The bigots behind the "anti-Sharia" marches

Nicole Colson reports on the group behind upcoming anti-Muslim rallies--and how a climate of toxic Islamophobia is being encouraged by politicians, with deadly results.

The professional provocateurs of the right are trying to exploit the non-existent threat of Sharia lawThe professional provocateurs of the right are trying to exploit the non-existent threat of Sharia law

ON JUNE 10, demonstrations are slated to take place in more than two dozen cities across the U.S. against the supposed threat of Islamic "Sharia law."

Why, exactly, are protests needed against something the majority of Americans don't know anything about, that doesn't exist in the U.S. on any institutional level, and that isn't actually a threat to anyone?

Because it's an easy opportunity for the right wing to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment--and capitalize on the racist rhetoric of the bigot-in-chief occupying the White House.

Fortunately, in a number of cities where the Islamophobes are mobilizing, people opposed to the bigotry emanating from the White House on down are preparing to send a message of resistance. They'll be adding their voices to the protesters who turned out June 4 against a hate crime in Portland.

The Islamophobic rallies on June 10 have been called by the group "ACT for America" (formerly known as the "American Congress for Truth"). It claims: "This is a march against Sharia law and for human rights. Our nation is built on the freedom of religion--a pillar of our democracy--which we must always respect, protect and honor. However many aspects of Sharia law run contrary to basic human rights and are completely incompatible with our laws and our democratic values."

This noble-sounding rhetoric about protecting freedom of religion and human rights hides an ugly reality, however.

By fixating on Sharia law--the religious law forming part of the Islamic tradition, which is interpreted in multiple ways by various strains of Islam--ACT for America is claiming that a "Muslim menace" threatens to spread across the U.S., overthrowing established democratic laws and institutions, and imposing a theocratic state.

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ACCORDING TO the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), ACT for America is the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America. It claims to have 280,000 members and over 1,000 chapters, though these numbers are probably inflated.

The group is one of several anti-Muslim organizations that sprang up after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. These groups got a boost not only from the polarized political climate, but from the Bush administration, which openly embraced the idea that a fundamental "clash of civilizations" was taking place between the West and the Islamic world. In the intervening years, the Islamophobia industry has succeeded in fomenting such a toxic climate that plans had to be scrapped for a Muslim community center located blocks away from Ground Zero. At its worst, Muslims and even those who are perceived to be Muslim have become the victims of horrific hate crimes.

According to the SPLC, in 2007, ACT founder Brigitte Gabriel even gave a lecture to the Defense Department's Joint Forces Staff College as part of a course on Islam, during which she reportedly told the audience that Muslims should be prohibited from serving in public office.

"[A] practicing Muslim who believes the word of the Koran to be the word of Allah, who abides by Islam, who goes to mosque and prays every Friday, who prays five times a day--this practicing Muslim, who believes in the teachings of the Koran, cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America," Gabriel claimed.

In actual fact, "Sharia law" is not a codified legal system that Muslims are attempting to enact in the U.S. It refers to a collection of religious and legal texts and is interpreted and practiced in a wide variety of ways by Muslims.

"Sharia as a legal system doesn't exist," Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Texas A&M University, told the Washington Post. He added that a Muslim who claims to follow Sharia is similar to a Christian saying he lives his life "in accordance with Jesus Christ."

But the facts don't matter to ACT for America. It and other such groups see any tolerance for Muslims or the Muslim community--whether that means allowing the construction of mosques or accepting refugees or immigrants from Muslim-majority countries--as a threat. To them, Islam is an inherently violent religion, and all Muslims are potential terrorists.

In other words, ACT for America doesn't want to protect religious freedom. They want to prohibit the freedom to be a Muslim.

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MUCH LIKE the "Red Scare" of the 1950s promoted the idea that there were "reds under the bed," ACT for America and similar groups are part of an Islamophobia industry that recycles well-worn myths and stereotypes from the "war on terror" playbook about the threat that Islam and Muslims supposedly pose.

Roy White, the San Antonio chapter president of ACT for America, indicated as much in February, when he met with Texas lawmakers to make slanderous allegations against the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)--a mainstream advocacy group that works to promote civil rights and organizes against hate crimes against Muslims, among other things.

White told officials that CAIR is really attempting to "infiltrate" the government and destroy U.S. society from within. "They're jihadists wearing suits," he told the Washington Post.

At one ACT for America forum earlier this year, Bill Zedler, a Texas Republican state representative, said, "Regardless of whether it's al-Qaeda or CAIR or the Islamic State, they just have different methodology for the destruction of Western civilization."

Such drivel shouldn't have to be taken seriously, but groups like ACT for America are feeling emboldened in the current climate with the official lurch to the right in U.S. politics, led by Donald Trump and Co.

