Hate is a strong word and easy to incite. A cafeteria full of men and women, mostly white, sat in the elementary school in Fairfax Station, Virginia. They could have been your librarian, the professor at the community college, or the police officer in your local precinct. The crowd dotted by occasional women in a headscarf, many of them white, as well.
About 30 Muslim women had come to attend the event after news spread that the local Republican Women's Club of Clifton was hosting a speaker who would talk about “the treatment of women in Islamic society and how the Hijab is a catalyst for Islamic terrorism”. The meeting was held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, February 20, 2013.
When Sandra Amen-Bryan reached the event, she saw three local non Muslim men and a woman protesting outside. "It was heartwarming, because it was really cold that day; I was really impressed." "I read about the event in the Muslim Link newspaper," said Amen-Bryan. Muslim communities need to realize that this is not someone else's problem. The speaker, Stephanie Reis is the founder of ACT! for America Omaha chapter.
The general theme of her speech was that Americans must wake up and confront the threat of Islam in every corner of society.
The general theme of her speech was that Americans must wake up and confront the threat of Islam in every corner of society. She spoke using the Pamela Gellar vernacular: stealth jihad, totalitarianism etc. One young Muslim women about 19 started crying in the audience, she had come to hear a speech about hijab and this was the first time she had heard someone attack her religion in such a hateful manner . "For a person to say these things who is not trained, I don't know what translations she had," said Marehan Al-Hady, a student of Quranic studies, who attended the event.
"She fulfilled every negative expectation and went beyond it," said Amen-Bryan. Many women who came to hear Reis speak left disappointed. Rather than a talk about Hijab or terrorism, it was quoting the ACT! for America cookbook of mistranslated and out of context quotes from the Quran. She was an average speaker, but was coached well.
No one was allowed to tape the speech or take any photographs. Anyone who tried was shouted down. As one woman tried filming the event on her camera phone, she was surrounded by several men who yelled obscenities at her to stop filming. Claiming that it was against the lawas it was a private meeting.
"This is a free country, we are on public property," the woman countered. A shouting match erupted until a staid, elderly woman in a beige hijab went up to the stage and said "let her [Reis] speak, I want to hear what she has to say." Championing her personal jihad, speaking for the rights of Muslim women, Stephanie Reis didn't know the difference between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. She and other ACT! speakers do not know what the words or verses mean, have a hard time pronouncing them but are fearful and are trained to instill fear in the hearts of those who come to listen to them.
Brigitte Gabriel, the founder of ACT! for America is a Lebanese immigrant. She has positioned herself as "one of the world’s leading experts on Islamic extremism." She frequently refers to Arabs and Muslims as barbarians. Thanks to their scare-mongering groups such as ACT! for America attract funds.
The anti-Muslim, anti-Islam grassroots network in America is increasingly successful because its members borrow tactics from the most innovative political movements of the last two decades. They use online strategies akin to those deployed by the progressive presidential campaigns of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to recruit volunteers and keep them engaged, notes the Center of American Progress report. The RWC event is a classic example.
ACT! claims to be a proponent of free speech; its activists say that shutting down the conversation is nothing more than imposition of Shariah Law. However, one victory claimed on ACT! website is the online response to a college in Seattle who invited a speaker from CAIR. ACT! managed to shut down the event, by mobilizing their support network and bombarding the college with emails.
There was no room for discourse. "She fulfilled every negative expectation and went beyond it," says Amen-Bryan.
"Many of the groups tap into the growing force of the Tea Party as well as more established conservative political organizations. " According to the CAP, grassroots networks have the ability to take anti-Islam messages to millions of Americans; organizers have built lists and established local citizens groups they later rely on to turn out at rallies, make phone calls, testify on behalf of legislation, and donate money. According to ACT!'s National Field Director who oversees 550 chapters worldwide, "We currently are in 32 states aggressively working to ban Shariah law." ACT! for America, was involved in both in the Yorba Linda, California incident and similar anti Muslim rallies in Tennessee, Florida, and other states.
Despite her misinformed speech and despite the fact that she did not give the audience a chance to discuss or ask questions, the polarized room merged and each one of the 25 to 30 Muslim women had 2-3 audience members surrounding her, questioning and discussing.
Reis did bring up a few points that many Muslims do not deny. There is injustice perpetrated against women in the name of Islam by people who do not know the religion. But, missing from the speech was context. In America, a woman is abused by her domestic partner once every few minutes but no parallels were made. Even if the target was 'political' Islam, the brush strokes Reis painted were so broad that the whole faith was smirched. Many Muslim women and men are working in their communities on issues such as domestic violence and abuse, just as Christians work to on issues such as sex trafficking. They could be allies in the importance of faith, family, and faithbased morality to address issues facing American society.
