Image by Festival of Faiths from Louisville, United States – Islamophobia Discussion with Linda Sarsour, Ingrid Mattson, and Imam Zaid Shakir.
Among the growing list of domestic extremist organizations, one has been gaining popularity at an alarming rate: the Sovereign Citizen movement.
The FBI describes the Sovereign Citizen movement as:
anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or “sovereign” from the United States. As a result, they believe they don’t have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments, or law enforcement.
On YouTube, there are many video clips documenting encounters between law enforcement and sovereign citizens: all consisting of similar scenarios and sound bites. “Am I being detained?” “I was not driving, I was traveling!” “I am a free inhabitant and the laws of the US do not apply to me!” And so on.
YouTube is a common gateway drug to the Sovereign Citizen movement, because of the videos of second-rate lawyers advising viewers not to talk to law enforcement, not to answer any questions, to refuse consent to searches, along with other snippets of ill-researched pseudo-law. These mantras can fester in the minds of impressionable anarchists and would-be criminals, eventually leading them to believe that they are above the law because they know their rights.
Many have classified the Sovereign Citizen movement as a far-right, anti-government anarchist movement. This is correct. However, despite being as anti-state as can be, those who view the legal system through this lens and place themselves above its authority are not comprised exclusively of right-wingers.
More recently, some so-called progressives have been fomenting these misinformed and dangerous beliefs about the legal system to their audiences. But, instead of quoting to some antiquated and defunct misinterpretation of the law, they argue that the law is intrinsically racist, sexist, Islamophobic and unjust and that they should therefore have no obligation to recognize its authority.
I experienced one instance of this firsthand recently at the Colorado Muslim Society, the largest and most prominent mosque in the Denver metro area, at an event featuring guest speakers Linda Sarsour and Khalil Meek.
Sarsour is perhaps best known as a Social Justice activist and a co-organizer of the Women’s March on Washington. But her public track record paints a very different picture: she is an anti-Semite, misogynist and radical Islamist extremist, thinly veiled by the guise of an advocate of Social Justice and progressive values. This is why she was fired from her position with the Women’s March.
Having lost this far-reaching and respected platform, Sarsour continues to spread her vitriol in other venues. Though her audience has greatly diminished, behind the privacy of closed doors her divisiveness and hatred of America are on full display.
The topic of the event in Denver was “Building Legal Power for Muslims.” It was sponsored by the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA), an organization founded in the wake of 9/11 to provide support for Muslims caught up in the legal system.
But, unlike most criminal justice reform movements, Sarsour and the MLFA are not advocating for those wrongfully serving life sentences. Instead, their target audience is American Muslims convicted of any crime because, according to them, the entire American justice system is a nefarious, Islamophobic cabal whose sole cause is to wrongly accuse Muslims of terrorism-related offenses.
Introducing Sarsour was Khalil Meek, MLFA’s executive director and the former president of the Council on American Relations (CAIR). To make his case that Muslims are being deprived of their legal rights, Meek began by naming a number of Muslim charities in the United States that he suggests were wrongly identified by George W. Bush as financiers of terrorism. One them—the Holy Land Foundation—was found guilty of providing over $12 million of material support to Hamas.
Meek also defended Noor Salman, the wife of Omar Mateen, the American-born Islamic State fighter who massacred forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016. Salman was charged with assisting her husband in providing material support to ISIS and with obstruction of justice for withholding information of her husband’s violent plans from law enforcement.
Salman, they maintained, was innocent and was wrongfully imprisoned for thirteen months.
Much to the delight of the MLFA, Salman was later acquitted, despite the fact that she was fully aware of her husband’s connections to ISIS and his intention to commit violent jihad, yet she did not inform the authorities until hours after the fatal massacre, when it was too late.
MLFA has a very long tradition of defending terrorists, including agents of Hamas, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Linda Sarsour continued in the same vein as Meek, defending Brooklyn University student Fahad Hashmi, who pleaded guilty to providing material support to Al Qaeda in 2006. “I wish I had known about the Muslim Legal Fund of America when I heard about the case of Fahad Hashmi,” Sarsour commented.
