Deep suspicions about Islam in America — about to take center stage in controversial congressional hearing — are also galvanizing an increasingly organized and professional set of political groups, organizations that may play a role in the looming presidential cycle.
The clearest sign of the new effort to transform anti-Islam crusading into a mainstream lobbying effort came when the group ACT! For America wooed away Rep. Sue Myrick’s (R-N.C.) chief of staff Hal Weatherman to run its communications shop in February. The move helped complete the group’s transformation from a tiny, obscure organization into an ambitious nonprofit with a budget of $1.6 million in 2009, the last year for which figures are available.
ACT! now has a staff of eight that includes a full-time federal lobbyist, a detailed legislative agenda and a television program – all dedicated to pushing a handful of issues, ranging from keeping the Guantanamo Bay prison camp open to pushing for alternative energies to Middle Eastern oil.
The next step, ACT! founder and CEO Brigitte Gabriel told POLITICO, may be creating a PAC or a 527 organization to get directly involved in campaigns and elections — possibly in time for the 2012 election.
Radical Islam “is the greatest threat facing our country in my lifetime, and Act for America is the only group systematically organizing at the local level to prepare for that future,” Weatherman told POLITICO.
A decade after the 9/11 attacks, the American Muslim community remains splintered and largely politically marginalized. But their opposition has coalesced, and the effort last year to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan demonstrated a popular zeal for what ranged from concerns about propriety to outright anti-Muslim bigotry in some cases.
Even many Republican leaders — including House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.), who is conducting hearings on radicalization that begin on Thursday — have kept the leaders of the new movement at arms’ length, while Muslim community leaders level the charge of outright bias.
The leaders of this new movement include the blogger Pamela Geller and her group Stop Islamization of America, the Clarion Fund, a New York City-based nonprofit — and the controversial Gabriel herself.
“The idea that congressional staffers would agree to meet an organization led by a woman whose agenda is pure unadulterated hatred and whose purported life story is a laughable fiction — it’s sad,” said Hussein Ibish, a former communications director for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee who is now a fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. “She seems to have brought with her a pathological hatred of Muslims and other Arabs.”
Gabriel disputes those charges and the Virginia-based ACT!’s goal is to turn resistance to radical Islam in America into a reputable, Beltway cause that matches what polls suggest is broad appeal among Americans. According to a September ABC News/Washington Post survey, just 37 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Islam and Muslims — the lowest level of support recorded since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I believe national security is not a Democratic issue nor a Republican issue,” Gabriel told POLITICO. “It is an American issue. I wanted to bring Americans together from all backgrounds and walks of life, who share these concerns about Islamic terrorism, radicalism, and home grown terrorism, and get them involved.”
Gabriel’s group is receiving an enthusiastic audience from within the conservative movement. She has been a featured speaker at tea party rallies and did several book signings at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington D.C.
ACT!, which has its origins in a small, sister nonprofit in Virginia founded by Gabriel in 2002 called American Congress for Truth, has grown by leaps in bounds over the past few years.
In 2004, the group, known as American Congress for Truth, had three unpaid officers including Gabriel and showed less than $5,000 in assets. But fundraising grew at a phenomenal clip between 2006 and 2007, and the organization soon outgrew its nonprofit status. ACT! for America was launched under a different provision in the tax code to allow Gabriel and her staff to more fully engage in public policy and politics. American Congress for Truth was renamed ACT Education and remains in operation. Gabriel herself drew a salary of almost $180,000 in 2009, and the organization maintained a travel budget of 25,000, according to public records.
ACT! claims an email list of 160,000 and a thousand local chapters around the country. These local chapters vary in their level of involvement and seriousness – but some have waged active and spirited local campaigns. One Florida chapter embarked on a loud drive to derail a professor’s appointment to a city human rights board, accusing him of being a radical Islamist.
Most recently, the group launched a television program on a local Florida cable station – and they are in negotiations to expand to other markets and channels. In their first two episodes, they netted two high profile members of Congress as guests: King and tea party star Rep. Allen West (R-Fla,).
