Liberal Column

A mysterious sheikh, an isolated compound and a bomb threat: Islamophobia in upstate New York

Courtesy of Muhammad Matthew Gardner

Islamberg is a Muslim community located in Tompkins, New York, about one hour and 45 minutes southeast of Syracuse.

Islam: the religion of Allah, originated in Mecca, revealed to the prophet Mohammed, practiced by more than 1.6 billion Muslims across the globe.

Islam: the target of President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban and subject of a torrential political firestorm.

There’s a lot of talk about the United States having a Muslim problem. But the U.S. actually has a problem with Muslim people. Islam is the least accepted religion in the country, according to the Pew Research Center, and it’s not particularly close, either. The presence of anti-Muslim groups has shot up in the past year, increasing from 34 in 2015 to a heinous 101 in 2016, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The religion may be the most politically polarizing topic this side of abortion. Some argue the U.S. is attacking its Muslim population through Islamophobic policies like Trump’s travel ban, while others believe the U.S. is under attack by Islam. The idea that Americans are threatened by Islam and by its followers is rooted in misconceptions and a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be Muslim.

Central New York is not immune from this schism. In February, days after local religious communities came together in Syracuse for the World Interfaith Harmony Assembly, the Department of Public Safety began to investigate the case of a Syracuse University student whose roommate allegedly harassed her with Islamophobic actions.

The motive behind Islamophobia in the U.S. raises a question with an unclear answer: Why do so many Americans harbor prejudices against Muslims?

Cjala Surratt, public relations coordinator of the Islamic Society of Central New York, said this prejudice stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of Islam.

“People don’t know Muslims, they don’t know the Quran,” Surratt said. “You have people that are lifting parts of the Quran without context, without understanding.”

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Ahmed Meguid, an assistant professor of religion at SU who studies Islamic philosophy and theology, said he sees a new breed of Islamophobia emerging.

“What we are witnessing right now is a completely new era,” Meguid said. “Before, there was a very pointed, ideological bias against Islam. Now we are witnessing a moment when there isn’t a knowledge of the Islamic tradition as a rich civilization, as well as a lack of interest in learning.”

When this bias manifests itself in the heart of a hateful person, it can have disastrous implications.

Robert Doggart, a 65-year-old Tennessee man, was recently convicted of charges related to the planned firebombing of Islamberg, a Muslim community in Tompkins, New York, about an hour and 45 minutes southeast of Syracuse. Doggart was not indicted on any terrorism-related charges.

Doggart became the subject of a federal investigation after he claimed in a Facebook post that Islamberg was planning a terrorist attack and “must be utterly destroyed,” according to CBS News. Doggart’s association between Islamberg and terrorism was likely based in rampant and unchecked speculation from various news media outlets that paint Islamberg and its affiliate origination, The Muslims of America, in an unfavorable light.

Outlets including Fox News, InfoWars and Breitbart — which called the organization a “terror cult” — have portrayed Islamberg to be a secret terrorist training ground. These articles often cite the Clarion Project, a group that claims to be “challenging radical Islam” and “promoting human rights.”

In reality, the Clarion Project seems to be a recklessly biased source that preaches a strictly anti-Islamic agenda and frequently bases its claims on shady surveys, as pointed out by the Bridge Initiative research group at Georgetown University.

Islamberg is no stranger to scrutiny. The quiet community is inhabited by members of The Muslims of America, a small Islamic community that follows the teachings of Sheikh Mubarak Ali Gilani. On its website, the group calls itself the only indigenous American Muslim organization founded and based in the U.S.

At Gilani’s behest, followers have formed a few diminutive Islamic settlements in rural areas across the country — a concept designed to shield members from the ills of American urban life and allow them to practice Islam in a community of like-minded neighbors.

“He was the one who taught us to be the best citizens we can be for our country,” said Muhammad Matthew Gardner, director of public relations for the group. “Before Sheikh Gilani, we did not practice Islam in the proper way. He showed us how to be Muslim in America. He would never tell us to do harm to ourselves or our country.”

