IS IT EDUCATING OR FEAR-MONGERING? CONTROVERSY SURROUNDS ACT!'S MESSAGE Educating or Fear-Mongering? Controversy Surrounds ACT! for America's Message DIRECTOR'S CREED Rodgers Says U.S. Won't Fight Extremism out of Political Correctness. RESEARCH SAYS Those with Knowledge of Islam Are More Likely to View It Favorably
Conner, Deirdre, The Florida Times Union
Byline: DEIRDRE CONNER
When ACT! for America's Jacksonville chapter began attacking a local Muslim scholar this year, it might have appeared to be the isolated action of a fringe group.
Far from it.
Over the past year, ACT has engaged in similar skirmishes across the country that have raised the group's profile, its membership and its revenue.
It describes itself as educating concerned citizens and exposing the threat of radical Islamic terrorists they believe are multiplying on American soil. When the local chapter protested the appointment of University of North Florida professor Parvez Ahmed to the city's Human Rights Commission, they claimed he had ties to terrorist organizations, despite his written record of condemning violence and terrorism.
But the episode is also one of many reasons ACT has come under increasing scrutiny from critics. They say that at best, the group is promoting misinformation among an American public still largely uninformed about Islam, and at worst, it is exploiting people's worst fears to propagate bigotry and hate speech against Muslims.
Its detractors include Muslim civil rights groups as well as scholars and even the Southern Poverty Law Center, all of which say the group denigrates all Muslims, not just extremists.
Despite controversy over ACT's message, the group has found more and more willing ears from the public, and, in some cases, elected officials.
ACT! for America has a full-time lobbyist in Washington and says it ended 2010 with 155,000 members nationally. In Florida, the group's membership has more than doubled since 2009, to 19,233 members, said Guy Rodgers, the group's national executive director. Those members, he said, have been key in the "squeaky wheel gets the grease" strategy.
It counts among its successes:
- The passage of a ballot initiative in Oklahoma banning courts from considering "international law or Sharia Law" in making decisions.
- The investigation and suspension of the Muslim Student Union at University of California-Irvine for disrupting a speech by Israel's ambassador to the U.S.
- Protesting the cancellation of a course called "What is Islam?" at an Oregon community college, which was to be taught by one of the group's chapter leaders.
Together, the Pensacola-based ACT! for America and its affiliated research group, American Congress for Truth, raised more than $1.6 million in 2009, according to the latest tax returns available. Rodgers attributes growing interest in the group to the rise in domestic terrorism threats from Islamic militants over the past two years.
"More and more Americans are beginning to in their consciousness wonder, what is causing this?" Rodgers said.
ACT also is concerned that the government is not thoroughly investigating places in America they feel could be breeding ground for Islamic militants, such as jihadist websites or camps they believe are paramilitary training grounds for terrorists.
So why does ACT believe the government isn't as vigilant as it should be?
"Political correctness, I think that's why," Rodgers said. "We believe that is shackling many in the government ... from tackling that issue head-on."
It was political correctness, the group believes, that led to Ahmed being appointed to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, a volunteer board.
Ahmed is the former chairman of the national board for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. ACT claims CAIR is a front for Hamas, a militant Palestinian organization designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. government. And ACT points to CAIR being named in 2007 as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in a terrorism-funding trial.
But CAIR was one of hundreds of unindicted co-conspirators. And it was never accused of wrongdoing by the government. …