Anti-Sharia, peace rally organizers have same goal: safety
“Wash Away the Hate!”, an event co-organized by Women’s March Michigan and the Islamic Center of East Lansing among others, took place at the state Capitol Building that afternoon. Attendees were encouraged to wear white and bring cleaning supplies to assist in cleaning the capitol steps, Phoebe Hopps, founder of Women’s March Michigan, said. The act was symbolic of the group’s efforts to “wash away” hatred and bigotry around the state, particularly in the form of Islamophobia.
The March Against Sharia was held earlier that day along the 6200 block of South Pennsylvania.
Event organizer Stephanie Rowe said the protesters were gathering to educate others on the harmful teachings of Sharia law that she said lead to abuse of Muslim women and children. She specifically spoke out against physical abuse, female genital mutilation, child brides, honor killings and a lack of rights for women in divorce settlements.
It’s this second event which grabbed more headlines over the weekend — not surprising considering their hired security consisted of militiamen in full military gear. Police were also present to keep the peace as Rowe and company were met by a group of counter-protesters.
The anti-Sharia march was organized in partnership with ACT for America, a nonpartisan grassroots organization boasting 500,000 members. Spokesperson Scott Presler said the event was a defense of the U.S. Constitution against the growing influence of Sharia.
Both the march and the rally claim to combat violations of human rights. All involved parties The State News spoke with — Presler, Hopps, Rowe and Islamic Center of East Lansing secretary Hauwa Abbas — expressed concern for the safety of others.
For Presler and Rowe, that concern was for the women and children living under what they saw Sharia as — a penal system that advocated for their abuse. For Abbas and Hopps, that concern was for Muslims in the community who felt scared and unwelcome in their own country.
While there are a number of significant disagreements between the two causes, both claim to work for the same cause — the safety of Muslims in the community.
However, despite this professed shared motivation, little effort had been made to engage in discussion across the aisle. The Islamic Center was the only group that attempted to reach out to the other party, with a Sharia law educational session held one week prior to the two marches — and even that attempt was indirect. Debate was nonexistent.
That’s in spite of all four parties’ claimed willingness to engage in dialogue.
The Islamic Center of East Lansing feels powerless to start the conversation, Abbas said. She wishes she knew how to bridge the divide.
“Ok, so we had the Sharia law event,” Abbas said. “But to be honest, it’s like preaching to the choir because only people who actually care about our causes are going to show up.
"There’s only so much we can do.”
Abbas said she wishes people would come to real Muslims with their questions, instead of going to the internet for their information.
But any desires for discussion might be squelched by both groups’ fear for their own safety.
The militiamen came to protect the Anti-Sharia marchers from anti-protesters, Rowe said, referencing an incident at a Berkeley rally in which a man struck a supporter of President Donald Trump in the head with a U-lock. A capturing the moment has been viewed 500,000 times.
The presence of those same militiamen frightened members of the Muslim community, Abbas said.
When told before the march took place that Muslims in the vicinity of the chosen site feared for their lives, Rowe’s voice took on a noticeably softer tone.
“White supremacy and all of that, that has nothing to do with any of this,” Rowe said. “I’m not about making anybody afraid. ... I would definitely want them to know that straight, straight from the beginning.”
Hopps said many organizations around the nation were failing to come to the table and deliberate, but that she was willing to have those difficult conversations to bridge the divide in a peaceful manner. She also recognized that the two sides have more in common than many think.
“It’s interesting how we have similar goals, but because of the political climate it seems like we’re so far apart,” Hopps said. “It’s ironic and horrible at the same time.”
Rowe had been planning another anti-Sharia event towards the end of the summer, but said she is considering organizing a discussion, to which she would invite a number of groups, instead.
She also said that she welcomed feedback and felt the need to do more digging in order to assess whether she was doing the right thing in the long run. That means engaging in conversations and considering different approaches.
“I don’t have a problem changing,” Rowe said.