This event had nothing to do with building legal power in Muslim communities. Rather, Meek and Sarsour seemed to be suggesting that Muslims in America should feel free to engage in whatever criminal activities they desire—even terrorism-related activities—and the MLFA will back them against an inherently Islamophobic criminal justice system.
Other high profile Muslim Americans have been spreading similar messages. For example, Khalid Griggs, chairman of the Islamic Circle of North America’s Council on Social Justice often laments the alleged racism of the American justice system.
Griggs often refers to his longtime friend H. Rap Brown, a.k.a. Jamil al-Amin, a Black Panther-turned-radical Muslim imam, who is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of one Georgia police officer and the attempted murder of another, in 2000. He was found guilty of all thirteen charges against him. Griggs maintains that Al-Amin is innocent and was wrongfully imprisoned by a racist justice system. Griggs’ organization even launched an online petition to the Obama administration, calling for Al-Amin’s release.
Many in the Sovereign Citizen movement claim that they are of Moorish descent. The Moorish Science Temple was an American religious organization founded by Drew Ali, which consisted of African-Americans who claimed to be descendants of the ancient Moabites. The aim of the organization was largely to allow African-Americans to reject the European identities and traditions of the slave-owners. Drew Ali commanded that adherents to the Church become Muslims, like their Moroccan ancestors. He once claimed that he believed Chicago would become a second Mecca.
Many present-day Moorish-American Sovereign Citizens believe that the laws of the United States have no bearing on them simply because they are the laws of the white captors and enslavers of their ancestors. Like Sarsour and Khalil Meek, they believe that police and law enforcement are enemies of their communities. As people like Jamil Al-Amin and organizations like the Nation of Islam show, Islamist extremism has long been a bedfellow of black separatist and anti-government movements.
In 1979, the Iranian revolution—originally orchestrated largely by young Iranian liberals, who sought to be independent of the Shah and of western influence—was hijacked by the mullahs and ayatollahs who make up the regime as we know it today. Back then, the Islamists were happy to hitch a ride from the anti-Shah movements and then—once the opportunity arose—pull the liberals’ revolution out from under them and establish a repressive theocracy.
Today, Islamists like Linda Sarsour and her acolytes are using the same tactic as the mullahs did in 1979, by establishing common cause with the progressive left, while harboring ambitions that are not remotely progressive. When these Islamists are not in a position of relative power, they are vocal about minority rights: women’s rights, gay rights, religious minority rights, and so on. But when those same Islamists find themselves in a position of power, minority rights are discarded entirely, in favor of a religious hegemony, within which those marginalized groups find themselves much worse off than before.
Although there is no direct link between extremist Islamist factions and the broader Sovereign Citizen movement, we should not take lightly the readiness of radical Islamists to express their ideas of “resisting a racist and unjust state” in actions that further their hardline and often violent religious ambitions. All it takes is some degree of common cause for radical Islamist movements to piggyback off other movements, only to reveal their true colors once the majority of the dirty work has been done.
Whether it’s someone driving down the highway with no license or registration, claiming they are just “traveling,” or a cop-killer or Al Qaeda operative, their common cause and common enemy is the same. Though the end goals are different for radical Islamists, who want to establish a global Islamic caliphate, and sovereign citizens, who wish to see the state overturned, the overlap between radical Islamism and the Sovereign Citizens movement should not be taken lightly.
Muslims across America, most of whom reject the extremism and anti-American messages coming from prominent Muslim figureheads, should be vocal in their denunciation of these messages. Those Muslims who see themselves first and foremost as Americans should work with law enforcement and each other to identify and weed out the radical terror-supporting factions from their communities. This will ensure their safety as a community, from both within and without.
Muslims in America today are only able to freely practice their religion because of the freedoms and liberties that they are granted by our constitution. For Muslims to align themselves with a movement that wishes to end such protections is just as dangerous for them as being represented by figures who support and defend convicted terrorists.