More than the width of Edenton Street divided two protesting groups Saturday morning along the State Capitol square.
As part of a nationwide collection of rallies organized by the group ACT for America, around 100 people met for a so-called anti-Sharia law protest. The mood was tense but peaceful as a counterprotest of twice as many people met a few blocks away on the legislative mall and marched to the Capitol, decrying the other group as Islamaphobic.
ACT for America organized the rallies in about two dozen cities across the country, calling the event a “March against Sharia.” Many were met with counterprotests claiming the ACT for America rallies presented an inaccurate understanding of Islam and amounted to fear- and hate-mongering.
In Raleigh, a large police presence marked both events and several dozen officers from the Capitol and Raleigh police departments stood between the protesters and around the square.
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Peter Boykin organized the Raleigh event on behalf of ACT for America and led much of the rally, pointing to horrific crimes such as female genital mutilation and honor killings as evidence of the danger of Islam. He and others referenced the case of a Michigan doctor who was arrested in April on charges of female genital cutting.
“We’re here to shine a light on Sharia, which is steadily creeping into our society and it is incompatible with both our Constitution and our way of life,” Boykin said.
Boykin identified himself as a gay man and spoke with rainbow-colored pride flags stuck in his jeans, as well as an American flag. He said that Sharia law allows homosexuals to be killed and oppresses women as well as men.
“We in America may not agree on every single issue or lifestyle, but we all agree every single American life is precious and we will defend them,” Boykin said.
Those in attendance were affiliated with a number of organizations, including the Oath Keepers of North Carolina and American Freedom Keepers and several claimed to be county militias. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified ACT for America and the Oath Keepers as extremist groups.
The other main speaker, Alex, who would not give his last name when asked by a reporter, calling The News & Observer “fake news,” said he was a former Muslim who immigrated to the United States from a Middle Eastern, predominantly Muslim country. Alex said the rally and his involvement as a former Muslim was to send a message that the United States won’t submit to Sharia law.
“The ultimate goal of fundamental, orthodox Islam is to make everyone submit to Sharia,” Alex said. “Well, we’re not afraid. We still have our Constitution and our rights to criticize any ideology ... we find objectionable. We are here today to stand up for human rights and send a clear message that we are here in America and will not submit. We will stand up for our rights.”
Alex said those who speak out against injustices he sees in Islam can’t do so without being labeled as intolerant.
“We are not able to criticize without being called racist, Islamaphobe, bigot or xenophobe,” he said.
Among those in the counterprotest was Mohamad AbuTaleb, the imam at the Islamic Association of Raleigh, who said the notion that Americans were under threat of Sharia law was ridiculous.
“I think it’s unfortunate that people prey on misunderstandings and misgivings to make some members of our community less welcome,” AbuTaleb said. “I think they amplify these issues out of context to suggest what does not exist, which is some kind of advocacy to enforce law and other things on America, which is factually unsubstantiated.”
AbuTaleb said Sharia is an Islamic code of ethics and morals observed by Muslims, but doesn’t take the place of laws made by a secular government.
“It is not imposed on others; it’s observed in line with the laws of the land,” AbuTaleb said. “The point of Sharia is being good to one’s parents, being good to one’s neighbors. Praying five times a day is part of the Sharia. I think what some hate groups do is to look at a historical section of a penal code, implemented in some societies in some manner, and not only is it less than 1 percent of the Sharia, it is not relevant to America and American Muslims. We’re in a secular democracy, and Muslims don’t seek to impose religious views on others no more than Jews or Christians.”
Fatema Ahmad, a member of Muslims for Social Justice, organized the counterprotest, which met for two hours on the legislative mall before marching to the Capitol. She said the group considered not organizing a response.
“Some of us said we don’t need to give them any more attention than they’ve already got,” Ahmad said. “But then we had multiple groups reach out to us that were saying we want to do something, setting up Facebook events.”
She said she expected only 10-20 to walk to the Capitol and stage a “noise protest” but that then nearly the entire assembled group made the walk. Before they started, Ahmad warned that it would be a higher level of risk than simply standing at the rally.
“For a lot of people this is their first time doing something like this, so we didn’t want them to go in and freak out, because it is scary,” Ahmad said. “I was worried about keeping our people safe, especially after what happened in Portland.”
Ahmad was referring to the murder of two men on a Portland transit car who stepped in after a man began berating two women with anti-Muslim language.
The two rallies ended peacefully, with the counterprotesters walking back to the legislative mall and the ACT for America event wrapping up more than an hour ahead of schedule.
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4577; @jdrewjackson