On the day of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, across the country in a town called Hauppauge on Long Island, New York, roughly 45 people had gathered inside a conference room to talk about the problem with Muslims. It was a local chapter meeting of ACT for America, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has called an Islamophobic hate group.
Inside the Matrix Corporate Park, a glassy office building where the meeting was held, a banner hung front and center with the chapter name: Alert Long Island. I took a seat behind a man in a camouflage Oath Keepers hat and his friend wearing a gun T-shirt that said: "Come & Get Them!"
The theme of tonight's discussion topic: "Who is the enemy and what is the enemy's 'Threat Doctrine?'" It's phrased as a question, but everyone gathered here knows "the enemy," and most of them have made up their mind about how to stop it.
ACT for America was founded in 2007 by Brigitte Gabriel, a conservative journalist best known for her anti-Islamic extremism. She's regularly featured on FOX News as a "national security expert," where her advice tends to be "get rid of the Muslims."
Gabriel rocketed into the media spotlight after publishing two books that portrayed Islam as a threat to America—They Must Be Stopped: Why We Must Defeat Radical Islam and How We Can Do It, and Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America. Founding an Islamophobic hate group was the natural next step.
Since 2007, ACT for America has grown into a massive group, boasting nearly 300,000 members nationwide, according to its website. The purpose of the group is to "[promote] national security and [defeat] terrorism"—two goals which are, in the group's view, intrinsically threatened by the Islamic faith. The rhetoric of their meetings doesn't suggest that the problem is radical Islam, but Islam itself.
In a year when terrorism plays out on the news every week, anti-Islamic sentiment has gained an even greater foothold. In the past five years, the ACLU has charted a major rise in vandalism and violent threats made towards North American mosques and other anti-Muslim hate crimes. Just hours after the attacks in Paris, a mosque in St. Petersburg, Florida received a voicemail from a man who said he planned to shoot all Muslims, including children, in the head.
It's in this environment that Act for America has flourished, focusing on Sharia Law—the basic doctrine of the Quran, which is a personal, moral code for Muslims—as a threat to American security. It doesn't matter that the majority of American mass shootings are committed by young, white males (and often fanatical Christians), or that gun regulations play a role in terrorism-related events. Here, the group's mission is to "educate and effect change"—meaning, the Muslims have to go.
ACT for America has 573 chapters across the nation. The closest one to me was the chapter in Long Island, which cost $20 to attend. The money goes toward a keynote speaker, who on the night I attended, was a man named David Yerushalmi. Yerushalmi is an attorney and political activist who co-authored a study that suggested most mosques in America were incubators of hate and violence.
"In 2006, we began a study called Mapping Sharia," Yerushalmi began. He was speaking to us through a Skype call, which was projected onto a screen near the front of the room. It wasn't clear why the meeting didn't have an in-person speaker.
Yerushalmi claimed that 80 percent of mosques in the United States are "strictly Sharia," which he equated to Muslims following the same dogma as Al-Qaeda terrorists. "The core doctrine is still orthodox Sharia. It still utilizes the key methodology to achieve the end—or jihad."
Like ACT for America, Yerushalmi is also on Southern Poverty Law Center's watch list, in part for his anti-mosque study, in which he stated "the mythical 'moderate' Muslims who embrace traditional Islam but want a peaceful coexistence with the West is effectively non-existent."
"The problem we face is global and it's local," Yerushalmi continued. By his logic, when a Muslim attends an American mosque, he is not only learning a violent doctrine but is also susceptible to be recruited by ISIS. "The ability of Islamic terrorist groups to recruit will continue. Until there is some kind of internal reformation in Islam—to create an institutional counter to Sharia—they will always be able to reach into any Muslim community, anywhere in the world, and recruit."
Unwittingly for Yerushalm, extremist groups like ISIS thrive on alienation and anti-Muslim rebel-rousing. "This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for—to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims," said Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who studies how people become terrorists, in a recent article in the Washington Post. "Then ISIS will be able to say, 'I told you so. These are your enemies, and the enemies of Islam.'"
Meanwhile, Yerushalmi was suggesting further alienation. "Syrian immigrants, when they come here, where are they going to go to those mosques; the reservoir of support is there."
"The threat is real!" Yerushalmi concluded. "Sharia is not a peaceful, feel-good Islam."
As part of his bid to run America, Donald Trump has floated the idea that there should be a complete shutdown of Muslims entering this country. Trump believes these drastic measures need to be taken because of Muslims' "great hatred" for America; he's also suggested a national Muslim registry.
It's not just Trump, or the Republican party. Anti-Muslim sentiment in America are running pretty high on the heels of tragic events like the Paris attacks, the Chattanooga shootings, gunmen at the Draw Mohammad contest in Texas, and the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Pair that with Obama's plan to allow Syrian refugees to resettle in the United States, and you've tapped into a wellspring of growing racism against an entire faith of people.
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"Shame!" cried an older woman who stood up to address the room. "If we know these mosques are radical—shame, shame on us!"
"Well, we didn't all know for sure until recently," said the moderator, sounding like a voice of reason.
"If my Roman Catholic church was preaching death to Muslims, Jews, everyone else, I'm sure it would be closed down with a blink of an eye," she continued. "So this is where we have to stop the growth of mosques!"
The rhetoric resembles that of a century ago when immigrant Jews were seen as a direct threat to Western values. A recent Al Jazeera article drew the comparison: "A religious minority is seen as a dangerous underclass destroying society from below with their alien values, as well as a hidden force secretly controlling the world from above, through their infiltration of centers of power."
Here, the comparison is even drawn into the highest levels of government, as some members believe that the White House "is controlled by Muslims."
"They don't want peace and prosperity. They want to live by Sharia," said an angry old man.
"What 'peace' means to them? When they take over the world. That's peace," added the moderator. "When they say 'protection of the innocent,' they mean only Muslims. When you translate it from what they mean, it's like 'kill the infidels and we're taking over!"
After the meeting, members of ACT for America mingled amongst each other – sharing ideas and expressing feelings. As I headed to the cookie table, I was handed a flyer with bold red lettering, which read: "TAKE YOUR COUNTRY BACK!" I winced slightly.
"This will still be going on long after I'm gone," an old guy near me said with resignation. "But maybe I can take a few of them out with me." He repeated this twice.
A few days after the meeting, President Obama delivered a speech responding to the San Bernardino shootings, calling for religious tolerance. He harshly condemned those who wish to discriminate against others based on their religion and addressed the plight of Muslim Americans who are currently enduring the ongoing Islamophobic backlash.
But as I walked out of the ACT for America meeting and got into my car to drive home, I turned on the radio and listened to the developing news about the shooting. I heard a breaking report that the shooters had been identified. They were Muslim radicalized terrorists. I looked back at the Matrix Corporate Media Center in my rearview mirror, knowing there was a room full of angry citizens ready to take action.
Follow Harmon Leon on Twitter.