A US state senator has sparked fierce criticism after appearing in a photo with a controversial anti-Muslim militia during the National March Against Sharia, a campaign that was roundly denounced by rights groups and watchdogs.
Georgia State Senator Michael Williams, who is a Republican Party candidate running for governor, posed in a photo by with local members of the Three Percenters militia movement in Atlanta on Saturday.
In the photo, which was picked up by local media outlets over the weekend, the militiamen were armed with rifles and dressed in camouflage military garb.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group, described Williams’ choice to take a photograph with the group as confusing.
“In this situation, especially because Senator Williams is running for governor, this didn’t really make sense to us,” Ruwa Romman, the communications director of CAIR’s Georgia chapter, told Al Jazeera by telephone.
“They seem to not really understand what the Three Percenters represent.”
‘Alienate an entire group of people’
Last year, the Three Percenters led a campaign to prevent the construction of a mosque in Georgia’s Newton County. The group claimed the mosque was actually a training ground for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) armed group.
Following the outrage over the photograph, CAIR-Georgia invited Williams to visit a local mosque and speak to its congregation.
Explaining that more than 100,000 Muslims live in Georgia, Romman said: “It doesn’t make sense to me that, if you’re running for governor, you would alienate an entire group of people.”
At the time of publication, Williams had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment.
‘OK’ hand sign
Twitter users also criticised Williams, asking whether the militiamen were making a white supremacist hand sign in the photo.
— Tariq Nasheed 🇺🇸 (@tariqnasheed) June 11, 2017
Georgia State Senator Michael Williams had this pic taken today with an armed white supremacist militia at the anti Muslim event today. https://t.co/lmgj1M759P
— Georgia Alliance for Social Justice (@AtlantaMarch) June 10, 2017
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a group that monitors hate groups, echoed CAIR’s concerns and explained the group’s use of the “OK” hand signal in the photo.
“For the anti-government Three Percenter movement, this same hand gesture symbolises their belief in the disputed claim that only three percent of American colonists fought against the British in the American Revolution,” the statement said. “The three extended fingers represent this three percent.”
The SPLC has designated the Georgia chapter of the Three Percenters as a “hate group”.
The watchdog said that, although it did not consider the gesture a symbol of white supremacy, Williams “did stand with a well-known right-wing paramilitary group as they flashed the hand signal of a movement that espouses violent anti-government rhetoric and anti-Muslim conspiracies”.
Sponsored by ACT for America, a lobby group that the SPLC describes as the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in the US, the National March Against Sharia coordinated anti-Muslim marches in dozens of cities across the country.
ACT for America did not reply to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment. A press release on the group’s website claimed the marches were called for to oppose alleged efforts to impose Sharia – or Islamic law – in the US, which it deemed as contrary to human rights and the country’s constitution.
In most cities, counter-protesters outnumbered participants of the National March Against Sharia.
Alia Salem, a Dallas-based Muslim American and social justice activist, told Al Jazeera that the marches came at a time of soaring anti-Muslim xenophobia, citing an uptick in hate crimes targeting Muslims in recent years and President Donald Trump’s efforts to ban travellers from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.
“What I’ve witnessed as an activist is not so much that Islamophobia was created recently but that it was empowered,” she told Al Jazeera by telephone.
“The rate of institutionalising Islamophobia is running along at a much faster pace.”