Subscribe to SIAWI content updates by Email
Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > USA: Anti-Sharia demonstrators hold rallies in cities across the (...)

USA: Anti-Sharia demonstrators hold rallies in cities across the country

Sunday 11 June 2017, by siawi3


Anti-Sharia demonstrators hold rallies in cities across the country

Photo: Rick Ellis yells at Muslim attendees of Muslim Capitol Day in Austin in January. Rallies scheduled across the country on Saturday, including in Austin, aim to attack Islamic law. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/For The Washington Post)

By Abigail Hauslohner

June 10 at 12:41 PM

NEW YORK CITY — An increasingly vocal anti-Muslim activist group has kicked off protests in numerous cities across the country, marching in opposition to Islamic law, which the group believes is threatening American society.

ACT for America, a lobbyist organization with close ties to the Trump administration that has helped pass state-level bills targeting Islamic law and refugees, organized the protests as a nationwide “March Against Sharia.”

The marches set up the potential for more public clashes between far-right activists and their far-left opposition, similar to recent violent encounters between the political extremes in Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore. While demonstrators argue they are protecting free speech and defending traditional American values, counterprotesters say the marchers underscore a larger trend of intolerance that is increasingly evident across a politically divided country.

[Right-wing free speech rally draws massive counterprotests in Portland]

In New York City, the rally started downtown nearly an hour late with a crowd of around three dozen people, some of them in camouflage fatigues and waving American flags. About a dozen wore shirts identifying them as members of the anti-government Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters.

Across the street, separated by police barricades and a few dozen police, a few hundred mostly young people, including labor activists, Jewish and Muslim protesters, and anarchists, blasted air horns and whistles and held banners that read “Fascists out of NYC.”

From a stage adorned with an American flag, Pax Hart, who organized ACT’s march, railed against the left and the media, and branded the rival protesters across the street as violent Marxists and “idiots.” All have conspired to shut this protest down, he said.

If you feel unsafe “walking around in a hijab, try being a conservative on a college campus,” Hart said. “We’re here protecting their rights, and they’re trying to shut us down! It’s insane!”

The left, he said will criticize everything but Islam. “They’re gonna blast a nonexistent rape culture, but they’re not going to criticize Islam!”

“We will not yield to Islamic exceptionalism,” Hart said.

Pawl Bazile, who runs Proud Boy, a far-right online magazine, spoke next. “We understand what Islam is, and we say no,” he said to cheers. “You’re in the land of Budweiser and bikinis, for God’s sake.” Anyone who doesn’t like it can move to Saudi Arabia or Syria, he said.

Men wearing T-shirts affiliated with the Oath Keepers, a group the SPLC has labeled as “neo-Nazi,” stood by within the crowd and around the perimeter, fingering walkie-talkies and surveying the crowd.

Frank Morganthaler, the vice president of the New York State Oath Keepers, said the smaller turnout may have been the result of some people being “intimidated” by the threat of violence from opposition protesters. “These people go wild,” he said, glancing across the street. “They’re crazy. We’ve seen what they’ve done in other cities, breaking windows and other stuff.”

A dozen young white men with tucked-in dress shirts, sunglasses and slicked-down side-parts stood in back, watching. They identified themselves as “the alt-right,” a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state.

Across the street and two sets of police barricades, Marjorie Stamberg, a New York City teacher, held up a sign that read "drive fascists out of NYC.”

“Two people were murdered in Portland a few weeks ago by their people,” she said. “If they tell you it’s about free speech, they’re liars. They’re killers. They’re haters.”

[This group believes Islam threatens America: ‘It’s a spiritual battle of good and evil.’]

ACT supporters are marching in front of state capitol buildings in about half a dozen states, including Texas, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. In San Bernardino, Calif., they are set to march outside the Inland Regional Center, site of the 2015 terrorist attack in which 14 people were killed during an office holiday party.

Organized in part to memorialize the anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, the marches aim to raise awareness of what ACT sees as the negative effects of Muslim immigration to the United States. ACT frames its cause as a human rights issue.

“Sharia is incompatible with Western democracy and the freedoms it affords,” the group wrote on its website, announcing the march. ACT is “committed to protecting women and children from Sharia Law,” which it described as “including honor killing and Female Genital Mutilation.”

