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Islam, Race, And The Battle For The Flathead Valley's Soul

Philip Haney addresses a packed house at an ACT For America event in Polson Montana, Nov. 2, 2016.
Nicky Ouellet
Philip Haney addresses a packed house at an ACT For America event in Polson Montana, Nov. 2, 2016.

Montana is one of the least racially diverse states in the country, but groups in the Flathead Valley are regularly meeting to discuss race and racism.

For the past few weeks Montana Public Radio has been covering events held by a local chapter of ACT For America — a group that promotes greater scrutiny of Muslims in the name of national security. Their monthly events featuring speakers from out-of-state regularly draw scores of people.

This month ACT brought retired Border Patrol Officer Philip Haney. Speaking to 130 people at the KwaTagNuq Resort in Polson Wednesday, November 2, Haney said that America’s fear of being politically incorrect equates to willful blindness to threats from religious extremists. He said Muslims are working to implement Sharia law America.

“It’s plainly laid out. They consider Sharia law to be superior to all manmade forms of government, including the U.S. Constitution,” Haney said.

That’s the gist of most ACT For America talks: elements of Islam threaten the foundations of America, and it’s up to citizens to arm themselves with knowledge and demand their elected officials protect them by altering school curriculum or adopting legislation.

But ACT For America is not the only group trying to mobilize the valley around race issues.

Faith groups are also hosting speakers from outside the valley to lecture on the importance of diversity and tolerance. They say these events usually bring in about 30 people on Saturday nights. The speaker often delivers a sermon the next morning at one of the local churches.

The next such event, on November 12, is a workshop focused on creating multiracial unity in predominantly white communities.

Reverend Finley Campbell co-chairs the Unitarian Universalist Multiracial Unity Caucus, a group that says its mission is to foster and carry out anti-racist activities.

“I want to go to the roots of the problem, including the roots of racism,” Campbell said.

Campbell, who is from Chicago, says his goal is to dismantle institutional racism that has been created and upheld by all branches of government for decades. That process starts, he says, with frank conversations that define racism and identify it in everyday experiences.

“We now feel that we need a conversation of how can we fight against racism, and we need to keep everybody in the room,” he said.

Campbell will lead the workshop at the Unitarian Universalist church in Kalispell. It’s the second workshop he’s done, but the first to an audience that’s predominantly white.

Campbell says that’s the whole point.

“No movement can succeed in the United States of America without the active involvement of white brothers and sisters — it's just a fact of historical life,” Campbell said.

The format of the workshop is a series of conversations Campbell says will answer the who, what, when, where and why of racism, using people’s personal experiences to ultimately consider how workshop participants can use their new knowledge.

The workshop will be held Saturday, November 12, from 1:00 - 4:00 p.m. at the Glacier Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Kalispell.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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