So-called ‘anti-Sharia’ rallies across almost 30 US cities come as hate crimes on the rise, prompting criticism and counter-protests
A wave of anti-Muslim rallies planned for almost 30 cities across the US on Saturday by far-right activists has drawn sharp criticism from civil rights groups and inspired counter-protests nationwide.
A number of small protests took place and in many places, including New York and Chicago, a few dozen “anti-Sharia” demonstrators were outnumbered by counter-protesters.
Hundreds of counter-protesters marched through Seattle on Saturday to confront a few dozen people claiming Sharia was incompatible with western freedoms. The counter protesters banged drums, cymbals and cowbells behind a large sign saying “Seattle stands with our Muslim neighbors.” Participants chanted “No hate, no fear, Muslims are welcome here” on their way to City Hall, while a phalanx of bicycle police officers separated them from an anti-Sharia rally.
Later, Seattle police used tear gas to disperse rowdy demonstrators and made several arrests. The department said it was still reviewing how many people were arrested and what charges they might face.
Elsewhere, in St Paul in Minnesota, police made seven arrests as fights broke out during demonstrations there.
The rallies have been organized by Act for America, which claims to be protesting about human rights violations but has been deemed an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The demonstrations prompted security fears at mosques across the country and come at a time when hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise.
A coalition of 129 national and local organizations amplified concerns on Friday in a letter urging mayors to denounce the marches, which also coincide with Ramadan, the holy month in which Muslims fast during the daylight hours.
The Saturday rallies in Chicago occurred near a building developed by Donald Trump. Giant letters spelling out “Trump” loomed on the high-rise over the more than 100 protesters.
About 30 demonstrators stood to one side of a street holding signs that read “Ban Sharia” and “Sharia abuses women”. Just across the street, a larger and more vocal group of around 75 people chanted at them, “Racists out!”
A small group also stood at a nearby George Washington monument, chanting, “America first!” Some wore red hats with Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”. A dozen police surrounded them as counter-protesters shouted several feet away.
A similar scene played out in a park near a New York courthouse, where counter-protesters sounded air-horns and banged pots and pans in an effort to silence an anti-Sharia rally. “The theme of today is drowning out racism,” said New York counter-protester Tony Murphy, standing next to demonstrators with colorful earplugs. “The more racists get a platform, the more people get attacked.”
At least one planned rally was canceled in Portland, Oregon, where two men were fatally stabbed last month while defending two Muslim women from a man who taunted them with racial slurs.
“We are deeply concerned about the type of message that these protests send to the American public and to the good people in your city – that it is acceptable to vilify people simply because of their faith,” the groups wrote on Friday in their letter to 29 mayors.
“We, the undersigned national and local civil rights, faith-based, and community organizations, ask that you use your voice as an elected representative of your city to reject bigotry.”
At least some elected officials condemned the rallies, which they argued would promote fear and hatred under the guise of free speech. “We need to remember that we’re strong when we’re united,” said the US representative Debbie Dingell, a Democrat who hails from Dearborn, Michigan, where roughly 40% of the residents are Muslim.
“They will not win, they will not divide this country and they will be total failures on Saturday,” Dingell said Thursday on Capitol Hill, “because we will be united against that hatred.”
Concerns within the Muslim American community have risen since the election of Trump, whose campaign routinely drew upon Islamophobic comments. The president pledged to ban Muslims from entering the US, falsely claimed Muslims celebrated on rooftops in New Jersey on 9/11 and suggested Barack Obama sympathized with extremists.
The FBI has documented a surge in anti-Muslim hate crimes in recent years, reporting a 67% spike between 2014 and 2015 of incidents motivated by bias against Muslims, Arabs, South Asian and other immigrant communities.
In some cities, hundreds of protesters will take to the streets to counteract the anti-Muslim marches. One such event is the Fasting 5K, a marathon to take place in 10 major US cities and Toronto.
The grassroots event, which raises money for charity targeting civic engagement among Muslim youth, was not initially planned in response to the anti-Muslim rallies. But it has taken on new meaning to its participants, according to the group’s founder, Farhaan Razi.
“While this Islamophobia is going on around the country, we can highlight the positive side of how Muslim Americans are supporting and being active members of their communities to counter that narrative,” Razi said.
“We looked at it as an opportunity.”