But the group’s reclusive nature, coupled with its leader’s disputed past, has made The Muslims of America a suspect in wide-ranging conspiracies.

In 2002, Gilani became embroiled in controversy after American journalist Daniel Pearl was abducted and murdered by Pakistani terrorists while en route to interview the religious leader. Gilani was ultimately cleared of any involvement in the Pearl case by the FBI and the State Department, but his group of followers, The Muslims of America, has been alleged to be a front for the terrorist organization Jamaat al-Fuqra, according to Newsweek.

The Muslims of America deny all ties with al-Fuqra or any other terror organization, and have never been legally connected with any terror group. But the wrath of unfavorable news coverage has made the group a target of many controversial acts, including the Doggart case and the May 2016 “Ride for National Security” organized by the American Bikers United Against Jihad.

“The reason (for the ride) was because we wanted to create a video on Islamberg that conveyed a message, the message being that they’re training people in your backyard,” said Ram Lubranicki, a founder of the biker group. “We wanted to call upon the State Department to relist the al-Fuqra terror organization on the terror list, so that the FBI could be more proactive.”

While the ride was poorly attended, it seems to demonstrate the bias that many American Muslims face. Lubranicki called Islam “a threat to our national security,” and said “today’s good, moderate Muslim could be tomorrow’s radical.”

Even the group’s name is a misconception. Lisa Michelle, a co-founder of the American Bikers United Against Jihad, said Muslim leaders have infiltrated major American organizations in a phenomenon called stealth jihad, which she equated to Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”

But Ahmed Malik, the Muslim chaplain at SU’s Hendricks Chapel, said the Islamic term jihad is simply a term for the struggles that one must overcome throughout their life.

“A jihad can be something as trivial as studying for a test,” Malik said. “It is meant to represent the everyday struggles that every person faces.”

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Lubranicki said the American Bikers United Against Jihad is not anti-Muslim, and called Muslims “the No. 1 victims” of terrorist acts committed by other Muslims. He said the group is simply against acts of violence, regardless of where they come from.

The biker group does not seem to be a hate group, but rather a poorly informed organization that has benefited from the mass ignorance toward Muslims in the U.S. The group currently has more than 81,000 followers on Facebook.

Gardner, public relations director of The Muslims of America, sees this trend as a broad catalyst for discrimination against residents of Islamberg and Muslims throughout the U.S.

“I think it goes back basically to a distrust of Islam, and the distrust goes back to a lack of understanding,” he said. “Given the political climate these days and the rhetoric that’s coming out, there seems to be a number of people in this country that completely lack an understanding about Islam.”

That political climate might be difficult to combat, and could further discrimination against Muslims.

Butch Urban, chief of staff to the commander of the National Socialist Movement, the country’s largest Neo-Nazi organization, said the group has been galvanized by the Trump presidency.

“Prior to the election, we had a very large growth,” Urban said. “And even after the election membership has risen tremendously.”

The increase of membership in the National Socialist Movement, which brands itself as “America’s premier white civil rights organization,” along with the growth of prejudice against Muslims in the U.S. raises the question of how anti-Islamic sentiments can be stopped.

“Time and education are the only things that will help,” Gardner said. “There are people that don’t want to learn about something before they judge it. And unfortunately, when that happens, it’s very hard to move someone away from that judgment. The only thing that heals that is time and education.”

The Islamic Society of Central New York has come to the same conclusion, and is planning a youth outreach program that will involve SU, said Mohammed ElFiki, the organization’s imam. The group is also hosting interfaith activities and maintaining a dialogue with local clergy of all religions.

In Islamberg, similar approaches are applied.

“We do a lot of reaching out with organizations that want to get a perspective of Islam from a Muslim,” Gardner said. But he’s guarded about what the effects of these programs will be.

“The ones that are haters, they just don’t want to hear from a Muslim what being a Muslim is like,” he added.

But for those who don’t understand what Islam actually stands for, listening to Muslims’ experiences can help correct misconceptions about the religion and its followers. To listen — rather than assume — is how to be a proponent for change in “Trump’s America.”

Ryan Dunn is a freshman history major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at rarozenb@syr.edu.

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