Tea Party circles in East Tennessee might seem an unlikely environment for launching a Muslim organization. Will Coley, a 31-year-old Tennessee native, Muslim convert and Tea Party activist did just that.
His one person outreach project to Tea Party conservatives and libertarians grew into the first national organization countering Islamophobia on the Right.
Their message: Islam is compatible with an anti-big government or libertarian philosophy. They do not denounce sharia, but defend it within a libertarian framework.
"Our approach is different," says Coley. "We use principles within sharia like maqasid (primary goals) to show their connection with John Locke's principles of life, liberty and property."
Coley claims this strategy makes an impact.
"I have noticed everywhere we go it is about the same," says Coley. "We talk to 50 people. The five to six that pointed the group in an anti-Islam direction still hate us, but the rest start thinking, researching."
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Most notably, in 2011 Coley persuaded the majority of Tea Party organizations in East Tennessee to take a stand against Islamophobia.
After speaking with fourteen Tea Party chapters about Muslim beliefs on liberty and sharia (Islamic religious law code), twelve of them agreed to reject anti-Muslim appeals. They even publically supported a petition opposing a proposed "sharia ban" in Tennessee.
Coley's efforts drew the attention of members of the small but growing community of Muslim libertarians, especially after an initial article on the anti-Islamophobia website Loonwatch.com.
Davi Barker, 31, a California journalist, national columnist at Examiner.com and blogger for Silver Circle Underground and Daily Anarchist, first contacted Coley to do a story on him. The two quickly began working closely together. Coley did the public presentations, and Barker writing on their philosophy of Islamic libertarianism. They were soon joined by Hesham El-Meligy, 41, from New England and Ramy Osman, 35, from Virginia.
The last two had started a website called Muslims4Liberty.org, while Coley and Barker had independently started a Facebook group called Muslims For Liberty. They decided to combine forces.
"[W]e started collaboration with them and we became a family immediately," says El-Meligy.
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By 2012, Muslims4Liberty/Muslims For Liberty (M4L) has gained hundreds of followers, establishing chapters in Tennessee, California, Ohio, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., as well as in Australia, Malaysia and Pakistan.
El-Meligy, drawing on his connections and experience in the Northeast US, led M4L's work with other groups in opposing New York Police Department surveillance of American Muslims. Osman organized M4L's participation in the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms' (NCPCF) "Ramadan Gifts for Prisoners" charity drive. M4L also co-sponsored the only two national debates featuring third party presidential candidates during the 2012 election, hosted by Larry King and broadcast by C-Span and Al Jazeera.
The rapid growth and rise of M4L developed as an entirely grass-roots effort, without the support of more established Muslim or civil rights organizations.
"It started out as just me, basically," says Coley. "[G]oing to events, going to protests, educating people about Islam."
Coley began doing Tea Party outreach in Florida in 2009. He started as an ordinary Tea Party activist, concerned about economics and allegedly growing government power.
But his concern at what he saw as the emergence of Islamophobia in the Tea Party movement spurred him to act.
"I was watching the neocon takeover happen," says Coley. "Literally overnight I saw groups devoted to economics and constitutional limits turn into something else. Suddenly there were invites to see anti-Islam speakers. This crazy anti-Islam message was taking over."
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Coley responded by going to events, giving speeches and presentations, and challenging alleged anti-Muslim speakers.
The libertarian talk show host Phil Russo invited him onto his show as a guest. When Russo's co-host quit in protest, he invited Coley to become his new co-host.
Coley also found other allies. "[W]e had republican candidates serving the homeless at Masjid al-Haqq," says Coley adding that he "got A LOT of help from non-Muslims."
At this time, Coley's work was entirely solo. Other Muslims had a "you go and then tell us how it went when you get back" attitude, says Coley. "An event would be me inviting everyone I know, and then myself, my wife, and our 5 month old....500 people there, 3 Muslims."
Things changed in 2011, when Coley moved his family to his home state of Tennessee. "I wanted to raise my family here, not in big city Orlando," says Coley.
He also began doing outreach to local Tea Party groups. His original intention was to focus on educational basics about Muslim belief and practice, such as the Five Pillars and the Qur'an, as well as Muslim artwork.
The sudden announcement in the press of anti-sharia legislation in the Tennessee House and Senate changed everything.
"[We] changed the format of the Islam Awareness lectures at the library. Since sharia had become the issue, we decided to devote each week to covering a different area or aspect of sharia," says Coley. "We invited two Tea Party groups. One cursed at me, called me names and said I was Muslim and therefore they had no interest in speaking to me or hearing anything my 'lying mouth' had to say. The other invited other Tea Party groups."
"After the lectures, these Tea Party groups took our information home with them. We offered paper, pens, and wrote notes on the board. Then there was a meeting of all the East Tennessee tea party groups, fourteen in all, and they had a vote. 12/2 was the vote, to abandon attacking Islam as a tactic."
The rise of an American Muslim libertarian movement is not surprising to Anthony Gregory, 31, a leading antiwar libertarian, policy analyst and commentator.
"Islam has long had a deep respect for commerce, having been founded by a merchant, as well as many voices calling for peace and limits upon political power as demanded by natural law and natural rights," says Gregory.
Asked whether it is really worthwhile to do Muslim outreach to right of center circles, where suspicion of Islam and Muslims has been alleged to be most prominent, El-Meligy responds,
"No one is conservative on everything and no one is liberal on everything, we are but a rainbow, within ourselves and on our planet, so let's make it better for everyone."