Both Sides Are Urging Peace, but the Upcoming ‘Anti-Sharia’ Rally Feels Ominous

The event comes at a time of increased hostility between an emboldened right and energized left.

The anti-Muslim group ACT for America plans to hold an “anti-sharia” rally in Seattle at City Hall Plaza on June 10. In response, a local Muslim group is organizing a counter-rally, the goal of which is to douse the fires of internecine conflict in the waters of multicultural goodwill. Whether or not that dousing succeeds may be a harbinger of what future confrontations will look like in America’s rapidly escalating culture wars.

The rally takes place within a larger, emerging pattern of belligerent protests and counter-protests between an emboldened right and energized left. On January 20, a Trump supporter shot and almost killed an antifa organizer at Red Square at UW. On April 15, open street fighting broke out between Trump supporters and antifa in Berkeley. On May 1, hundreds of Trump supporters flocked to Westlake Park for an anti-communist rally that was largely peaceful but featured some tense, violent moments.

Then, on May 26 in Portland, a man who has tangled with left-wing militants at protests in the past murdered two men and wounded a third when they tried to stop him from harassing two apparently Muslim women. Trump supporters have disavowed the man and previously tried to kick him out of a rally for using racial slurs, but in the aftermath of the stabbing, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler made clear that he did not want an anti-sharia rally happening in his city left raw by brutal violence. Organizers responded by inviting people to join the rally in Seattle, instead.

In such a fraught environment, the June 10 event raises the specter of an ugly, potentially violent confrontation. But Aneelah Afzali, executive director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network (AMEN), says her organization will try to disarm it.

“Our response” to the ACT rally, she says, “is what the Quran commands us to do, which is to repel evil with good…Our responsibility is to bring together our friends and allies and good people of conscience, and stand on our American values of unity and tolerance.” In other words, Afzali says, the proper response to anti-Muslim tribalism isn’t pro-Muslim tribalism; it’s a steady reaffirmation that the community of our country eclipses the communities of its tribes. “We’re going to see pastors, rabbis, imams,” says Afzali, “coming together and saying, ‘Hate has no place here.’” The exact logistics of the counter-rally have yet to be determined, she says. AMEN has no plans to try to prevent the ACT rally from occurring.

ACT is “far and away the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America,” according to the watchdog group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Billing itself as “the NRA for national security,” ACT was founded and is run by Brigitte Gabriel, an immigrant who has said that Islam is incompatible with Western civilization. The Seattle rally will be just one of more than 20 such events ACT will hold at cities across the country on that day.

An official poster for the rally calls for “sharia law [to be] banned,” continuing: “Sharia is incompatible with our Constitution and with American values. We stand against female genital mutilations, arranged child marriages, and ‘so called’ honor killings! Do NOT tolerate our state or federal courts being influenced by ANY foreign law or system of governance!”

Organizers and supporters of the rally say they are protesting human rights violations by religious extremists. ACT’s website emphasizes its multicultural constituency, and specifically disavows discrimination on the basis of religion or race. The primary organizer of the Seattle June 10 rally, Anthony Parish, says that rally is “an educational event, so people are aware” of the encroachment of fundamentalist Islam on American freedoms. On Friday, we spoke with Parish via phone while he “street preached” in front of a mosque in Kent. “Devout Muslims believe that sharia supercedes American laws,” he said.

We repeatedly asked for examples of sharia law infiltrating the American legal system, or any other behavior that he and ACT want “banned” which is not already illegal. In response, Parish pointed to interest-free homebuyer loan programs designed for Muslim customers (some interpretations of Islam prohibit an individual from paying or earning interest). He also referred to instances of Muslim individuals committing acts that are already illegal, such as polygamy, assault, abuse and murder. When we noted that female genital mutilation, arranged child marriages, and honor killings are all already “banned” throughout the United States, Parish replied, “For sure it’s illegal, but there are Muslims that don’t care…I’ve asked Muslims myself, and they’ve said that they would be more comfortable under sharia.

