One piece would have saved Deirdre a lot of time: ACT! For America is better known as HATE! For America.
By Deirdre Conner
When ACT! for America’s Jacksonville chapter began attacking a local Muslim scholar this year, it might have appeared to be the isolated action of a fringe group.
Far from it.
Over the past year, ACT has engaged in similar skirmishes across the country that have raised the group’s profile, its membership and its revenue.
It describes itself as educating concerned citizens and exposing the threat of radical Islamic terrorists they believe are multiplying on American soil. When the local chapter protested the appointment of University of North Florida professor Parvez Ahmed to the city’s Human Rights Commission, they claimed he had ties to terrorist organizations, despite his written record of condemning violence and terrorism.
But the episode is also one of many reasons ACT has come under increasing scrutiny from critics. They say that at best, the group is promoting misinformation among an American public still largely uninformed about Islam, and at worst, it is exploiting people’s worst fears to propagate bigotry and hate speech against Muslims.
Related: Anti-Muslim activist who led fight against Jacksonville commissioner owes state more than $500K
Its detractors include Muslim civil rights groups as well as scholars and even the Southern Poverty Law Center, all of which say the group denigrates all Muslims, not just extremists.
Despite controversy over ACT’s message, the group has found more and more willing ears from the public, and, in some cases, elected officials.
ACT! for America has a full-time lobbyist in Washington and says it ended 2010 with 155,000 members nationally. In Florida, the group’s membership has more than doubled since 2009, to 19,233 members, said Guy Rodgers, the group’s national executive director. Those members, he said, have been key in the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” strategy.
It counts among its successes:
- The passage of a ballot initiative in Oklahoma banning courts from considering “international law or Sharia Law” in making decisions.
Related: What sharia is – and isn’t
- The investigation and suspension of the Muslim Student Union at University of California-Irvine for disrupting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.
- Protesting the cancellation of a course called “What is Islam?” at an Oregon community college, which was to be taught by one of the group’s chapter leaders.
Together, the Pensacola-based ACT! for America and its affiliated research group, American Congress for Truth, raised more than $1.6 million in 2009, according to the latest tax returns available. Rodgers attributes growing interest in the group to the rise in domestic terrorism threats from Islamic militants over the past two years.
“More and more Americans are beginning to in their consciousness wonder, what is causing this?” Rodgers said.
ACT also is concerned that the government is not thoroughly investigating places in America they feel could be breeding ground for Islamic militants, such as jihadist websites or camps they believe are paramilitary training grounds for terrorists.
So why does ACT believe the government isn’t as vigilant as it should be?
“Political correctness, I think that’s why,” Rodgers said. “We believe that is shackling many in the government … from tackling that issue head-on.”
It was political correctness, the group believes, that led to Ahmed being appointed to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, a volunteer board.
Ahmed is the former chairman of the national board for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. ACT claims CAIR is a front for Hamas, a militant Palestinian organization designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. government. And ACT points to CAIR being named in 2007 as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a terrorism-funding trial.
But CAIR was one of hundreds of unindicted co-conspirators. And it was never accused of wrongdoing by the government. For his part, Ahmed has personally condemned violence against both Palestinian and Israeli civilians.
In numerous blog posts and op-eds for The Times-Union and national media, Ahmed has rejected extremist views and violence and writes frequently about how religions can coexist peacefully.
Related: Parvez Ahmed speech transcript: ‘Is Islam compatible with American values?’
And although nearly a third of the City Council voted against his appointment, he found many more supporters among politicians, business leaders and citizens concerned that the episode could paint Jacksonville as a place of intolerance.
Difficult to dismiss
ACT! for America has, both locally and nationwide, found common ground with tea party members and extreme conservatives who helped Republicans retake the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections.
One of its key allies, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., announced plans this month for hearings on Muslim-Americans and terrorism when he assumes the chairmanship of the House Homeland Security Committee.
That’s why even its opponents say the group shouldn’t be dismissed.
“If they were just yahoos … then why did you have people running for Congress or government officials who are otherwise well educated playing that [Muslim] card?” said John L. Esposito, a Georgetown University professor who studies discrimination against Muslims.
“They played that card because a significant number of voters believe that.”
Esposito said ACT! for America is Islamophobic, and he compares it to anti-Semitic and racist groups.
He said that ACT – along with politicians and pundits who agree with it – is capitalizing on people’s fear, which is heightened because of the trauma of terrorism and a painful economy.
“People don’t look at the numbers,” Esposito said. Islamic terrorists “are an infinitely small but dangerous part of the population, and that’s a group that most people reject.”
