Anti-Shariah rallies nationwide 'intended to manufacture fear'

  • Counterprotesters hold signs and shout slogans during an anti-Shariah rally in Seattle on June 10, 2017. (Courtesy of Reuters/David Ryder)
  • Protesters outside the Islamic Association of North Texas, a large Muslim education and worship center in Richardson, Texas, hold one of a number of anti-Shariah rallies across the country on June 10, 2017. (RNS/Bruce Tomaso)
  • Shpendim Nadzaku, left, imam and resident scholar at the Islamic Association of North Texas, and Khalid Hamideh, attorney and spokesman for the association, discuss an anti-Shariah protest at their place of worship. (RNS/Bruce Tomaso)
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Richardson, Texas

If Muslims have their way, said the man with the megaphone, there will be no justice for America's goats.

"Why do Muslims rape their goats so much?" Jim Gilles asked his fellow protesters gathered June 10 outside one of the largest Islamic worship centers in the Dallas area. "It's because they're perverted, demonic, sex-crazed … sick perverts."

Such outlandish statements appeared to seem completely plausible to many of the 200 or so participants of the rally held outside the Islamic Association of North Texas in the suburb of Richardson.

The demonstration was one of about two dozen "Marches against Shariah" organized Saturday in cities across the country by ACT for America, a self-styled grass-roots national security organization.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups including neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and black separatists, considers it to be a hate group. The SPLC says that since ACT for America's founding 10 years ago, it "has grown to become the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group" in the country, with 1,000 local chapters and a claimed membership of 280,000.

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There were also anti-Shariah rallies in major cities such as Boston, Chicago, Denver and Seattle. In some places, the protests were met by counterdemonstrations, and in some cases there were scuffles between two sides. In Manhattan, the counterrally was significantly larger, the New York Daily News reported.

There was a smaller number of counterprotesters in Richardson, many of whom have friends who worship at the Islamic center. Some in the anti-Shariah crowd wore desert fatigues and carried military-style handguns or rifles. The rhetoric was often rancorous, and tempers seemed to rise with the searing North Texas heat, but a robust contingent of Richardson police officers kept the peace by keeping the two groups separated.

ACT for America — the first three letters stand for American Congress for Truth — says its mission is "to protect America from terrorism" and safeguard "the Western values upon which our nation was built."

Among its initiatives has been to push for passage of state statutes and constitutional amendments — known collectively as "American Laws for American Courts" measures — that would prohibit courts from deciding cases by applying Shariah, a body of Islamic laws and practices derived from the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Headquartered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, ACT for America was founded in 2007 by Brigitte Gabriel, a Maronite Christian who was born in Lebanon.

The group steadfastly denies being anti-Muslim. The enemy isn't Islam, its website says. The enemy is "radical Islam," which seeks "to destroy our Western way of life."

But Gabriel, in her writings, in interviews with right-wing publications and in other public pronouncements, has often blurred any line between "good" and "bad" Islam — as did many of her followers in Richardson. (Gilles, for example, carried a large placard that said, "Every real Muslim is a Jihadist!")

"Islamic terrorists … are really just very devout followers of Muhammad," she wrote in 2006. "They are following his example and doing exactly what the Koran teaches."

In a 2007 lecture at the Defense Department’s Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, she said that a devout Muslim "cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America." In the same lecture, she was reported to have said Muslims shouldn't be allowed to hold public office.

Saturday's demonstrations, scheduled during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, were denounced by more than 100 religious, community and civil-liberties organizations across the country, including Amnesty International USA, the Anti-Defamation League, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Sikh Coalition, the American Friends Service Committee, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the National Council of La Raza.

In a letter to the mayors of host cities, the groups said the demonstrations were "intended to manufacture fear of Muslims" by "disingenuously" raising concerns about Shariah taking root in American courts.

"We are deeply concerned about the type of message that these protests send to the American public and to the good people in your city — that it is acceptable to vilify people simply because of their faith," the letter said.

Khalid Hamideh, the lawyer and spokesman for the Richardson Islamic center, said "it is absolute nonsense" to suggest that Muslims are plotting to set up religious courts in America, substituting the judgment of Shariah for, say, the Bill of Rights or the Kansas Motor Vehicle Code.

Shpendim Nadzaku, the center's imam and resident scholar, said of the protests: "They are anti-Mulsim. Let's just call a spade a spade."

However improbable the establishment of Shariah in America may be, ACT for America and allied groups have attracted broad populist support by vowing to stamp out the threat.

In 2015, Beth Van Duyne, then the mayor of Irving, Texas, was cheered by Tea Party Republicans nationwide for fighting to stop a court in her city from imposing Shariah.

As it turned out, there was no such court — Van Duyne heard about it through a chain-letter rumor, which proved to be false. But that didn't stop her from pushing for passage of an American Laws for American Courts bill in the Texas Legislature. Muslims, she warned, were intent on "bypassing Texas courts, bypassing American courts."

This spring, after Van Duyne opted not to seek a third term as Irving's mayor, President Trump selected her as a regional administrator of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, overseeing federal housing programs in Texas and four surrounding states.

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July 14-27, 2017

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