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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Fallacies Of Peaceful Islam' Lecture Draws 150 Protesters In Missoula

Wuri, who only has one name, is a student and language teacher from Indonesia who attended the protest in Missoula Tuesday, October 11, 2016.
Nora Saks
/
Wuri, who only has one name, is a student and language teacher from Indonesia who attended the protest in Missoula Tuesday, October 11, 2016.

A month ago a group called ACT for America held an event in Kalispellthat drew 200 people on a weeknight. ACT says its mission is preserve American culture and keep the country safe. Human rights groups say ACT engages in anti-Muslim hate speech.

On Tuesday, ACT sponsored a lecture on “the fallacies of a peaceful Islam.” This time, people protesting ACT outnumbered those who came to their event, held at a Missoula hotel. About 150 people carpeted both sides of the street outside carrying signs peppered with messages of acceptance.

Kelly McGuire tried to limit what she had to say to four words. 

“My sign says Muslims are welcome here. And when I was writing it, I was trying to think of what message to convey to the people who are attending this talk about why they shouldn’t fear Muslims. But I ultimately decided I am not going to change any minds,” she said.

McGuire says she was there to represent a tolerant city.

Eamon Ormseth helped organize the protest against the talk. He represents the group SALAM, or, Standing Alongside American Muslims. 

“As long as this group and groups like them are continuing to talk about Islam in a hateful, unfair way and create a climate where hate speech and violence towards Muslims is on the rise, then we will continue to engage with that,” he said.

The lecturer ACT brought to Missoula is a Christian pastor from Spokane who was born in Iran and converted to Christianity from Islam.

Pastor Shahram Hadian’s speech blended vitriol about Islam with criticisms of current U.S. policy allowing for the resettlement of refugees from war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq.

“Tonight with an open heart, you will see a different side of a narrative, because right now we are getting a one-side narrative," he said.

Hadian spoke for more than two hours using a PowerPoint presentation as many of the almost 75 attendees from all over the state scribbled notes.

"And it is imperative that we have all the facts and we have information. The Bible says 'my people perish for a lack of knowledge,' and we are perishing as a nation. Because we have buried our heads in the sand, we don't want to know. There should be more people here tonight, right? There should be,” he said.

Shortly after Hadian began speaking, a man who said he was with the ACT organization said MTPR could no longer record the event. He allowed reporters to continue to take notes.

Gloria Roark is from Missoula, but is not a member of ACT for America. She gladly paid the $20 admittance fee to hear Haidan talk. She also dismissed criticisms from human rights organizations that say ACT uses hate speech to advance its agenda. 

“I am here to gather information and learn,” she said.

Roark, a member of the Tea Party, is also highly critical of a recent push by groups in Missoula to resettle refugees here.

The nonprofit International Rescue Committee resettled five families from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Missoula over the past few months. Its goal is to help more refugees do the same, including refugees from violent conflicts in the Middle East. 

“I think it was disrespectful not to present this to the people to vote on it, and we have no voice, but yet we pay taxes. So I think it's totally unfair,” said Roark.

Many protesters were upset about the talk’s $20 fee. They say they wanted to attend and ask questions to generate a dialogue, but didn’t feel comfortable giving money to support ACT.

Some protesters like Sara Williams said individuals did invite them inside free of charge but that they declined the offer.

“The group of us just told them that we had researched the group and we know their stated missions and goals and objectives, and we do not support it as hate speech,” she said.

Mary Poole of Soft Landing Missoula, a pro-refugee group, sat in Haidan’s audience free of charge as an invited guest. She declined to comment on the lecture, but said she was there to listen.

As the night wore on, the protesters dwindled and avoided confrontation with the talk’s attendees. But a group of about 10 remained, and moved inside the hotel lobby, hoping to chat with those inside. Some said they had limited successes. 

Kaitlyn Crnich stayed.

“If they are here to be educated, I think maybe they’ll allow us to actually have a dialogue with them. But if they're here just to hear what they already believe, I don't think we'll be able to get through to them,” she said.

The Missoula event was organized by the Lake County chapter of ACT for America. The Flathead County chapter, which was recently named chapter of the year by the national organization, is sponsoring a second talk by Hadian in Kalispell on Thursday. 

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