Muslim leaders from across America will gather in Texas this weekend to hold the annual Stand With the Prophet in Honor and Respect conference, a weekend forum that is being billed as a "movement to defend Prophet Muhammad, his person, and his message," according to event information.
The Saturday event, which seeks to combat "Islamophobes in America" who have turned the Islamic Prophet Muhammad "into an object of hate," according to organizers, comes just a week after radicalized Islamists in France killed 17 people.
The victims died in events that began with the shooting attack on French newspaper Charlie Hebdo for its satirical cartoons that skewered the prophet.
Organizers of the event place the blame for Islam’s bad reputation on the media and so-called American Islamophobes who have "invested at least $160 million dollars to attack our Prophet and Islam," according to the conference web page.
Keynote speakers at the event will include Georgetown University professor John Esposito, founding director of the school’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which has come under fire for, among other things, hosting 9/11 Truthers and a member of Egypt’s Nazi Party.
Also scheduled to attend the forum is controversial New York-based Imam Siraj Wahhaj, who was an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings trial. Wahhaj has called the FBI and CIA the "real terrorists" and expressed a desire for all Americans to become Muslim, according to the New York Post.
Organizers of the conference claim that the media and Islamophobes in America are the main reason why Islam and its prophet have such a bad reputation in the Western world.
"This is not an event. It is the beginning of a movement," organizers write on their website, which blames Americans for giving Islam a bad name. "A movement to defend Prophet Muhammad, his person, and his message."
"All these accusations were invented by Islamophobes in America," the group claims. "As we celebrate the Prophet in our now annual, nationwide event: Stand with the Prophet, we recommit ourselves to rectify his image, peace be upon him."
The event seeks to capitalize on outrage over cartoons and other materials mocking Mohammed in popular culture.
"Frustrated with Islamophobes defaming the Prophet?" the event materials ask. "Fuming over extremists like ISIS who give a bad name to Islam? Remember the Danish cartoons defaming the Prophet? Or the anti-Islam film, ‘Innocence of Muslims’?"
The event is being backed by several Muslim groups, including SoundVision, an Illinois-based website that provides advice and products to Muslims; RadioIslam, an AM radio station based in Chicago; and MuslimFest.
It will take place Saturday evening at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas.
The goal of the forum, which costs $20 to attend, is to raise money to fund a "Strategic Communication Center for the Muslim community, which will develop effective responses to anti-Islamic attacks, as well as to train young Muslims in media."
This center will be equipped to respond to insults to the prophet, such as when publications run cartoons critical of Mohammed.
"When real events warrant, like the Danish Cartoon controversy, Sharia ban, Quran burning, Boko Haram kidnappings. [Islamic State] brutality, etc., we articulate fresh talking points and content quickly, and in a timely manner, working with professionals to disseminate it through community spokespersons and our allies," organizers state on their website.
Meanwhile, a German newspaper that re-ran Charlie Hebdo satirical cartoons of Mohammed was firebombed over the weekend, according to reports.
The Muslim groups hosting the Stand with the Prophet event blame the media for fomenting the wrong ideas about Muslims. The site promoting the forum includes a Pew survey finding that the media is the largest influence on the public’s opinion about Muslims.
"Media is making the life of Muslims difficult by turning our neighbors against us," the website states.
Martin Kramer, a Middle East expert and president of the Shalem College in Jerusalem, criticized Georgetown’s Esposito for participating the Stand with the Prophet forum.
"John Esposito favors ‘incitement to hatred’ legislation, under the rubric of religious freedom, that would effectively trump freedom of expression," Kramer said. "‘Belief as well as unbelief needs to be protected,’ he has written. ‘Freedom of religion in a pluralistic society ought to mean that some things are sacred and treated as such.’"
"Rallies such as the one Esposito will address have one purpose: granting Islam a protected status, and denying that protection to its critics," Kramer said.
Esposito did not respond to an email seeking comment about his participation in the event. A Georgetown University spokesman also did not respond to an email request for comment.
Phone calls to SoundVision, the group sponsoring the event and hosting information about it online, were not answered or returned. An email to the site’s informational address also was not returned.
Patrick Poole, a terrorism expert and national security reporter, said the conference is part of larger campaign to blame some in America for the negative impression of Muslims in the West.
"This is a yet another manifestation of 'Islamophobia'-phobia," Poole said. "The conference organizers invoke an 'Islamophobia hate machine' based in the U.S. that is responsible for defaming Muslims worldwide but the events of the past week and other recent attacks have done more to damage the image of Islam than any other factor."
The Muslim community must take responsibility and stop blaming the West for Islam’s faltering image, Poole said.
"What this conference makes clear is that the Muslim community needs to find better leadership. The jig is up on Islamic leaders who rush to the microphones to denounce terrorism, only to find they justify and support terrorism when speaking inside their mosques or conferences," Poole said.
"The standard message that any terrorist yelling 'Allahu Akhbar' has nothing to do with the Muslim community while any graffiti on a mosque is a sign of widespread 'Islamophobia' just isn't selling any more," he added. "Rather than revising their talking points, they're doubling down on their narrative and it will only serve to isolate the Muslim community even further."