In various U.S. cities, the anti-sharia marches were confronted by a far larger number of counterprotesters, including Jewish groups that mobilized in solidarity with Muslims and people who described themselves as antifascists. In a few places, the two sides engaged in brief clashes that were broken up by police.
The demonstrations were coordinated by ACT for America, an organization designated as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks right-wing extremism in the United States. Its leaders, as my colleagues reported, “have labeled Islam a 'cancer,' propagated theories of a secret plot by Muslims, Democrats, communists and the media to destroy the country from within, and sponsored lectures on how to monitor and oppose U.S. mosques.”
Never mind that there's no vast Muslim American conspiracy to impose sharia law. Never mind that there's no vast Muslim American conspiracy to take over institutions of power in Washington. Never mind that Muslim Americans form one of the most economically successful and well-educated communities in the United States.
False claims about the Muslim peril abounded among those who attended the rallies. “There’s rampant rape happening because of Syrian immigrants, and we have to stop that from coming to America,” Joseph Weidknecht, a 25-year-old construction worker who attended a march in Austin, said to my colleagues.
ACT for America's founder, Brigitte Gabriel, “has said that she is anti-sharia, not anti-Muslim, a point that a number of the group’s speakers repeated Saturday,” wrote The Washington Post's Abigail Hauslohner, who covered an ACT for America protest in New York City that was dwarfed by its opponents. “But Gabriel also has said that all practicing Muslims adhere to sharia, and speakers on Saturday made sweeping statements about Islam as an enemy of the state.”
Such rhetoric is, of course, familiar to those who paid attention to Trump's election campaign. As a candidate, Trump fear-mongered over the threat posed by Muslim refugees, urged blanket monitoring of mosques and even once declared that “Islam hates us.” He repeatedly inveighed against “radical Islam,” but critics suggested he was actually demonizing an entire faith with more than a billion adherents.
Trump's ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is listed as a member of ACT for America's board of advisers. Gabriel reportedly also went to the White House for a meeting with Trump's team in March.
Since taking office, Trump has somewhat moderated his message. Although he initially called for a ban on all Muslim arrivals to the United States, his so-far-unsuccessful executive orders apply only to certain Muslim-majority countries, as well as Syrian refugees. He also has wooed various Muslim-majority nations, including Saudi Arabia, whose foreign policy priorities in the Middle East have been wholeheartedly embraced by the White House. But while Trump may change his tune out of expedience, many of his allies and supporters, like the few who marched on Saturday, seem more committed.
“In New York, a dozen members of Identity Evropa, which seeks a whites-only state, came to support the ACT rally, wearing tucked-in dress shirts, sunglasses and slicked-down side-parts,” wrote Hauslohner. “In Harrisburg, Pa., a group that has claimed credit for white nationalist posters on college campuses said they wanted Muslims out of the United States entirely.”
Such extremism does not reflect the policies or beliefs of most Americans on the right. But it has found alarming encouragement from the occupants of the White House and certain hard line GOP politicians. Last week, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) wrote on Facebook that “all of Christendom … is at war with Islamic horror” and that the only solution is to “kill them all.”
The belief in a kind of clash of civilizations seems to hover around the Trump administration — a polarizing message that would never have been propagated by previous administrations, whether Democratic or Republican. Consider, for example, the declarations of White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, which I cited in an earlier report on how some Trump supporters are obsessed with the Crusades.
“If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing,” said Bannon at a meeting of European conservatives in 2014. He spoke of “a global war against Islamic fascism” and invoked two famous medieval battles in which largely Christian forces in Europe repulsed Muslim armies. “I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places. … It bequeathed to us the great institution that is the church of the West,” he said.
In the fever swamp of the alt-right — an online world of ultranationalists, white supremacists and Islamophobes — memes proliferate showing Trump as a holy warrior of Christendom.
The Latin phrase “Deus Vult” — “it is the will of God” or “God wills it,” supposedly uttered by Pope Urban II in 1095 when he launched the First Crusade — has become a popular hashtag among the alt-right. The irony here, of course, is how they mimic the worldview professed by Islamist militants, who cloak their violence in appeals to a mythic past and a glorious civilizational struggle.
In both cases, any understanding of the real history would undermine their misguided zeal. But given Trump's various misreadings of the past, it's no surprise that his supporters exult in fictions about the enemy — and exhibit some of the worst instincts of the very people they seek to defeat.
Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.