The Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas last Sunday has generated a lot of conversation about free speech, hate speech, and national security. It’s also generated a lot of inflated claims, especially on the part of the event’s organizers who represent their group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, as a prominent and nationally recognized champion of American values.
For two American bloggers that provoke national controversies by antagonizing Muslims, that’s a fairly charitable self-characterization. It’s led us to wonder what similar groups actually look like under the hood.
What we see is that they’re not bona fide advocacy organizations, but rather small, pop-up outfits that serve to elevate a few key people, legitimize their attacks on Muslims, and in some cases, line their pockets.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative
Everyone can get on board with “American Freedom Defense,” right? It’s a name that sounds nobly patriotic, but its founders are only concerned with one type of American liberty: freedom from “Islamic supremacism.”
The group behind the Muhammad cartoon controversy is a two-person show whose primary activity is blogging. Together, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer devote 15 hours a week to the organization, and pulled in a combined $240,000 in pay in 2013. Their three board members report that they each devote just 5 hours a week to AFDI’s work.
ACT! for America
The group ACT! for America had its fifteen minutes of fame in the summer of 2014 when its founder, Hanah Kahwagi Tudor, who goes by the pseudonym Brigitte Gabriel, berated a young Muslim activist at a Heritage Foundation panel. Gabriel’s group, ACT!, lobbies state legislatures to pass anti-Sharia laws. It describes itself as “the nation’s largest non-profit, non-partisan, grassroots organization devoted to promoting national security and defeating terrorism,” and boasts 280,000 members in 890 chapters across the world.
But what does that “grassroots” advocacy look like? We can see from the ACT! website that the bar to become a chapter is strikingly low. Any visitor can start a chapter by submitting an email request. And participation from these chapters is inconsistent, if not non-existent. The Akron, Ohio chapter, for instance, doesn’t have a regular meeting place and in addition to its WordPress blog URL, a user provides his home telephone number as a contact.
ACT! lists four board members and four staff members, only two of which (Guy Rodgers and Kelly Cook) report compensation from the organization. Their combined salaries are $281,206.00. Brigitte Gabriel, the face of the group, reported no compensation in 2013 (she reported $223K in 2012), though a private consulting firm that she operates received $90,000 in consulting fees from ACT!
American Islamic Forum for Democracy
Rep. Peter King’s star Muslim witness in the Muslim “radicalization” hearings in Congress, Zuhdi Jasser, describes his group, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) as “the most prominent American Muslim organization directly confronting the ideologies of political Islam and openly countering the common belief that the Muslim faith is inextricably rooted to the concept of the Islamic State (Islamism).”
This “most prominent group” has one staff member — himself — and $122,000 in assets. AIFD has three “directors” on the books, none of whom log any hours of work.
Jasser, a medical doctor by day, made $8,000 from his group in 2013 (down from $44,000 in 2012). It’s not clear what Jasser does to promote democracy, exactly. AIFD’s Public Engagement Project simply consists of Jasser’s speaking engagements at outlets like Fox News; by 2012 he had 61 television speaking opportunities and 100 radio interviews. Jasser’s other programs are defunct, or they were never initiated. The Muslim Liberty Project’s Facebook page hasn’t been updated since 2012, after only hosting one youth retreat in 2011. He is still “drafting a plan of action” for his Muslim Leadership Coalition. And despite his constant calls for the need for Islamic “reform,” his website’s Islamic Reform page is still “under construction.”
In 2014, Jasser said that the “quiet majority” of American Muslims “hate America.” He’s also suggested that American Muslim military personnel should not be allowed to have beards, and that American Muslim school kids who recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic will encourage them to “join ISIS.”
The United West & United American Committee
A final example of pop-up non-profits is that of Florida-based activist, Tom Trento, whose longtime involvement in conservative Christian activism led him to create an ever-evolving web of security groups that take aim at Islam. Trento was largely responsible for the mass circulation of the film Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West at the the 2008 Republican national convention. The year before, in 2007, he changed the name of his Colorado-based group, Christian Research Associates to Security Research Associates. That group operates under the name “The United West” and describes its founder, Trento, as “one of the leading academic activists in the United States.” Its Facebook page says:
“It is the ONLY tax-exempt organization in the world devoted to uncovering, exposing and dismantling the enemy operation with strategic academic, confrontational, resistance focused activism.”
Security Research Associates received more than $450,000 in contributions and grants in 2013, and paid its three staff members nothing. It reported $442,000 in expenses that Trento describes as “counter terrorist educational conferences and campaigns.” Trento, nor his colleagues, are compensated.
2013 tax documents show that Trento and his two colleagues at Security Research Associates are also listed as the directors of a group called the United American Committee.
In 2006, that group, whose website now loads in Japanese, hosted a nationwide rally against “Islamofacism,” an event which was promoted by Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller. In 2008 the group erected a 48-foot billboard outside of Detroit, which read “Sharia Law Threatens America.”
This glimpse of a few of the activist groups pumping anti-Muslim rhetoric into the American mainstream shows that while they claim to be advocates of virtuous American ideals, what they’re really doing is promoting is themselves.