Once a month, a Tucson library room fills with people who are very, very, very afraid.
Of their neighbors.
Their collective fear doesn’t have a specific face, but has a specific faith. Islam, and the radical elements allegedly “infiltrating” America, constitute an existential threat to the (mostly elderly) men and women who meet in this Tucson library room.
They are the Tucson chapter of ACT for America, a group dedicated to preventing the takeover of Sharia Law that they claim is imminent. This claim has garnered them a designation as a hate group from the Southern Poverty Law Center – and caused a considerable amount of additional fear in the Tucson chapter.
“Hopefully we can do this without Antifa coming to behead us all,” Barry Webb said. “They employ Nazi tactics, they have shut down speakers like us.”
Webb is a member of the Tucson chapter of ACT, and is a frequent guest speaker at organizations around Arizona that are concerned about supposed Islamic infiltration of America. While the dangers of radical Islam and the evils of Sharia Law dominate the ACT meetings, fear of violent reprisals is an ongoing theme.
However, in the case of ACT Tucson, this fear has so far been unfounded. Neither Webb nor the local leaders of ACT have had no issue whatsoever with Antifa or any other group harassing them.
That hasn’t stopped them from fretting, and orders from higher up in the organization have only served to stoke these concerns. ACT National, in response to the designation as a hate group, instructed local chapters to avoid talking to the press – instead forwarding requests for comment to the national organization.
At the time of publication, ACT National has not responded to requests for comment.
This lack of response is par for the course when it comes to the paranoia that pervades ACT for America. Brigitte Gabriel, the founder of the national organization, is often the face of Islamophobia in the frequent YouTube videos produced by ACT.
With titles alluding to a “clash of civilizations” and “who is really to blame for the bombings,” Gabriel and ACT paint a negative picture when it comes to adherents of Islam, lumping the secular and nonviolent with the conservative and radical.
Despite the claim that ACT is not anti-Muslim, this broad brush approach plays into the fears of Tucson members. Ben Brookhart, a local chapter member who occasionally speaks at chapter meetings, frames Islam as diametrically opposed to Christianity.
“People don’t understand there’s an inherent problem with Islam,” Brookhart said.
This “problem” supposedly runs deep — from alleged government infiltration by members of the Muslim Brotherhood to radicalization on the University of Arizona’s campus in Tucson. The UA chapter of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) is feared to be a front for the Muslim Brotherhood, and a threat to the couple dozen members of ACT Tucson.
For UA student Sultan Al-Ansari, formerly affiliated with MSA, that claim — and others about the threat posed by Islam in America — aren’t just incorrect, they are laughable.
“That [claim] is totally wrong,” Al-Ansari said. “My best friend is the president [of UA MSA] and my good friend is vice president. They are amazing people and aren’t involved in politics.”
Al-Ansari asserts that the Muslim Brotherhood, while an Islamist organization, isn’t an Islamic one — an important distinction. The group works internationally as a political organization, not a religious one.
And as far as Al-Ansari is concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood have nothing to do with the University of Arizona, and Americans have nothing to fear from their Muslim neighbors.
“Arabic wisdom says that you fear things you don’t know,” Al-Ansari said. “Talk to a Muslim, it’s the easiest way.”
For a word copy of this story and higher-resolution photos, click here.
Erik Kolsrud is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org