The group has delved into state campaigns and federal lobbying – including getting involved in the Oklahoma effort to pass an anti-sharia law constitutional amendment. That amendment passed in November overwhelmingly but is currently the subject of ongoing legal wrangling.
ACT! put $60,000 into about 600,000 robocalls and a statewide radio campaign in support of the proposed constitutional amendment. The robocalls were recorded by former CIA director James Woolsey. And in a minute-long statewide radio spot, ACT! pointed to a New Jersey case where a judge used sharia law to deny a Muslim woman a restraining order as an example of the danger posed by creeping Islamism.
“A husband was brutally beating and raping his wife,” says the announcer in ACT!’s spot. “Desperate to save her life, this Muslim woman sought a restraining order against him. But the judge ruled against her, saying her husband had not committed a crime. Why? Because her Muslim husband was following Islamic sharia law – a law that says a husband can demand sexual relations from his wife without her consent. Did this happen in Saudi Arabia or Iran? No… In New Jersey.”
At the heart of ACT! is the controversial Gabriel herself – hailed as a hero by supporters and vilified as an Islamophobe by her detractors.
A refugee from war-torn Lebanon, her detractors say she brings the sectarian baggage of her homeland to a modern, multicultural United States.
“I lived in Marjayoun in Southern Lebanon a town close to the Israeli border. The hardest times were between 1975 and 1982. That is when we were surrounded by radical Islamists when we lived constantly in bomb shelters and were attacked repeatedly,” Gabriel told POLITICO. “Many days I was driven to school in a tank and many times I ran back from school under the bombs, hiding in ditches using my books to protect me from shrapnel,” she said.
The core of her argument: “What people termed as a civil war in Lebanon was the opening of a jihad declared by radical Muslims.”
Gabriel’s supporters find her life story compelling.
“Her life story is one that gives testimony to the dangers (of) Islamofascism,” said David Levin, a member of a Florida tea party group who helped arrange a local speaking engagement for Gabriel in late February.
But Gabriel’s view that Lebanon’s civil war was a religious conflict is far from the consensus view among students of the region.
“What happened in the south was not a Muslim jihad against Christians. The problem was between the Palestinian groups, and their backers, who controlled south Lebanon, and a south Lebanese population that suffered the consequences of the Palestinian-Israeli war on their territory,” Michael Young, editor of Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper and a longtime analyst of the country, told POLITICO.
“People didn’t come from all over the region to kill Christians; they came to fight in the ranks of the PLO, and most of them were not radical Muslims at all, but secular Arab nationalists or pro-Palestinians who sought to fight in the ranks of the secular Palestinian nationalist movements,” he said
And Gabriel also has battled claims that she’s merely importing the hatreds of that civil war. The New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt once refused to retract or apologize for a Times magazine story that labeled Gabriel a “radical Islamophobe.”
“As for the terms ‘crusader’ and ‘radical Islamophobe,’ both strike me as fair descriptions in the context of a magazine feature,” wrote Hoyt in 2008.
“In my view, I view ACT! as a hate group,” said Dr. Parvez Ahmed, a professor at University of North Florida. His nomination to an unpaid, advisory position on the Jacksonville human rights commission was almost derailed by a local chapter of ACT! – who accused him of ties to radicalism.
Ahmed said that it was obvious the group had targeted him because of his Muslim faith alone.
“Nobody would pay attention to any of the allegations if I happened to be black – and the group making the allegations happened to be the KKK,” Ahmed told POLITICO, saying that the city of Jacksonville got a “black eye” based on how roughly ACT! treated him.
But Gabriel says her detractors are misguided in their charges of bigotry.
“I have no quarrel with Muslims who wish to practice the spiritual tenets of their religion in peace,” she said.
But, “we want to make sure that political correctness does not influence political and legislative decisions that could put the country and many lives at risk,” she added. “Since 9/11, there has been over 17,000 Islamic terrorist attacks around the world. Can you show me any other single group from a single religion trying to commit so many terrorist acts worldwide in the name of their religion?”