During this time of year, we talk of peace on earth and goodwill towards our neighbors. I wish those beliefs applied universally. Instead, there are groups waging campaigns of intimidation and fear against certain members of our communities. Frequent targets include Muslims and refugees, and there is an entire movement behind the attacks.
We recently released “ACTing for Islamophobia,” a report examining Montana’s anti-Muslim movement. Even though our state has a small immigrant/Muslin population, it hasn’t bypassed the national trend of increased hostility towards Muslims. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that anti-Muslim groups have increased by almost 200 percent since 2015.
Not coincidentally, Pew Research notes that crimes against Muslim people hit an all-time high in 2016. We also live in a time when the current president normalizes and legitimizes anti-Muslim rhetoric at an alarming rate.
Our report illustrates how the central driving force of Montana’s anti-Muslim movement is Flathead ACT, which is a county-level chapter of the national organization ACT for America. Civil rights organizations frequently call ACT for America the leading anti-Muslim hate group in the country. ACT promotes a false and dangerous narrative about a diverse religious group by claiming that all Muslims are extremists, and Islam is trying to destroy Western (a code word for “white”) civilization.
Think for a minute about ACT’s discriminatory message that “all Muslims are extremists.” Let’s apply it to a different religion. Does that mean that the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations represent all Christians? After all, they call themselves Christian and carry out their campaigns of terror in the name of God. The answer, of course, is an emphatic, “No!” That’s why this example rings hollow for most Christians, just like ACT’s message does for the majority of the 1.8 billion followers of Islam.
It’s important to understand these anti-Muslim groups aren’t interested in having legitimate policy discussions about national security, how people become radicalized and join violent extremist groups, or anything else for that matter. Instead, their only purpose is peddling conspiracy theories steeped in fear and trying to get people to believe that Jihadists lurk around every corner. Flathead ACT leads this misinformation campaign in Montana.
Our report examines the leadership of Flathead ACT and the speakers it has sponsored in Montana. Let’s be clear that the speakers haven’t been religious scholars or academics relaying fact-based information. Instead, Flathead ACT has sponsored a slate of propagandists representing anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and white supremacist groups. One characteristic all the speakers share is reinforcing the false “Jihadist around every corner” message.
Studies show that, if anyone is “around every corner,” it’s Far-Right extremists. The federal government reports that Far-Right extremists have perpetrated 74% of the attacks in the U.S. by violent extremists between 2001-2016. Instead of adding valuable knowledge to the community, Flathead ACT and its allies have contributed anti-Muslim vitriol and misinformation.
Despite this, Flathead ACT and its allies have migrated from the political fringe to the mainstream. The county level ACT chapters in Montana share leadership with entities within the state GOP. They used this influence to get the Republican majority during the 2017 legislative session to pass a bill banning Sharia Law, which had questionable constitutional footing and merely served as a vehicle to push anti-Muslim messages.
During its legislative journey, the bill’s supporters spewed angry and derogatory testimony that dehumanized and targeted Muslims and refugees. Governor Steve Bullock thankfully vetoed the measure, recognizing it could be seen as an “endorsement for anti-Muslim sentiment and activity.”
We encourage you to read our report. We think you’ll find yourself rejecting ACT’s fear-based bigotry and agreeing with the majority of Montanans and Governor Bullock, who wrote in his veto note for the Sharia Law Ban that Montanans should “recommit ourselves to protecting the religious and cultural diversity that makes our state and nation strong.”
Travis McAdam is the Research Director for the Montana Human Rights Network. The Human Rights Network can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.