AUSTIN — Roy White wants to inform as many Americans as possible about the terrorists he sees in their midst.
The lean, 62-year-old Air Force veteran strode into the Texas State Capitol in late January wearing a charcoal-gray pinstripe suit and an American flag tie, with the mission of warning all 181 lawmakers about a Muslim group sponsoring a gathering of Texas Muslims at the Capitol the following day. Although the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) works to promote Muslim civil rights across America, White wanted to convince lawmakers that it is actually working to infiltrate the U.S. government and destroy American society from within.
“They’re jihadists wearing suits,” White said of CAIR and other Muslim organizations. “That’s a tough thing for us to wrap our heads around because we don’t feel threatened.”
White is the San Antonio chapter president of ACT for America, an organization that brands itself as “the nation’s largest grass-roots national security advocacy organization” and attacks what it sees as the creeping threat of sharia, or Islamic law, in the form of Muslim organizations, mosques, refugees and sympathetic politicians.
The group has found allies among a coterie of anti-Muslim organizations, speakers and Christian fundamentalists, as well as with some state lawmakers. Bill Zedler, a Texas Republican state representative, said during a recent forum supported by ACT that he fears political correctness is masking the real problem: “Regardless of whether it’s al-Qaeda, or CAIR, or the Islamic State, they just have different methodology for the destruction of Western civilization.”
ACT, which has been a vocal advocate for President Trump and his administration, says it now has “a direct line” to the president and an ability to influence the direction of the nation.
“We are on the verge of playing the most pivotal role in reversing the significant damage that has been done to our nation’s security and well-being over the past eight years,” ACT’s founder, Brigitte Gabriel, wrote in a December solicitation for donations.
Stephen K. Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart who has described Muslim American groups as “cultural jihadists” bent on destroying American society, is Trump’s chief strategist. Breitbart has published several articles Gabriel has written. Trump’s CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has spoken at ACT’s conferences and sponsored an ACT meeting at the Capitol last year.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who sits on ACT’s board of advisers, served as the president’s national security adviser before stepping down after revelations that he might have violated the law in communications with a Russian diplomat.
In the first days of his presidency, Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries — and all refugees — from entering the United States, an order that has been put on hold as it faces court challenges.
Ahmed Bedier, former executive director of CAIR’s Tampa chapter, said that ACT distorts Islam and works to present it as a belief that doesn’t deserve religious protection in the United States.He considers that a very dangerous proposition for the American Muslim population.
“These guys are the fringe of the fringe, and now they have people on the inside of the most powerful government in the world,” said Bedier, who has frequently sparred publicly with ACT. “They’re fascists. They don’t want any presence of Muslims in America. And the only Muslim that is acceptable to them is a former Muslim.”
ACT, based in Virginia Beach, has nearly 17,500 volunteers and 17 staff members, according to tax records. Gabriel says ACT has 500,000 “relentless grass-roots warriors,” such as White, who are “ready to do whatever it takes to achieve our goal of a safer America.”
A safer America, to ACT, means a nation free of all Islamic influence, a goal that has led some civil rights activists to call it a hate group akin to white supremacists. It wants groups that practice or advocate sharia — the guiding principles of Islam — to be forced to disband, supports President Trump’s attempt to ban travelers from several Muslim-majority countries, and opposes the resettlement of Muslim refugees in the United States. It supports preserving the Constitution and its concept of American culture, which ACT says on its website means “recognizing that we are the greatest nation on Earth and that if you are an American you must be an American first.”
Since it began its work a decade ago, ACT claims 22 legislative victories in Republican-controlled statehouses, many of them laws that stiffen criminal penalties for terrorism, keep Islamic or foreign influence out of U.S. courts, or aim to protect free speech. ACT also led a successful campaign to get “errors” removed from Texas school textbooks, including what leaders consider pro-Islamic, anti-
Christian, anti-Western statements.
In recent weeks, ACT has lobbied on behalf of Trump’s travel ban. On Wednesday, it circulated a message to its followers claiming that Flynn’s fall was the work of “rogue weasels” and “shadow warriors” within the U.S. government trying to destroy Trump.
Much of ACT’s philosophy is rooted in the belief that America is the target of a vast international conspiracy.
Two days before White set off down the halls of the state Capitol with an armful of papers accusing CAIR of being a terrorist organization, he and a guest speaker convened a meeting of ACT’s San Antonio chapter at a Baptist church on the west side of town.
A few dozen residents — mostly consisting of older, white Trump supporters who arrived in cars with bumper stickers identifying themselves as “Deplorables” and those wanting to “put God back in America” — gathered in the pews for a screening of “Enemies Within.” The film, which White planned to show at the statehouse, purports to document an ongoing communist and Muslim conspiracy to infiltrate the U.S. government. Afterward, the group was abuzz with fresh outrage.
