‘It’s a spir­i­tual bat­tle of good and evil’

ACT for Amer­ica, which seeks to end Is­lamic in­flu­ence in the coun­try, has a di­rect line to the pres­i­dent. Some ac­tivists have called it a hate group.

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ABI­GAIL HAUSLOHNER abi­gail.hauslohner@wash­post.com

austin — Roy White wants to in­form as many Amer­i­cans as pos­si­ble about the ter­ror­ists he sees in their midst.

The lean, 62-year-old Air Force vet­eran strode into the Texas State Capi­tol in late Jan­uary wear­ing a char­coal-gray pin­stripe suit and an Amer­i­can flag tie, with the mis­sion of warn­ing all 181 law­mak­ers about a Mus­lim group spon­sor­ing a gath­er­ing of Texas Mus­lims at the Capi­tol the fol­low­ing day. Al­though the Coun­cil on Amer­i­can-Is­lamic Re­la­tions (CAIR) works to pro­mote Mus­lim civil rights across Amer­ica, White wanted to con­vince law­mak­ers that it is ac­tu­ally work­ing to in­fil­trate the U.S. gov­ern­ment and de­stroy Amer­i­can so­ci­ety from within.

“They’re ji­hadists wear­ing suits,” White said of CAIR and other Mus­lim or­ga­ni­za­tions. “That’s a tough thing for us to wrap our heads around be­cause we don’t feel threat­ened.”

White is the San Antonio chapter pres­i­dent of ACT for Amer­ica, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that brands it­self as “the na­tion’s largest grass­roots na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion” and at­tacks what it sees as the creep­ing threat of sharia, or Is­lamic law, in the form of Mus­lim or­ga­ni­za­tions, mosques, refugees and sym­pa­thetic politi­cians.

The group has found al­lies among a co­terie of anti-Mus­lim or­ga­ni­za­tions, speak­ers and Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ists, as well as with some state law­mak­ers. Bill Zedler, a Texas Repub­li­can state rep­re­sen­ta­tive, said dur­ing a re­cent forum sup­ported by ACT that he fears po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness is mask­ing the real prob­lem: “Re­gard­less of whether it’s al-Qaeda, or CAIR, or the Is­lamic State, they just have dif­fer­ent method­ol­ogy for the de­struc­tion of Western civ­i­liza­tion.”

ACT, which has been a vo­cal ad­vo­cate for Pres­i­dent Trump and his ad­min­is­tra­tion, says it now has “a di­rect line” to the pres­i­dent and an abil­ity to in­flu­ence the di­rec­tion of the na­tion.

“We are on the verge of play­ing the most piv­otal role in re­vers­ing the sig­nif­i­cant dam­age that has been done to our na­tion’s se­cu­rity and well-be­ing over the past eight years,” ACT’s founder, Brigitte Gabriel, wrote in a De­cem­ber so­lic­i­ta­tion for do­na­tions.

Stephen K. Ban­non, the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of Bre­it­bart who has de­scribed Mus­lim Amer­i­can groups as “cul­tural ji­hadists” bent on de­stroy­ing Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, is Trump’s chief strate­gist. Bre­it­bart has pub­lished sev­eral ar­ti­cles Gabriel has writ­ten. Trump’s CIA di­rec­tor, Mike Pom­peo, has spo­ken at ACT’s con­fer­ences and spon­sored an ACT meet­ing at the Capi­tol last year.

Re­tired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who sits on ACT’s board of ad­vis­ers, served as the pres­i­dent’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser be­fore step­ping down af­ter rev­e­la­tions that he might have vi­o­lated the law in com­mu­ni­ca­tions with a Rus­sian diplo­mat.

In the first days of his pres­i­dency, Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der tem­po­rar­ily ban­ning trav­el­ers from seven ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries — and all refugees — from en­ter­ing the United States, an or­der that has been put on hold as it faces court chal­lenges.

