanooga. They’re still digging and investigating and still really trying to find the motive. So I’m out here, just searching around out here in the desert, hoping maybe I can find the motive,” Ritzheimer says, putting his hand above his eyes to block the sun and surveying the land around him.
“Maybe, you know, we can do this like Blue’s Clues, and we’ll look for the motive and stuff. Oh I don’t know,” he pauses, slowing lifting a Quran into view.
“Oh, Oh! Hi! People, I think I found the motive,” he says, pointing to the Quran. “I think I found the motive for what killed my five brothers out in Chattanooga.”
He then proceeds to place the Quran against a shrub and fire at it with an automatic weapon and then a handgun.
After putting down the weapons, Ritzheimer again turns to the camera. “Islam needs to be categorized the same way as communism, okay. It is an ideology. It is more than just a religion. This shit runs governments, countries, so if you want to be in that country that has it – go there. We don’t want it here.”
“We get hate-filled messages and threats every day,” says CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, and “every once in a while someone sends us a video or image of them burning a Quran."
But in Hooper’s opinion, “using an assault weapon to target a Quran goes way beyond an issue of free speech and needs to be addressed as a threat to Muslims. Anytime someone is showing themselves firing weapons, you have to be concerned...We’ll leave it to the authorities to see if it crosses the line from freedom of speech to a potential threat.”
The challenge, both Hooper and Yousuf say, is that unless Ritzheimer (or any of his supporters) makes a direct and specific threat, his actions and comments are protected under the Constitution.
"The FBI does not monitor or investigate based solely on First Amendment protected activities,” Special Agent Farinacci tells New Times in a statement. “The FBI may conduct logical investigation into matters involving a threat or act of violence. If the threat or act is based on a motive/bias against a certain race, color, religion, national origin, actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or gender, the investigation may be classified as a Hate Crime."
We understand that “law enforcement’s hands are tied, even though its hateful speech,” Yousuf explains. “He has the freedom to say it, but we’re worried that he, or one of his Facebook followers, is going to go out and do something.” Just look at the comments under the videos he posts online, he says.
The people watching his videos “are getting pumped up and making comments like ‘we’re warriors, we’re going to war with Islam,’ [or] ‘we just need a leader, tell us what to do.’”
Yousuf finds the rhetoric terrifying, saying he and others take screenshots of the comments regularly and send them to law enforcement.
CAIR’s work with law enforcement isn’t something new. As is stated on the group’s website, “like the rest of the mainstream American Muslim community, CAIR believes it is both our civic and religious duty to work with law enforcement to protect our nation. Even one incident of violent extremism is too many.” CAIR regularly condemns acts of domestic and international violence.
Also, “the number of murders done by Muslims is infinitesimal compared to the number of [people] murdered by firearms every year,” Hooper says, citing a recent study conducted by University of California professor Travis L. Dixon that found 81 percent of the media’s reporting on domestic terrorism concerns a Muslim perpetrators, while in reality, Muslims only account for 6 percent of the total number of suspects.
“Bigots don’t really need excuses; they’ll always find something to latch on to,” Hooper says. “We are concerned about a rise in hate incidents targeting Muslims and their institutions. [And] if someone has that attitude, nothing you say about all of those millions of peaceful Muslims will have any impact. All they’ll see is a handful of [violent] people.”
And at the end of the day, “we don’t want to be in the position after something horrible happens to say, ‘we should have done something about it sooner.”
Editor's note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the type of weapon used by Ritzheimer