Anti-Muslim hate groups in US surge back into spotlight

Washington — Once seemingly fading into obscurity, anti-Muslim hate groups in the United States have surged back into the spotlight in recent months, reinvigorated by the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

Many of these groups, such as Jihad Watch and ACT for America, emerged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and thrived on public fears of terrorism. But as those fears waned in recent years, so did the groups’ sway. Some disbanded, while others gravitated to other hot-button issues.

From a peak of 114 in 2017, their number dropped to a mere 34 last year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks hate groups.

In early 2023, “Islamophobia was down to a slow trickle,” SPLC senior research analyst Caleb Kieffer said.

Then came the October 7 Hamas assault on Israel, which claimed about 1,200 lives and triggered a massive Israeli military response in Gaza.

Anti-Muslim groups that had “opportunistically” seized on divisive issues, such as critical race theory and LGBTQ-inclusive policies, swung back into action.

“These anti-Muslim groups went right back to their core messaging,” Kieffer said in an interview with VOA. “They’ve been going hard on the rhetoric since October last year.”

Take ACT for America. Founded in 2007 by Brigitte Gabriel, a Lebanese American political activist and self-described “survivor of terrorism,” it grew into one of the country’s leading anti-Muslim organizations.

At its peak, the group had more than 50 active chapters, each counted as a separate hate group by the SPLC. But in recent years, most of those chapters either shut down or shifted into other areas, leaving ACT for America with just eight on SPLC’s most recent list.

According to the SPLC, ACT for America embraced a “nativist tone” before October 7, circulating, among other things, a petition calling to “Stop the Taxpayer Funded Border Invasion.”

After October 7, the group launched another petition more in line with its agenda and with a call by former U.S. President Donald Trump to stop admitting Palestinian refugees from Gaza.

Warning her followers about homegrown jihadi terror, Gabriel, a staunch Trump supporter, began peddling her bestselling anti-Muslim book, Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America, in exchange for a $25 donation.

In a video titled “Wake Up America” in October, she claimed, “Hamas has a large network of cells spreading all across America,” from Laurel, Maryland, to Tucson, Arizona.

Other groups that had also latched onto contentious issues similarly pivoted back to their core agenda.

Jihad Watch, a website run by prominent anti-Muslim figure Robert Spencer, published an article last October claiming, “We’re in a war between savages and civilization. Everything else is a detail.”

Eight days later, an affiliated political website called FrontPage Magazine ran a piece titled “It’s Islam, Stupid,” arguing that everything Hamas did “has been done by Muslims throughout history and is still being practiced today.”

FrontPage Magazine is published by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, another leading anti-Muslim group. Jihad Watch is a project of the center.

ACT for America, Jihad Watch and the David Horowitz Freedom Center are part of what experts describe as a well-funded, close-knit anti-Muslim industry, with each group playing a distinct role in the ecosystem.

With chapters across the country, Washington-based ACT for America provides the “grassroots muscle” to the movement, Kieffer said. The Center for Security Policy serves as its think tank, he said.

The SPLC-designated groups appear on other hate lists. Several SPLC-branded groups contacted by VOA condemned their designation.

In a statement to VOA, a spokesperson for ACT for America rejected the “anti-Muslim” label, saying the organization has “always welcomed and included members of all faiths,” including Muslims, and hosted Muslim keynote speakers at its conferences.

ACT for America works “on a broad range of issues, none of which are anti-Muslim,” the spokesperson said.  “As a matter of fact, since the defeat of ISIS and al-Qaida between 2018 and 2024, you didn’t hear a blurb from ACT for America about radical Islam.”

In response to a VOA query, Jihad Watch’s Spencer accused the SPLC of smearing and defaming “organizations that oppose its far-left political agenda by lumping them in with the likes of the KKK and neo-Nazis.”

In a brief interview with VOA, J. Michael Waller, a senior analyst for strategy at the Center for Security Policy, called the designation “slander,” saying it was tied to his group’s criticism of the Iranian government and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Kieffer defended the SPLC’s methodology, saying it only designates groups that “vilify” and “demonize” people because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.

The SPLC defines anti-Muslim hate groups as organizations that “broadly defame Islam and traffic in conspiracy theories of Muslims being a subversive threat to the nation.”

Not every anti-Muslim hate group has stood the test of time. In recent years, dozens of ACT for America chapters have closed.

The ACT for America spokesperson said most of its member groups have “turned into digital chapters meeting via zoom or other technology platforms.”

Last year, an anti-refugee and anti-Muslim blog called Refugee Resettlement Watch became inactive and was dropped from SPLC’s list of hate groups.

Another well-known anti-Muslim group called Understanding the Threat announced last year it was shutting down. The group was operated by a former FBI agent known for spreading anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.

Other groups have rebranded. One former ACT for America chapter now operates as AlertAmerica.News, according to SPLC. Its focus ranges from “strengthening national security” to “fighting communism and American Marxism.”

Kieffer said while the group’s central focus may have shifted away from Islamophobia, it continues to invite well-known, anti-Muslim speakers to its events.

With the war in Gaza still raging, the resurgence in Islamophobia remains unabated, Kieffer said. But that’s likely to change in the run-up to the presidential election in November.

“I imagine that we’re going to slowly see a decline again as these groups start to push other issues,” he said.

Brian Levin, a criminologist and hate crime researcher, noted that anti-Muslim hate crimes have surged in recent years, even as the number of hate groups has dwindled.

That’s because hatred has found a new home in the mainstream, rendering niche groups such as Islamophobic outfits increasingly obsolete, he said.

“The bottom line is, the way we associate to express and amplify hatred has changed,” Levin said in an interview with VOA. “Up-and-coming bigots of all sorts will find an array of xenophobic bigotry and conspiracism within general mainstream platforms.” 

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