HOPE not hate got inside this year’s ACT for America Conference in the heart of American power, Washington D.C.
I was sat in the the Capitol building in downtown D.C. – home of the US Congress – listening to Brigitte Gabriel, founder and figurehead of the anti-Muslim hate group ACT for America. She alleged that she was close to “65 to 70” members of Congress, and that visiting Washington D.C. was like a “family reunion”. Most disquieting of all, she claimed that ACT is “very focused” on the White House, that she considers President Trump supportive of her organisation, and that she even has a standing meeting at the White House on a weekly basis.
To put this in context, this is a woman who has stated that a practising Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States”, that Arabic Muslims have “no soul”, and in her 2008 book They Must Be Stopped: Why We Must Defeat Radical Islam and How We Will Do It wrote that:
Islam has created and unleashed an uncontrollable wave of hatred and rage on the world, and we must brace ourselves for the consequences. Going forward we must realize that the portent behind the terrorist attacks is the purest form of what the Prophet Mohammed created. It’s not radical Islam. It’s what Islam is at its core.
Yet here I was, sat inside the Capitol building as she bragged about her influence over policy makers and her links to Trump’s White House.
In total eight members of Congress graced the stage to speak to the assembled crowd of activists gathered for the second day of ACT’s National Conference. Seven were members of the House of Representatives, and the other was Ted Cruz, a Senator for Texas since 2013 and a candidate in the upcoming midterm elections. When I attended ACT’s conference in 2016, Donald Trump had just beaten Cruz for the Republican nomination in the presidential race.
Several of the Congressmen, who vote to pass and block the legislation that governs America, underlined their support for Gabriel and ACT. Congressman Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, who serves on the Committees on Transportation and Infrastructure, Foreign Affairs, and Homeland Security, described Gabriel as one of his “heroes”. Congressman Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, who had sponsored ACT to use the auditorium in the Capitol building, told Gabriel: “I love you”. Cruz commended the crowd for “standing up for truth”.
I watched in amazement. An infamous anti-Muslim activist I have been monitoring for years was stood in the heart of American power, and she was among friends.
ACT for America
Gabriel and her organisation ACT (American Congress for Truth), which styles itself as the “NRA [National Rifle Association] of national security” due to its lobbying power, has long been a powerful force within the American anti-Muslim milieu. Despite the extremeness of her messaging, Gabriel has courted powerful institutions and has been asked to address the Pentagon, the Joint Forces Staff College, the US Special Operations Command, the US Asymmetric Warfare group and the FBI. Her 2006 book Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America was placed on the FBI Academy reading list and made mandatory reading for Navy SEALs special forces troops heading to the Middle East.
Gabriel’s influence seems only to have grown in the age of Trump, and ACT now claims over one million members across 1,000 branches. As the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) suggests, while ACT could be inflating its figures, it is undoubtedly the largest anti-Muslim group active in the States. Gabriel is also a growing presence online; forthcoming HOPE not hate analysis reveals that Gabriel’s Twitter following has grown by 106% in the year between 1 July 2017 and 30 June 2018.
When I attended ACT’s National Conference in 2016, the organisation was able to use the Congressional auditorium in the Capitol building thanks to the sponsorship of Mike Pompeo. As of April 2018, Pompeo sits as Secretary of State, one of the most powerful people in America. ACT has claimed via its website that it has made “25,000 contacts to Congress” in support of Pompeo and Gina Haspel, who since May has served as director of the CIA. In March of 2017, Gabriel posted a picture on Twitter writing that she was “preparing for [her] meeting at the White House”. ACT literature distributed at the 2018 conference claims that it has helped pass 84 bills in 32 states, as well as 12 federal bills.
I wrote in 2016 that ACT had reached right into the heart of the American political establishment. Under Trump the situation has become even worse.
ACT has also broadened its focus to chime with the Trump presidency and the wider radical right-wing populist upsurge being felt across Western democracies. While the 2016 conference was almost entirely dominated by discussion of Islam and Sharia law, the 2018 conference covered a broader range of right-wing concerns within the category of “national security”.
Throughout the first day of the conference, which featured speeches from right-wing and ‘counter-jihad’ figures at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City hotel in Virginia, a prime issue was immigration through the southern border, with the spectre of violent illegal immigrants and MS-13 gang members frequently invoked.
On the second day, following the speeches on Capitol Hill, ACT briefed activists who were heading off to personally lobby their representatives in Congress to focus on “support for our nation’s law enforcement”, “immigration and border security” (with special reference to supporting Trump’s policy of building a wall on the southern border), and “designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terror organization”. Only the last of these priorities is directly related to radical Islam.
Former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director Thomas Homan, considered by many the face of Trump’s hardline approach on illegal immigration, was honoured with an award at the gala dinner that closed the event.
“I’ve done this for 34 years” Homan told the crowd, to cheers and applause. “There’s not one President who has done more for public safety, border security, homeland security and law enforcement. That’s a stone cold fact.”