“They should be hauled out of Congress and taken to Guantanamo!” a military veteran said of the few dozen elected officials — including Hillary Clinton and the only two Muslim members of Congress — identified in the film as having connections to terrorists. “Can’t we get a law passed so we can go in and get these people the hell out of our government?”
White and the filmmaker, Trevor Loudon, assured the group that there is “a new sheriff in town.”
Trump’s election has presented a “God-given opportunity,” Loudon said. “The fate of the Western world” now depends on how they use it.
“We have four years — the most important four years of our lives — to redouble the efforts,” he said. “If we blow it, our kids live in slavery. If we succeed, we can have a new golden age, not just in America, but all over the world.”
White urged the group to start by calling, writing and visiting their lawmakers. He said he needed volunteers to “begin to do some deep research” into a list of about 400 addresses that he had compiled of mosques and Muslim-affiliated “entities” to begin to “connect the dots.”
At the next meeting, he added, a visiting speaker would talk to them about “how to push back against building mosques in your communities.”
ACT’s leadership acknowledges that it gets a bad rap. The Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil rights watchdogs label it an extremist group that demonizes Muslims. ACT argues that the perception comes from ignorance or because the media, Democrats and Muslims hide the truth in a bid to destroy the country.
In a recent message to members, the group said that Islamophobia is a “deceptive narrative,” that the mainstream media propagates “fake news” and that refugee advocates are “fanatics.”
ACT has urged supporters to lobby their lawmakers to support Trump’s executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, a policy that legal experts say amounts to a “Muslim ban” and that an appeals court unanimously kept on hold this month amid arguments that it violates the Constitution.
“First of all, there is no ‘Muslim ban,’ contrary to what the fake news media would have you believe,” Gabriel wrote last week in an article for Breitbart, claiming that the countries subject to the order are “terrorist-infested.” “It isn’t President Trump’s fault all seven of those countries happen to be almost entirely Islamic.”
Gabriel did not respond to requests for comment.
White, a commercial airline pilot, said the group has faced an uphill battle.
“I’ve had family members who — I’ve talked like this for the last four years — at first thought I was the crazy, loony uncle because they had never heard any of this stuff, because ‘it’s a conspiracy,’ ” White said as he took a break from handing out pamphlets at the Texas statehouse in Austin.
But, White said, he’s not a conspiracy theorist, and he’s not chasing UFOs: His conviction is grounded in facts and in spiritual conviction.
“It’s a spiritual battle of good and evil, and a lot of folks on the left have a difficult time thinking that there is actually good and evil,” he said.
White, a devout Christian, says that sharia — the guiding laws and principles of Islam — is the embodiment of that evil; that the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamic movement that is a force in Middle Eastern politics, is working to spread sharia throughout America; and that CAIR, the Islamic Society of North America, the majority of American mosques, and a host of other Muslim leaders and organizations are outgrowths of the Brotherhood on U.S. soil. The Trump administration has been considering adding the Brotherhood to its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations; ACT considers that a top priority.
White hopes that Trump’s travel ban will prevail and that other Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, will be added. He wants mosques and American Muslim groups to denounce sharia or be disbanded, and he wants the government to bar people who associate with those groups from public office.
“We are going to arrest those people who promote sedition,” he said. That would mean any “sharia-compliant Muslim,” he added.
Islamic scholars, Middle East experts and Muslim religious leaders say that ACT’s interpretation of Islam is wrong. Sharia is not a coded rule book but a vast body of religious and legal texts, subject to a range of interpretations and practice, much of which is not taken literally.
“Sharia as a legal system doesn’t exist,” said Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Texas A&M University, noting that a Muslim who claims to follow sharia is similar to a Christian saying he lives his life “in accordance with Jesus Christ.”
ACT’s critics argue that going after sharia is a subtle way to more broadly attack Muslims. They also say it’s dangerous.
The night before White visited the Capitol in Austin, a gunman who expressed support for nationalist and right-wing causes killed six people and wounded 19 others in an attack on a Quebec City mosque. The day before, a fire destroyed a mosque that had previously been burglarized and vandalized in Victoria, Tex.Earlier this month, a federal judge in Florida handed a 30-year sentence to a man who set a small-town mosque on fire because he saw the teachings of Islam as a threat.
White says some people come to his meetings “who are a little bit off the mark, get a little too fired up.” He turns them away, but he vows to continue pushing.
“I’m never going to stop telling the truth for fear of the consequences of telling the truth to people.”