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.
“I think what this tells us is the magnitude of anti-Muslim sentiment is pretty severe, and it has been emboldened in this environment in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen in a very long time,” said Manar Waheed, who serves as legislative and advocacy counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union.
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 Oathkeepers and the III 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.
“The reason we’re here is to say f— you,” Hart said to cheers. “We are Americans too. We get to talk in a public forum.”
ACT supporters are marching in front of state capitol buildings in nearly 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 that killed 14 people 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.”
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 some cities, liberal advocacy groups said they would hold counter-rallies or alternative events, such as the “No to Extremism & Bigotry. Yes to Service & Unity” rally and food drive that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) organized in Atlanta.
But some also worried about violent confrontations as anti-Muslim protesters come face to face with opposition groups, or carry their protests into predominantly minority neighborhoods, as they plan to do in some cities.
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.
“We refuse to allow fascists a platform to organize and incite racial violence,” Lorenzo Raymond, of the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, said in a statement.
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 have sponsored lectures on how to monitor and oppose American mosques.
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.
Heidi Beirich, who monitors hate groups as the head of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), said Friday that it appears several extremist organizations plan to participate in Saturday’s marches alongside ACT for America, which the center identifies as a hate group. “That’s pretty worrisome,” she said.
Participants include the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militant group that ACT enlisted to provide “security,” according to the Oath Keepers website. Christopher Aldean Locke, whom the SPLC identifies as a “neo-Nazi,” posted on Facebook that he would attend the ACT rally in Roseville, Calif., with his “steel toe boots.” Members of other anti-government groups, including the Three Percenters, the Minnesota Minutemen, White Lives Matter and Sons of Odin said they would also attend in several states.
“We want to send a message to Muslims that they are not welcome in our communities,” Billy Roper, the organizer of ACT’s Arkansas rally, told NPR.
ACT canceled its Arkansas march this week after the SPLC publicized Roper’s longtime involvement in neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. It also moved its planned protest in Portland, Ore. — where a man recently stabbed three people while harassing two Muslim girls on a commuter train — to Seattle after facing opposition from Portland’s mayor.
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.
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.