As the Washington Post reported, official ties between ACT for America and the Trump administration are numerous:

Stephen K. Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart, who has described Muslim American groups as "cultural jihadists" bent on destroying American society, is Trump's chief strategist. Breitbart has published several articles Gabriel has written. Trump's CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has spoken at ACT's conferences and sponsored an ACT meeting at the Capitol last year.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who sits on ACT's board of advisers, served as the president's national security adviser before stepping down after revelations that he might have violated the law in communications with a Russian diplomat.

"[ACT is] the fringe of the fringe," Ahmed Bedier, former executive director for CAIR's Tampa chapter, told the Post, "and now they have people on the inside of the most powerful government in the world. They're fascists. They don't want any presence of Muslims in America. And the only Muslim that is acceptable to them is a former Muslim."

Bedier was proven correct by Trevor Loudon, an ACT for America member, whose message to a meeting of the group's San Antonio, Texas, chapter after Trump's election emphasized the opportunities for bigotry with a reactionary sympathizer in the Oval Office: "We have four years--the most important four years of our lives--to redouble the efforts. If we blow it, our kids live in slavery. If we succeed, we can have a new golden age, not just in America, but all over the world."

But the "golden age" for the bigots of ACT for America is one where right-wing Christians can impose second-class status on not just Muslims, but other minorities and oppressed groups.

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ONE ESPECIALLY disgusting aspect of ACT for America is its crocodile tears for women and children, who it singles out as the main victims of Sharia law: "We, at ACT for America, are committed to protecting women and children from Sharia Law and its impact on Muslim women and children including honor killing and Female Genital Mutilation."

The hypocrisy is stunning. The conservatives who form the backbone of ACT for America have no shame when it comes to congressional Republicans slashing food stamps and Medicaid, cutting school budgets, and restricting women's right to control their own bodies. Yet they have the nerve to lecture about the threat to women and children from an imaginary Muslim horde.

In fact, ACT for America and the wider Islamophobia industry, including luminaries like Pam Geller of "Stop the Islamization of America" and Robert Spencer of "Jihad Watch," cheered as Donald Trump demonized some of the most vulnerable people in the world--refugees from Muslim-majority countries fleeing repression and war--with his travel ban already stopped twice by the courts.

In 2015, ACT for America's Gabriel told Breitbart News Saturday that Muslim refugees and immigrants "are people trying to suck off of the people from the West. They know they can get a free ticket for money. They are not coming here to build empires and become great businessmen and entrepreneurs. They are coming here to get the free checks from you and me who work very hard to pay our taxes."

This reaction has helped embolden toxic, even deadly, hate. It was no coincidence that when "alt-right" bigot Jeremy Christian recently killed two men and seriously wounded another in Portland, Oregon, he had been berating a young Muslim woman and her friend, telling them to "Get off the bus [sic], and get out of the country because you don't pay taxes here."

Is it any wonder that racists like Christian feel confident to go on the attack when--in response to the recent terrorist attack in London--Trump used the moment to lash out at London Mayor Sadiq Khan, himself a Muslim. "At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is 'no reason to be alarmed!'" read Trump's tweet.

Never mind that what Khan actually said was that Londoners had "no reason to be alarmed" by an increased police presence on the streets, or that he repeatedly condemned the attack in the strongest language possible.

Trump went on to use the tragedy in London as an excuse to defend, once again, his Muslim travel ban.

Trump wasn't the only racist to exploit the London attack. On June 4, Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana posted a vicious message on his Facebook page calling for "[e]very conceivable measure...to hunt them down. Hunt them, identity them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all."

Higgins--a former cop dogged by allegations of excessive force--later said he did nothing wrong, emphasizing that he was "only" calling for "radicalized" Muslims to be murdered.

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THE TIDE of Islamophobia has had terrible consequences.

In May, CAIR announced that that it had tracked 260 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2016, up from 180 in 2015 and 38 in 2014. Incidents involving anti-Muslim bias, including employment discrimination and denial of religious accommodation, were also up sharply, reaching 2,213 cases in 2016, up from 1,409 in 2015 and 1,314 in 2014.

But opponents of racism and hate are organizing to make sure that the Islamophobic bigots don't go unchallenged.

In several places, counterprotests have been planned against the June 10 ACT for America rallies, with the aim of drawing together wide layers of people to stand in defense of our neighbors and communities.

In New York, for example, the Jewish Social Justice contingent, International Socialist Organization, Arab American Association of New York and Bay Ridge for Social Justice will be "Standing with Muslims Against Racism and Islamophobia" in a counterprotest.

Demonstrations like these are an important start to pushing back against the right--and sending the message to ACT for America and the other bigots that we won't stand by as they target Muslims.

As the call for the New York counterprotest says, we'll stand up to say:

NO to Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism!
NO to white supremacy!
YES to building community and protecting one another!
YES to dignity and justice for all communities!