Ahmed Bedier, for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of CAIR’s Tampa chapter, said that ACT dis­torts Is­lam and works to present it as a be­lief that doesn’t de­serve re­li­gious pro­tec­tion in the United States.

“These guys are the fringe of the fringe, and now they have peo­ple on the inside of the most pow­er­ful gov­ern­ment in the world,” said Bedier, who has fre­quently sparred pub­licly with ACT. “They’re fas­cists. They don’t want any pres­ence of Mus­lims in Amer­ica. And the only Mus­lim that is ac­cept­able to them is a for­mer Mus­lim.”

ACT, based in Vir­ginia Beach, has nearly 17,500 vol­un­teers and 17 staff mem­bers, ac­cord­ing to tax records. Gabriel says ACT has 500,000 “re­lent­less grass-roots war­riors,” such as White, who are “ready to do what­ever it takes to achieve our goal of a safer Amer­ica.”

A safer Amer­ica, to ACT, means a na­tion free of all Is­lamic in­flu­ence, a goal that has led some civil rights ac­tivists to call it a hate group akin to white su­prem­a­cists. It wants groups that prac­tice or ad­vo­cate sharia — the guid­ing prin­ci­ples of Is­lam — to be forced to dis­band, sup­ports Pres­i­dent Trump’s at­tempt to ban trav­el­ers from sev­eral Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries, and op­poses the re­set­tle­ment of Mus­lim refugees in the United States. It sup­ports pre­serv­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion and its con­cept of Amer­i­can cul­ture, which ACT says on its web­site means “rec­og­niz­ing that we are the great­est na­tion on Earth and that if you are an Amer­i­can you must be an Amer­i­can first.”

Since it be­gan its work a decade ago, ACT claims 22 leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries in Repub­li­can­con­trolled state­houses, many of them laws that stiffen crim­i­nal penal­ties for ter­ror­ism, keep Is­lamic or for­eign in­flu­ence out of U.S. courts, or aim to pro­tect free speech. ACT also led a suc­cess­ful cam­paign to get “er­rors” re­moved from Texas school text­books, in­clud­ing what lead­ers con­sider pro-Is­lamic, an­tiChris­tian, anti-Western state­ments.

In re­cent weeks, ACT has lob­bied on be­half of Trump’s travel ban. On Wed­nes­day, it cir­cu­lated a mes­sage to its fol­low­ers claim­ing that Flynn’s fall was the work of “rogue weasels” and “shadow war­riors” within the U.S. gov­ern­ment try­ing to de­stroy Trump.

ACT’s lead­er­ship ac­knowl­edges that it gets a bad rap. The South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter and other civil rights watch­dogs la­bel it an ex­trem­ist group that de­mo­nizes Mus­lims. ACT ar­gues that the per­cep­tion comes from ig­no­rance or be­cause the me­dia, Democrats and Mus­lims hide the truth in a bid to de­stroy the coun­try.

In a re­cent mes­sage to mem­bers, the group said that Islamophobia is a “de­cep­tive nar­ra­tive,” that the main­stream me­dia prop­a­gates “fake news” and that refugee ad­vo­cates are “fa­nat­ics.”

ACT has urged sup­port­ers to lobby their law­mak­ers to sup­port Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der ban­ning cit­i­zens of seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries from en­ter­ing the United States, a pol­icy that le­gal ex­perts say amounts to a “Mus­lim ban” and that an ap­peals court unan­i­mously kept on hold this month amid ar­gu­ments that it vi­o­lates the Con­sti­tu­tion.

“First of all, there is no ‘Mus­lim ban,’ con­trary to what the fake news me­dia would have you be­lieve,” Gabriel wrote last week in an ar­ti­cle for Bre­it­bart, claim­ing that the coun­tries sub­ject to the or­der are “ter­ror­ist-in­fested.” “It isn’t Pres­i­dent Trump’s fault all seven of those coun­tries hap­pen to be al­most en­tirely Is­lamic.”

Gabriel did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

White, a com­mer­cial air­line pi­lot, said the group has faced an up­hill bat­tle.

