When residents of the small village of Islamberg, New York, a community of Sunni Muslims located approximately 150 miles north of Manhattan, learned that former congressional candidate Robert Doggart had been arrested for planning to burn down their mosque and assassinate inhabitants as they went about their chores, they knew it was time to go on the offensive.
As the headquarters of The Muslims of America, Inc. (TMOA), the 70-acre community of Islamberg was formed in the early 1980s by a group of Black Muslims from Brooklyn. They were seeking a calmer life, far from the noise, pollution and hustle of the city -- a place where they could farm and raise their children closer to nature. They also wanted to devote themselves, to the extent possible, to spiritual concerns. TMOA has since grown to 12 domestic and international communities in Georgia, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, and as well in Canada, Trinidad/Tobago and Venezuela.
Not surprisingly, Islamophobes -- the Center for Security Policy, the Christian Action Network, the Clarion Project, and Fox News, among the most prominent -- have decried the hamlets as possible terrorist training sites and have subjected residents to a constant barrage of verbal smears, threats and disruptions.
According to Muhammad Matthew Gardner, spokesperson for TMOA and a resident of a TMOA enclave in south-central Virginia called Ahmadabad, the Christian Action Network has been particularly relentless in targeting the settlement and trying to "find a way to make Islam the enemy." Several years ago, the network's representatives attended a meeting of his town's board of supervisors to demand -- unsuccessfully -- that a street named in honor of TMOA's spiritual leader, Sheikh Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, be rebranded. In addition, until quite recently, they surveilled residents, driving their cars past houses at five miles an hour and glaring at the men, women and children who call the area home. Gardner further reports that the Christian Action Network has also sent camera crews into Ahmadabad to film local people.
"From our founding in the 1990s, we always had an open door policy," he said. "People could just show up and be welcomed. But after [network members] barged in with cameras a few years back, and had people get out of their cars and run up to children and ask them if they were terrorists or were going to blow up buildings, we became a gated community with 24-hour security to keep trespassers away."
Other TMOA settlements tell a similar tale. The TMOA website reports that in 2013, Joshua Allan Casey was charged with unlawfully discharging a firearm and trespassing on TMOA property in York, South Carolina. And in August 2015, Glendon Scott Crawford, a 51-year-old member of the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a resident of Galway, New York, was convicted of building "an industrial strength radiation device that could kill silently without victims knowing they were getting sick," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Crawford had intended to place the machine in a truck painted with the words Halal Chicken and pump odorless poison into the Islamberg mosque while parishioners prayed. He called the contraption "Hiroshima on a light switch." After a trial in US District Court in Albany, New York, he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison; his partner in crime, Eric J. Feight, was sentenced to 97 months in jail. Feight was granted a shorter sentence in exchange for testifying against Crawford, the plot's mastermind.
When the people of Islamberg learned of Doggart's plans to firebomb their mosque and stab and shoot at random Muslims, they had had enough. They decided it was time to sue.
Their weapon: The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE).
FACE was promulgated in 1994 to protect abortion clinics -- as well as places of worship -- from intrusions and to protect patients, medical workers and congregants from harassment and intimidation.
Tahirah Amatul-Wadud is one of two attorneys representing the townspeople of Islamberg in a civil case against Doggart, his "assistant" William Tint of South Carolina, and numerous as-yet unnamed coconspirators. "We believe that we are the leaders in using FACE this way, on behalf of Muslims and in support of a mosque, but Congressman Keith Ellison [D-Minn.] wrote Attorney General Loretta Lynch a letter last year, asking her to employ the FACE Act to prosecute protesters in Arizona who stood outside Phoenix mosques with weapons," Amatul-Wadud said. "Right now we're in the process of trying to stay the civil case against Doggart and the others until a criminal case being brought by the Department of Justice [DOJ] is decided."
Amatul-Wadud is heartened that the DOJ is moving forward in its prosecution of Doggart and company. At the same time, she and co-counselor Tahirah Clark emphasize that Doggart is being handled with kid gloves. "After Doggart came to DOJ attention -- the FBI legally intercepted his social media pages after his threats were brought to their attention," Amatul-Wadud said. "Afterwards, they went before a judge to obtain permission to wiretap his phone. Then, after he was arrested, it took just four weeks for DOJ to make a plea deal with him. They let him out of jail as soon as he made bail. When we learned about the deal -- allowing him to plead guilty to making communication threats, a crime that could result in a fine and short jail term -- we called a press conference and denounced the arrangement."