The conference was also marked by a bitter opposition to the left, especially college activists, Antifa, and Black Lives Matter. The keynote speech, delivered by Charlie Kirk of right-wing student movement Turning Point USA (TPUSA), acknowledged Islamism as a threat but was resolute in his view that far-left ideologies on campus posed the primary threat to America. To Kirk, the struggle was not simply to be fought by voting Republican, but by engaging in the “culture wars”.
Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player who in 2016 kneeled during the national anthem to protest police killings of African Americans, was a target of particular ire due to his appearance in a Nike advertising campaign, which was criticised by the President; Kirk labelled him a “spoiled punk” and Fox News host Tomi Lahren joked that “at least he’s not going on unemployment so, whatever, thank you Nike. That’s one less person the people in this room have to support.”
The perceived threat from left-wing radicals permeated the conference: the importance of removing ACT badges when outside the hotel conference room was repeatedly pressed. Gabriel wrote in her welcome letter that “these are dangerous times; especially because of violent leftist groups like Antifa who are working overtime to silence those with whom they disagree.”
ACT’s engagement in Trump-style politics has disillusioned some supporters, even contributing to the dissolution of some branches. As the SPLC have reported, the group’s Treasure Valley, Idaho branch dissolved in April, writing that
[…] the national leadership of this organization is losing focus on what was the original mission – to increase the awareness of Islam and its threat to our country and culture […] recent activities such as “Back the Blue,” “Stop Sanctuary Cities,” and “Build the Wall,” are important and need to be done – but that was not why many of us became members.
Despite broadening its focus, ACT’s anti-Islam message remains undiluted. Several speakers, such as Students for Trump Chairman Ryan Fournier, utilised a narrative common among the anti-immigration right, invoking a grim picture of European decline, allegedly due to an influx of Muslim immigrants and refugees. Congressman Steve King of Iowa, in the news this week for again promoting content from white nationalists online, painted dark pictures of his trips to alleged “no-go zones” in Sweden, France and Belgium with Michele Bachmann (former Congresswoman for Minnesota’s 6th District). Several of the event attendees believed that terrible bloodshed, or even civil war, might be imminent in Europe.
Another hot issue among attendees was the perceived persecution of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka ‘Tommy Robinson’), the British anti-Muslim extremist who has been transformed into a “free speech martyr” in the eyes of the far-right and anti-Muslim scenes internationally after his most recent scrape with the law. Gabriel and many ACT members hold views indistinguishable from those of Lennon, and Gabriel wrote that his incarceration was “the direct result of a cultural suicide and a rejection of Western Judeo-Christian values – in place of political correctness and radical Islamic appeasement”.
As we have outlined elsewhere, Lennon has also received support from figures of influence in Washington. Reuters reported in July that Sam Brownback, Trump’s ambassador for international religious freedom, had lobbied Britain’s ambassador in the US on Lennon’s behalf; Republican Congressman Paul Gosar spoke at a far-right demonstration in London in July in support of Lennon. Even Donald Trump Jr., the President’s son, took to Twitter to respond to Lennon’s arrest. Republican officials have form in amplifying British anti-Muslim extremists, with President Trump himself retweeting content from the anti-Muslim street gang Britain First in November 2017.
Both my visits to D.C. have been in the shadow of highly significant dates in the political calendar; in 2016, the Presidential race loomed. This time it was the upcoming midterm elections, due to take place 6 November, when Republicans and Democrats will battle in the polls for control of Congress. All 435 members of the House of Representatives will be elected, and one third of the Senate.
The midterms will have a significant impact on Trump’s presidency. Congressman Scott Perry, representing Pennsylvania’s 4th district, stressed the high stakes of the elections, claiming that Democrats would seek to impeach the President and roll back Trump’s policies if they won a majority.
On the other hand, if the Republicans are able to secure a majority, it could open the door to Trump’s discriminatory flagship policies. “[…] midterm elections are our chance to restore sanity and to our immigration system. It’s our chance to finally build the wall.” Gabriel tweeted on September 8.
Two of those who addressed ACT activists in that Capitol Hill auditorium were aiming for the Senate. Congressman Lou Barletta, who serves on the Committees for House Transportation and Infrastructure, Education and the Workforce, and Homeland Security, addressed both the 2016 and 2018 conferences. He is the Republican nominee for Senate for Pennsylvania. Cruz is running again for Texas Senator.
The ascension of ACT’s apparent allies would further its ability to enshrine its discriminatory politics in law. But whatever the result, as Gabriel told us gathered at Capitol Hill that day, while politicians may come and go like a “revolving door”, ACT is “here to stay”.
A lot raced through my head as I walked from the iconic neoclassical Capitol building and into the hot D.C. streets. WhileGabriel is full of showbiz bluster, she had claimed that her organisation was effective in part because it was happy to work behind the scenes, in order to spare officials the negative press that contact with her would inevitably bring. Most of all, the ACT conference impressed that more must be done to shine a light on the influence of extremists in the halls of power, especially those that operate in the darkness.