Militant Right-Wing Activists Protest Religious Community With Peaceful History

Jul 16, 2017
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Yesterday in upstate New York, anti-Muslim groups staged a rally outside a small religious community called Islamberg. State police formed a protective cordon outside the settlement's gates to prevent a confrontation. Now, Islamberg has existed since the 1980s without any history of violence or criminal activity, but the community has become a fixation for hate groups and the right-wing media, who say without evidence that it is being used as a terrorist training camp. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: On a dusty dirt road in the Western foothills of the Catskill Mountains, birds chatter in the trees. And faintly in the distance, you can hear the Muslim call to prayer. This is Islamberg, a deeply private community of mostly African-American Muslim families established in the 1980s. About 200 people live here. Like a lot of religious communities in America, it was conceived as a place for families to live and worship apart from mainstream society. The residents of Islamberg declined repeated requests to talk to NPR. They say they just prefer to be left alone. Neighbors on this country road say after so many decades, the people of Islamberg are completely accepted.

TONY SMITH: No, they've always been pretty friendly with us.

MANN: Tony Smith has lived next door to Islamberg for 15 years.

SMITH: They wave when they go by. And I have no problems with them. They don't have no problems with me.

MANN: Jessica Veccione is a local photographer who's been inside Islamberg over the years. She says the place feels like a normal small mountain town that just happens to have a mosque.

JESSICA VECCIONE: The people here are families that work and live in the community with children. There are lots of children.

MANN: But this portrait of Islamberg - a peaceful community of devout Muslims - is rejected by many far-right activists across the country. A 10-minute drive from Islamberg, dozens of people gathered before the rally Saturday to prepare, many of them wearing militia-style uniforms, fatigues, flak jackets with anti-Muslim slogans and symbols.

LISA JOSEPH: We will not tolerate ISIS training camps, militant-style training camps, radicalized training camps.

MANN: Lisa Joseph from Syracuse stands next to Joseph Laury, who came all the way from Maine for this rally. They believe Islamberg is a kind of beachhead for Muslim jihadists.

JOSEPH LAURY: There's all kinds of videos being shown on Fox News. It's all over the Internet.

MANN: In recent years, right-wing media sites like Alex Jones' InfoWars, which regularly promotes conspiracy theories, have turned more of their attention to Islamberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEX JONES: Potential radical jihadist training camps within the United States. I mean, we're talking right here in our own backyards.

MANN: In 2015, a man from Tennessee was caught preparing to attack Islamberg. Robert Doggart schemed to burn down the mosque here and the children's school. Last month, he was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison for civil rights violations and for trying to recruit people to help him commit arson. On Saturday, there was no threat of that kind of violence. The activist's cars and motorcycles rumbled past the gate of Islamberg and passed dozens of state police standing guard. One of the community's leaders speaking on background told NPR that this kind of display is terrifying to the people inside. State Police Captain Scott Heggelke says it's also based on Internet hokum.

SCOTT HEGGELKE: There is no hint of truth to that.

MANN: Heggelke says his investigators have looked repeatedly at claims and theories about Islamberg - none turned out to be real.

HEGGELKE: We have an ongoing open relationship with the community that's located in Islamberg.

MANN: State and federal authorities do maintain a heightened presence here. They keep a close watch on Islamberg and go inside regularly. Not because it's a threat, they say, but because it's faced serious threats of violence in the past. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.