One of the examples Reis used to denigrate Shariah was the case in New Jersy in 2010. A Muslim woman was not granted a restraining order by a judge. He ruled that the ex-husband did not have criminal intent of spousal rape according to his culture. "Why did Reis not talk about the US judicial system and the criminality of the judge and why are you using that to prove extremism in our religion?" asked Amen-Bryan. "I could hear the audience moaning, not at the excesses of the judge but at the Muslim religion and culture."
Last October, Karamah a Muslim women's lawyers organization used the same case in a presentation for the need for Muslim women to have lawyers who are knowledgeable about the gender-equitable principles of Islam and can represent Muslim women.
Since there is no understanding of Shariah when it is banned to give women rights, they may suffer as we can see in the case in Kansas were a woman was denied compensation from her estranged husband because the court has ruled that no foreign law will be recognized.
"I am giving a warning to all listeners, I am sure you can find faults in it, I am not perfect." Her speech ended to a standing ovation by the women and men of the RWC. She purposefully ignored rampant sexual abuse elsewhere, ie. the US military where 1/3rd of women have been raped and 90% have faced sexual abuse or the Catholic clergy pedophilia and sex abuse epidemic. There was no room for discourse. "She fulfilled every negative expectation and went beyond it," says Amen-Bryan.
Dr. Ileana Johnson, a former economics professor who escaped communism in Romania and author of “U.N. Agenda 21: Environmental Piracy” was the other speaker at the event. She spoke of green schemes and the insidious nature of Agenda 21, mixing common concerns for private property rights with some conspiracy theories. She succeeded in scaring everyone in the audience, did not take too well to their questions and did not tolerate any debate. "Can't you be Republican without been looneytunes?" whispered a young Republican woman sitting in the back on a cafeteria bench, after listening to the speeches.
This is why many conservatives and independents have left the Republican party. Before these last two election Republicans were the go to party. When did fear of Islam become a pillar of the Republican party? "Extremist voices have taken over the Republican party," said Amen-Bryan," I liked Mitt Romney's policies after I heard him speak, I even wrote to him but could not vote for him because of the attacks coming from his party." It is also time that the Muslim community's interfaith partners need to step up to this hatemongering and owe up to the friendships.
" I don't anything about the Quran," said one Christian woman after the event as she apologized to Muslim women, "I don't know, what I don't know." This indicates that the Muslim community in DMV has work to do.
"Where are your men?" asked a man who identified himself as a ex-cop after he yelled four-letter expletives at some vocal Muslim sisters. Amen-Bryan does not think that Muslim men needed to be there. "Any Muslim woman that you speak will tell you that the hijab is a personal and intimate issue for her and we can take care of ourselves."
For a while the atmosphere was very tense. When a small group of Muslim women started distributing pamphlets by the Southern Poverty Law Center about ACT! for America being designated a hate group, one of the organizers shouted "Southern Poverty Law Center is a communist organization."
Ramla Osman and Asma Nur, students from Springfield High School also came expecting to hear from an expert and be able to express their opinions. They did not doubt that Ries wants to protect her country, and this was evident is her passion, but her tunnel vision was so narrow that there was no attempt to have a balanced presentation, even after wide media publicity.
Despite her misinformed speech and despite the fact that she did not give the audience a chance to discuss or ask questions, the polarized room merged and each one of the 25 to 30 Muslim women had 2-3 audience members surrounding her, questioning and discussing. "I expected the audience to be fairly distant and not friendly, but I was surprised; I met some well spoken and well educated women, they do not need to buy into this garbage," said Amen-Bryan.
Emily Bresson attended the event with her daughter Ella who is a student in the world religions' class at Robinson High. She wondered why a conservative, Christian woman was speaking about women in Islam. Another attendee, (name withheld for the fear of backlash) was a professor at the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), she said she had many Muslim students who were her main source of her views on Islam. "My students all get along," she said.
Many of the Muslim women who attended were born and raised in the US, some whose ancestors have fought in the Revolutionary Wars. "I consider my rights as precious as an American; my brother is a veteran," says Amen-Bryant. " Alice Butler-Short, the President of the RWC club is an Irish immigrant, she is also listed on the ACT! for America's website as a chapter leader for North Virginia. Muslim women met with Butler-Short, who said that she had spent years in Somalia as she hugged a Somali American Muslim woman.
"There is a silver thread, we have had several long telephone conversations and emails with the Republican women."Inspired by the wisdom of the prophets who dialogued with their opponents, Amen-Bryan says she and some of the other attendees are prepared to put in the time-consuming work of establishing trust and opening dialogue, including with Reis. "I have had lengthy phone conversation and exchanged e-mails with the RWC; we have planted the seeds."