“I’ve had fam­ily mem­bers who — I’ve talked like this for the last four years — at first thought I was the crazy, loony un­cle be­cause they had never heard any of this stuff, be­cause ‘it’s a con­spir­acy,’ ” White said as he took a break from hand­ing out pam­phlets at the Texas state­house in Austin.

But, White said, he’s not a con­spir­acy the­o­rist, and he’s not chas­ing UFOs: His con­vic­tion is grounded in facts and in spir­i­tual con­vic­tion.

“It’s a spir­i­tual bat­tle of good and evil, and a lot of folks on the left have a dif­fi­cult time think­ing that there is ac­tu­ally good and evil,” he said.

White, a de­vout Chris­tian, says that sharia — the guid­ing laws and prin­ci­ples of Is­lam — is the em­bod­i­ment of that evil; that the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, a Sunni Is­lamic move­ment that is a force in Mid­dle East­ern politics, is work­ing to spread sharia through­out Amer­ica; and that CAIR, the Is­lamic So­ci­ety of North Amer­ica, the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­can mosques, and a host of other Mus­lim lead­ers and or­ga­ni­za­tions are out­growths of the Broth­er­hood on U.S. soil. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has been con­sid­er­ing adding the Broth­er­hood to its list of des­ig­nated for­eign ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions; ACT con­sid­ers that a top pri­or­ity.

White hopes that Trump’s travel ban will pre­vail and that other Mus­lim coun­tries, in­clud­ing Saudi Ara­bia and Egypt, will be added. He wants mosques and Amer­i­can Mus­lim groups to de­nounce sharia or be dis­banded, and he wants the gov­ern­ment to bar peo­ple who as­so­ci­ate with those groups from pub­lic of­fice.

“We are go­ing to ar­rest those peo­ple who pro­mote sedi­tion,” he said. That would mean any “sharia-com­pli­ant Mus­lim,” he added.

Is­lamic schol­ars, Mid­dle East ex­perts and Mus­lim re­li­gious lead­ers say that ACT’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam is wrong. Sharia is not a coded rule book but a vast body of re­li­gious and le­gal texts, sub­ject to a range of in­ter­pre­ta­tions and prac­tice, much of which is not taken lit­er­ally.

“Sharia as a le­gal sys­tem doesn’t ex­ist,” said Sa­har Aziz, a law pro­fes­sor at Texas A&M Univer­sity, not­ing that a Mus­lim who claims to fol­low sharia is sim­i­lar to a Chris­tian say­ing he lives his life “in ac­cor­dance with Je­sus Christ.”

ACT’s crit­ics ar­gue that go­ing af­ter sharia is a sub­tle way to more broadly at­tack Mus­lims. They also say it’s dan­ger­ous.

The night be­fore White vis­ited the Capi­tol in Austin, a gun­man who ex­pressed sup­port for na­tion­al­ist and right-wing causes killed six peo­ple and wounded 19 oth­ers in an at­tack on a Que­bec City mosque. The day be­fore, a fire de­stroyed a mosque that had pre­vi­ously been bur­glar­ized and van­dal­ized in Vic­to­ria, Tex.

White says some peo­ple come to his meet­ings “who are a lit­tle bit off the mark, get a lit­tle too fired up.” He turns them away, but he vows to con­tinue push­ing.

“I’m never go­ing to stop telling the truth for fear of the con­se­quences of telling the truth to peo­ple.”

PHO­TOS BY ILANA PANICH-LINSMAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: Texas Mus­lims visit law­mak­ers dur­ing the Mus­lim Capi­tol Day or­ga­nized by the Coun­cil on Amer­i­can-Is­lamic Re­la­tions. LEFT: Re­tired Air Force Lt. Col. Roy White, a chapter pres­i­dent of ACT for Amer­ica, speaks out against CAIR, which he con­sid­ers to be a threat, on Jan. 30 at the Texas State Capi­tol in Austin.

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