“There’s been reported that men do have up to four wives” in some Muslim communities, he said. “Why wouldn’t they be beating them as well?”

Joey Gibson, a Vancouver, Washington, man listed on Facebook as a co-organizer of the previously planned Portland anti-sharia rally, says it is “not anti-Muslim.”

“Muslims are the number one victim of sharia law,” he says.

Yet Gibson’s association with the rally displays why some consider the upcoming Seattle rally as ominous. Since the Portland stabbing, Gibson’s group Patriot Prayer has been on the defensive, thanks to photos showing the stabbing suspect, Jeremy Joseph Christian, attending one of their rallies in Portland. Gibson, backed by video evidence, says the group immediately told Christian to leave and should not be associated with his beliefs. Still, along with the March Against Sharia, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler sought to shut down a pro-Trump rally hosted by Gibson on June 4, because of what Wheeler said were hateful overtones in a city still reeling from the knife attack. (Along with some other Patriots, Gibson was involved in an ugly altercation with Marti McKenna on May 1 at Westlake; in video, he is wearing a black motorcycle helmet with a white fox logo.)

“Our core group, they do everything they can to avoid violence,” says Gibson.

Regarding the March Against Sharia, opponents say it is nothing but a thinly veiled attack on Muslim Americans in general. In Islam, “sharia” means God’s law. In some contexts, such as the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, that amounts to brutal theocracy. But sharia also refers to religious precepts to which practicing Muslims adhere, such as facing hostility with compassion, says Afzali.

Whatever the interpretation, the United States Constitution explicitly bans any religious law, Islamist or otherwise, from having legal force. So, efforts to ban sharia law in the U.S. are really an excuse to raise (false) red flags about Muslims, opponents argue. Security analyst Jeffrey Thomas writes in his book Scapegoating Islam, “Many Americans believe some of the harshest interpretations of sharia—the forced marriage of underage girls, the stoning to death of women for adultery, and amputation of limbs for thieves—are required by Islamic practice. [They are not.] Since 9/11, anti-Muslim activists have taken advantage of this popular perception to misrepresent Islam as a religion and to stoke fear that Muslim Americans seek to impose a violent and intolerant version of sharia on the country.”

For now, both sides of the issue insist that they have no intentions of violence for the June 10 rally. But some acknowledged that, given the recent history of these events, things could get physical.

Francis Marion of American Freedom Keepers, a “patriot” group, says that fighting at the rally with “the fascist left” is a distinct possibility. “You’re going to have probably a dangerous situation there, because you’ll have both sides traveling from Portland” and possibly looking to rumble, he says. Marion will not be attending the June 10 Seattle rally.

Gibson offers: “Obviously, if we’re attacked we’re not going to stand down…It all depends on how violent the opposition wants to be.”

Parish says that as a Christian, “I have to follow the example of Jesus” by not being violent, even in self-defense. Instead, he says, security will be on hand “to protect us.” That security, says Parish, will include members of the right-wing militia groups the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers, and a non-college fraternity called the Proud Boys. “We don’t want any violence, but we do need protection from these antifa groups,” says Parish.

To keep things from escalating to physical violence, Afzali urges antifa and others who want to oppose the anti-sharia rally in Seattle to “please, please try to restrain yourselves” from anything that contradicts the counter-rally’s positive themes. “We’re very happy to have them stand with us,” she says, “but I beg them to please restrain themselves and maintain that tone of positivity…especially when we’re facing people who are promoting a hate rally or hate speech.”

There is some precedent for clashes between Trump supporters and opponents ending well. On May 6 in St. Paul, Minn., members of the Industrial Workers of the World and Trump supporters together condemned neo-Nazis.

“The battle over the soul of our country, it’s happening right now,” Afzali says. “We can’t just show up in opposition to something. We have to propose something.” Her proposition? “Love and solidarity,” she says.

This post has been expanded, and the location of the rally has been updated.