By TIM O’CONNOR Journal & Topics Reporter
A controversial group warning about the dangers of radical Islam in America has rankled local religious organizations—who want the Des Plaines Public Library to ban the group from meeting.
Des Plaines for ACT! formed last fall. The group is a local chapter of ACT! For America. ACT! bills itself as a grassroots organization dedicated to security and terrorism by speaking out against Islamic extremists.
The Southern Poverty Law Center calls them a hate group. Their founder, Brigitte Gabriel, has been quoted as saying of Muslims, “They have no soul. They are dead set on killing and destruction.”
But for Des Plaines resident Sara Schmidt, ACT! is not about hate, it’s about information.
“We just simply try to educate the public about these terrible things going on around the world because of these militants,” the head of the local chapter said.
The group has met bi-monthly at the Des Plaines Public Library since last fall. They’ve gone largely unnoticed until this past week when members distributed fliers on vehicles parked at Metropolitan Square. The fliers promoted a screening of a speech by Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who has preached the dangers posed by Islam. The film is called “Warning to America.”
“He’s warning America about what is going on in the Netherlands that could also come here,” Schmidt said. “We are facing dangers in this country and our leaders don’t seem too engaged.”
The event begins at 1 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday), though Schmidt has booked the meeting room starting at 12:30 p.m.
Schmidt said her concerns did not extend to those Muslims who come to America seeking a better life. Still, she is worried about the growing number of mosques in the country and the influence of fundamentalist teachings.
She defined radical Muslims as: “People who want to destroy our way of life, who want to take over our country and destroy Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, every other religion and make us all Islam. They don’t have the right to do that and they have devious ways to do that.”
She pointed to the lawsuit filed by the American Islamic Center last year after the Des Plaines City Council rejected their plan to build a community center at 1645 Birchwood Ave. The building was denied over zoning and safety issues because of truck traffic in the area.
“That’s the way they do it,” Schmidt said of the lawsuit. “That’s the way they work. That’s the way they get what they want.”
The fliers drew the attention of the Islamic Community Center of Des Plaines and the Council on American Islamic Relations Chicago (CAIR). Both groups have asked the library to stop the event.
“I think they should cancel it,” said Fazal Mahmood, board president of the Islamic Community Center of Des Plaines. He cited concerns among Des Plaines’ large Muslim community that the meeting would incite hate.
“I understand and respect freedom of speech, but where do you stop?” he said.
Mahmood questioned whether it was appropriate for the library to allow the event when the facility is paid for through tax dollars.
Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of CAIR, agreed the library was not the right place for ACT! to meet.
“It’s a safe haven for knowledge, education, and enlightenment,” he said. “That place is now being tarnished.”
Rehab said ACT! has a right to speak, but worried the library was endorsing the message by hosting the event. He believed there should be limits on freedom of speech when it harms or incites someone else.
“I’m just practicing common sense not to let hate spark in our community.”
Rehab has been planning to move to Des Plaines and is concerned the city’s image will be damaged by groups like ACT!.
But the library doesn’t have a choice in whether Des Plaines for ACT! may use the facility. Court rulings have again and again prohibited government entities—like libraries—from prohibiting groups based on the content of their message. The most relevant ruling comes from a United States Northern District of Mississippi Court decision in the 1988 case of Concerned Women For America Education and Legal Defense Foundation, Inc., v. Lafayette County and Oxford Public Library. In that decision, the court held the library could not deny a religious group from using the building’s auditorium because they had allowed other non-political and non-religious organizations to do so and thus created a public forum. By making a determination based on content, the library had violated Concern Women’s First Amendment rights.
Locally, in 2001, the Schaumburg Township District Library was forced to settle a lawsuit after denying white supremacist Matt Hale’s request to speak at their building. Hale sued in federal court and the library eventually allowed him to hold an event.
Because of those First Amendment issues, the Des Plaines library said they would allow ACT! to screen the film.
“Personally, leadership at DPPL finds the materials being shared by ACT! for Des Plaines reprehensible, bigoted and Islamaphobic and we in no way agree with the hateful sentiments they express,” Library Director Holly Sorensen said in a statement. “But, by law and the First Amendment, DPPL cannot deny usage of public meeting rooms to a community organization because we personally do not agree.
“It is our hope the controversy this event generates will expose the areas within our community where bigotry and racism exist and we fully support our Islamic community’s efforts to peacefully fight this prejudice.”
Schmidt said requests to cancel her meeting put freedom of speech rights in danger.
“We have to be able to speak up or we’ve lost it,” she said.
With the event likely to go on, Mahmood said the Islamic Community Center of Des Plaines would plan a protest of ACT! at the library Saturday. Rehab said CAIR would help by advising the protestors how to represent their position in the most fruitful manner.
“Ultimately, we’ll use our own freedom of speech to counter hate speech,” Rehab said.