Anti-Muslim marches are slated to take place in dozens of cities across the United States on Saturday, with several counter-protests expected.
ACT for America, the country’s largest grassroots anti-Muslim group described by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as an “extremist group”, called for the nationwide “March Against Sharia”.
In a statement on ACT for America’s website, the group claims that Sharia – or Islamic law – runs contrary to human rights and the US Constitution.
Yet rights groups and watchdogs, among them the SPLC and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), have criticised the marches as Islamophobic.
In a report published last year, CAIR examined what it calls the “Islamophobia industry”.
Between 2008 and 2013, the report found, ACT for America was one of 33 anti-Muslim groups that had access to more than $204m in revenue and helped push for legislation targeting Muslims.
Brigitte Gabriel, the group’s founder, is a Lebanese-American who has in the past accused the Muslim Brotherhood political movement of conspiring to conquer the US. She has also referred to Arabs as “barbarians” and claimed they have “no soul”.
Gabriel, a vocal supporter of right-wing President Donald Trump, claims ACT for America has more than 500,000 members.
Members of the alt-right – a loosely knit movement that includes white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other far-right groups – have announced their intention to participate in many of the marches.
Al Jazeera spoke to Nathan Lean, author of The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims, about ACT for America and the prevalence of Islamophobic sentiment in the US.
Al Jazeera: The SPLC describes ACT for America as the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in the country, while CAIR classifies it as an “inner core group” within the Islamophobia industry. How influential is ACT for America within this network?
Nathan Lean: ACT for America is, perhaps, the most influential anti-Muslim hate group in the country today. Their significance in the Islamophobia industry has waxed and waned over the years.
However, with the slow rise of populist and nationalist sentiment that has ignited the birther movement, anti-immigration narratives and a groundswell of racist rhetoric targeting minorities, they have grown in size and scope.
(The birther movement subscribes to the conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama was not born in the US.)
Like most of the “organisations” in this network of bigots, they exist in a rather loose fashion, formally speaking, but have used the Internet to establish contacts and so-called “chapters” all across the country.
Al Jazeera: How would you describe the support bases for organisations such as ACT for America? What kind of impact do they have on the ground?
Lean: These bases of support, which often meet in people’s living rooms or at local coffee shops, have served to strong-arm local politicians, and [have] sown an anti-Muslim ideology amongst anxious [mothers and fathers] in the heartland.
Upon hearing the screeches of ACT’s leader, Brigitte Gabriel, these groups come to genuinely believe that Sharia and the Muslim Brotherhood are lurking in every shadow.
That sense of fear has not only led to the adoption of legislation that discriminates against Muslims but has, in my opinion, spurred a smattering of hate crimes and other acts of violence and intimidation online and in the public that create a very dangerous situation for American Muslims.
Al Jazeera: How has anti-Muslim discrimination evolved in recent years?
Lean: Today we are witnessing a very strange thing. Islamophobic groups like ACT for America are not only joining forces with people and factions of the so-called alt-right, but they are also bringing into their fold noxious voices on the left that paint themselves as liberals [while espousing] a blinkered and prejudiced world view when it comes to Islam and Muslims.
Islamophobic groups are also bringing into their fold noxious voices on the left that paint themselves as liberals.
The issue of “free speech” is central to this new union.
It has allowed for people like the paedophile-defending blowhard Milo Yiannopoulos, the blogger-cum-anti-Muslim-hate-monger Pamela Geller and a coterie of rabid ‘New Atheists’ who present themselves as progressive princes and princesses to join forces in the name of fighting Islam.
In other words, as much as Islamophobia has been about the far-right in recent years, that’s no longer the case.
Liberals who have long buried their animosity towards [Islam], or towards religion in general, are quickly cosying up to a group of right-wing nuts who make it their business to attack the civil rights and liberties of Muslims, and smear their religion with half-truths, lies, and intentionally slanderous accusations.
Al Jazeera: How should we understand the relationship between the Islamophobia industry and the uptick in anti-Muslim legislation and hate crimes?
Lean: There is a mutual relationship between all of these things. If anxieties about Muslims – or even blatant prejudices about them – did not exist organically, to some degree, the ground would not be very fertile for anti-Muslim agitators of the Islamophobia industry.
But, of course, the argument can easily be made that the Islamophobia industry is responsible for the images, narratives, memes, tropes, axioms and even policies that engender a climate of fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims. People are not born prejudiced.
As the South Pacific song goes: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear”. Some of the people doing that drumming today are those who comprise the Islamophobia industry.
It’s time we stop listening to them.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_