Shortly thereafter, in late 2015, a senior judge rejected the plea and began readying the parties for a full-blown criminal trial. Doggart is presently on house arrest and wears an electronic monitor but was recently permitted to travel to Kentucky where he was examined by medical professionals and deemed fit to stand trial. The attorneys expect litigation to begin sometime this fall.
As for the civil part of the case, attorneys Clark and Amatul-Wadud have a straightforward goal. According to the complaint in TMOA v. Doggart, the Muslims of America want the court to order Doggart and colleagues to pay compensatory damages of at least $50,000 to TMOA. But this is about far more than money. As Clark explains, "We want what all Americans want, to live freely, raise our children in peace, and live our lives. Doggart and his allies have plotted terrible things against innocent people, to burn down our place of worship and kill us. This should not be acceptable in this country. We want the US government to go after these men in the same way they go after Muslims who are accused of terrorism."
Amatul-Wadud agrees, pointing out that Doggart was never charged with domestic terrorism. "When Muslims search the Internet for ISIS or Al Qaeda, they are usually quickly charged as terrorists. We are bringing this case to draw attention to the extreme right wing since they pose the greatest threat to the security of the US."
While disgusted at this blatant prosecutorial double-standard, both Clark and Amatul-Wadud are also critical of conservative media outlets that fan the flames of religious bigotry.
"When Fox News gets people riled up, it causes our communities to become targets of vigilante justice," says Amatul-Wadud. "Doggart is a manifestation of this. His attorney has said that Doggart became aware of TMOA and Islamberg after watching a program on Fox News in January 2015. A guy named Wayne Simmons -- who incidentally was sentenced to 33 months in prison and fined more than $175,000 last month for falsely presenting himself as a former CIA operative with expertise on terrorism -- was being interviewed. He was describing 22 alleged terrorist training camps in the US, including one in Islamberg. Doggart heard this and turned his attention on TMOA to stop what he perceived as a threat."
Mark Potok, director of publications and information at the SPLC and editor-in-chief of its Intelligence Report, calls Doggart "a classic example of the kinds of people and the kinds of crimes that are unleashed by internet conspiracists, and people like Sean Hannity, who articulate danger fantasies." When such falsehoods are endlessly repeated, they stoke fear and more than a few people have felt inspired to do something to remove the perceived menace, however bogus. Last year, Potok reports, Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of Texas went on a tear after hearing a "news report" alleging that there was an ISIS training facility across the border from San Antonio. And although every authority in Texas decried this baseless assertion, it led to a predictable spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes.
"We know people are suspicious of us," TMOA spokesperson Gardner admits, "so we've had to develop good relationships with local law enforcement personnel and the FBI. We've invited them to visit us, look around and ask questions. In my Virginia community, the local congressman and representatives of the FBI, ATF, CIA and police force came in and spent time with us. They later went to the board of supervisors and very clearly told them that they had nothing to fear. In fact, they told them that non-Muslims could learn a lot from us. This happened in 2008 and really changed things. People from the adjacent towns no longer look at us strangely. We've also been proactive and every other Saturday we go to the public library to talk to people about Islam and about our community."
The residents of Islamberg have also done considerable outreach. In fact, after American Bikers United Against Jihad staged a ride through the town in May, anti-racist activists and rank-and-file townspeople mobilized and easily outnumbered the motorcyclists. A little more than a month later, the New York State Council of Churches organized several actions during Ramadan. Several hundred lawn signs wishing Muslims a "blessed" month went up in surrounding locales, and end-of-fast Iftars brought people of different religions together to share a meal.
Meanwhile, Islamberg residents and the Jewish community in Oneonta, New York, are planning a joint program for the fall.
"Islamberg and other TMOA communities are not closed," Clark says. "Residents work outside the community and go to college or university. Our kids participate in local sports teams, although most parents either home school their children or send them to an Islamic school in a nearby town."
This engagement, adds Amatul-Wadud, has led to improved relationships with non-Muslims. In part due to the ongoing harassment, Islamberg residents have formed deep bonds with people in Hancock and nearby Binghamton and Oneonta. "There is a level of solidarity we probably would not have been able to find without people like Doggart, Tint and Sean Hannity," she laughs. But despite this "silver lining," she and Clark hope that their FACE case will be successful in beginning to confront the bigotry that has been lobbed at TMOA and those who reside within its communities.