[First federal case under female genital mutilation ban spurs efforts for harsher penalties]

Islamic scholars say sharia is none of those things, but rather a way of life, outlined in a vast body of religious texts and legal opinions, and governing everything from what to eat to how to bury the dead. Sharia is also subject to a wide range of interpretations.

In Austin, ACT protesters were met with counterprotest group Texas Against Islamophobia, and anti-fascist demonstrators masked in red and black bandanas.

Joseph Weidknecht, a 25-year-old construction worker from Austin, said he felt compelled to join the protest because of the “ongoing rape crisis in Central and Western Europe, where entire sections of the city are no-go zones.”

“There’s rampant rape happening because of Syrian immigrants, and we have to stop that from coming to America,” Weidknecht said.

Positioned outside the gates of the capitol alongside a group of protesters wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, Weidknecht said he believes sharia law isn’t a partisan issue, but an American one.

The protest was marked by brief heated confrontations between the two groups, though it appeared no protesters actually engaged in violence.

On each side, there were protesters who identified themselves as liberals, but Annie, 36, a stay-at-home mom from Austin said liberals protesting against sharia law are either misinformed or “willfully ignorant” of what sharia law is.

“They’re saying they’re protecting women or other liberal values, but they don’t realize who they’re standing next to,” Annie said. “Id they were more informed I doubt they would be standing in solidarity with a hate group.”

In front of the capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa., about three dozen anti-sharia protesters were separated from a similar number of anti-fascist protesters by a police barricade.

The anti-fascist protesters — wearing all black and balaclavas — played drums and cowbells, chanting “no hate, no Nazis.” The anti-sharia protesters, some of whom were also masked and carried handguns, sang “America the Beautiful” and chanted “take a shower” in response.

“This is a march against sharia, not Muslims,” said Steven R. Moore, a 35-year-old from Washington County, Pa., who works in the oil and gas industry. “We are not affiliated with any extremist groups . . . Sharia is a barbaric system that the Islamic State is trying to impose in our country.”

Timmy Wylie, a spokesman for East Shore Antifa, said the group showed up to shut down the anti-sharia march because it is a march against Muslims. He grew up in the Harrisburg area and said citizens should instead focus on the region’s struggling economy.

“There’s a lot of people without two nickels to scrape together, but we still take care of each other,” he said in a telephone interview before the march.

ACT was founded in 2007, and its leaders have labeled Islam a “cancer,” propagated theories of a secret plot by Muslims, Democrats, communists and the media to destroy America from within, and sponsored lectures on how to monitor and oppose American mosques. The SPLC recognizes ACT as a hate group.

The group’s leader, Brigitte Gabriel, says that she is anti-sharia, not anti-Muslim. But she and other group leaders often fall back on the argument that all practicing Muslims adhere to sharia. Gabriel and her organization did not respond to requests for comment.

“Not all Muslims are bad,” she told a Fox News anchor in an interview this week. But the country needs to have “a difficult conversation,” she said. “What does Islam as a political ideology have to do with what the terrorists are doing right now?”

Gabriel, who often appears as a cheerleader for Trump in conservative media, has trumpeted her group’s ties to the White House. Two of Trump’s former advisers, Michael Flynn and Walid Phares, sit on ACT for America’s board. And Gabriel tweeted earlier this year that she had a meeting at the White House. She also told the Christian Broadcasting Network that she was dining alongside the President and others at Mar-a-Lago in April when Trump made the decision to bomb a Syrian air base.

[Portland, often seen as a progressive playground, now deals with murderous hate]

ACT also appeared to be preparing itself for potential violence. Scott Presler, ACT’s national coordinator, posted warnings on the group’s local Facebook pages about the danger of protest infiltrators aiming “to make us look bad.” Every march needs to have a “Not With Us” sign to hold next to any such people, he advised. He also posted “safety” guidelines for marchers that included carrying American flags and not wearing black or brown clothing.

[Faces of healing, one year after the Pulse Nightclub massacre]

Presler has said the shooting at Pulse, the gay nightclub at which 49 people were killed by a man who had pledged allegiance to ISIS, inspired the march because he believes Islamic law is intolerant of gay people. The Pulse attack, in June 2016, was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Cat Cardenas and Justin Wm. Moyer contributed to this report.