He compared it to stereotyping all anti-abortion advocates as violent extremists just because there have been incidents of violence against abortion providers.
“It’s a dangerous thing,” he said, “but nobody blows the numbers out of proportion on this.”
Despite its crusade against political correctness, ACT officials deny they are anti-Muslim.
Yet its national leaders – including its founder, the Lebanese-born Christian Brigitte Gabriel – repeatedly say that Islam itself creates terrorists.
In her book “They Must Be Stopped,” Gabriel writes that “The freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedoms that Muslims enjoy in this country have not tempted them to renounce their dreams of destroying the United States.”
In 2008, she told the New York Times Magazine that she disapproves of Islam because it “calls for the killing of other people.” In a speech to U.S. Navy SEALS that same year, she said that the West is doomed to failure until it identifies Islam as the “real enemy.”
A slideshow presented as educational material on ACT! for America’s website refers to Muslims’ birth rates as a “demographic timebomb” and says that moderate Muslims are the true radicals.
But Rodgers, the group’s executive director, said the group is not prejudiced, and that it works with Muslims who want to reform Islam. Islam has “issues” that need to be addressed, he said.
“Embedded within Islamic doctrine is a supremacist political ideology,” Rodgers said. “Does every Muslim agree with that ideology? No. Does every Muslim practice it? No. But it’s that particular political ideology that is at the root of militancy, whether it’s violent militancy or what we call ‘cultural jihad.’ ”
When it comes to the information about Islam and terrorism that ACT espouses, the group is less than transparent. In its tax return, American Congress for Truth notes that it conducted 700 hours of research on the issues, but Rodgers declined to name any of those researchers.
‘This filthy doctrine’
If the difference between being anti-Islam and anti-radical Islam is nuanced, some of ACT’s supporters don’t appear to get the message.
Facebook “fans” of the group repeatedly post anti-Islamic sentiments on the page. In the past week, one posted that “this filthy doctrine needs to be wiped off the face of the earth,” and another declared hatred of Muslims. The week before, one post praised ACT for “fighting the good fight” against Islam, and another called on “God-lovin” Americans to disrupt a Muslim prayer service in New York City.
But Rodgers said the group tries to keep tabs on members who cross the line. He pointed to a video posted this year by CAIR, in which an ACT member is shown saying that the Quran should be used as toilet paper.
Rodgers said ACT condemned those actions when it found out about them. The group can’t know about the beliefs of every one of its members, he said.
What isn’t in dispute is how little most Americans know about Islam and the roots of terrorism.
An August poll from the Pew Research Center shows that 55 percent of Americans say they do not know very much or know nothing at all about the Muslim religion and its practices.
Yet just 62 percent of respondents said Muslims should have the same rights as other groups to build houses of worship.
And 38 percent believe Islam encourages violence more than other religions, a figure that has increased substantially in the nine years since President George W. Bush visited a mosque and reminded Americans that Islam is a religion of peace.
Republicans and people with less education are far more likely to express an unfavorable view of Islam, Pew found, and people with more knowledge of the religion are more likely to view it favorably.
Concern over rising volume
Groups that exploit that lack of information to spread fear about Muslims seem to have become louder over the past few years, said Brannon Wheeler, professor of history and director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He does not speak on behalf of the academy.
More insidious, he said, is when groups “take a 10th century legal text [regarding sharia] … and find stuff in that text and say, this is what Muslims all around the world believe.”
Just as Christians around the world have diverging beliefs on certain issues, Muslims around the world are also quite diverse – if not more so, Wheeler said.
“It was my hope … that after the tragedy of Sept. 11, many people would learn more about Islam,” Wheeler said. “But I fear that what has happened in general is that most people’s stereotypes have become more entrenched and more widespread.”
On the whole, Muslims in America are far more integrated into society than in Europe, where there have been more violent conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Still, American Muslims – who make up less than 2 percent of the overall population – say they are more often experiencing discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has seen a surge in discrimination complaints by Muslims in the past two years, the New York Times reported in September.
Although there are many different and complex ways that people become radicalized, discrimination can be a factor, said Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. Known as the START Center, it is a partner with the Department of Homeland Security, known as a Center of Excellence.
“The more you marginalize any minority in your population, the more grievances they have, and the more their grievances will be supported,” he said. “[It's] a way of provoking people who had peacefully coexisted.”
That, LaFree said, is something that Osama bin Laden expressed hope would happen.
“If one of the main purposes of this type of terrorism is to drive a wedge between the Muslim and non-Muslim population,” he said, “it seems this is playing right into that.”
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