LANCASTER, New Hampshire — Thousands of Libertarians will share a Ramadan meal of halal Indian food in the forests of New Hampshire this week at PorcFest. And they’re helping to spread interfaith understanding and end Islamophobia in the process.
PorcFest, short for Porcupine Freedom Festival, is an annual, week-long gathering of Libertarians and their allies at a campground, with an expected attendance of over 1,500. The Washington Post compared the 2014 PorcFest to Burning Man, the massive art and music festival held annually in the Nevada desert, but with the addition of libertarian politics and openly carried guns.
“Want to wear a loincloth and sell moonshine, shop at an unregulated market that accepts Bitcoin and silver, or listen to a seminar called ‘How the Collapse of the State is Inevitable’?” wrote the Post’s Ben Terris last year. “Then this is the place for you.”
For the third year, one of the groups at PorcFest will be Muslims For Liberty, an international nonprofit devoted to furthering libertarian values and interfaith understanding within the movement. In their first year, Muslims For Liberty opened a small booth at the festival to answer questions. The following year they hosted Islamic and interfaith seminars and served hundreds of plates of free food. They’ve doubled their efforts this year and, with all of PorcFest 2015 taking place during the Ramadan month of daytime fasting, they’ll be serving hundreds of nighttime meals to festival attendees.
With anti-Muslim incidents on the rise in recent months, from an arson at a Texas Muslim community center to the recent armed anti-Muslim protest outside a mosque in Arizona and Pamela Gellar’s “Draw Mohammed” day in Garland, Texas, that resulted in a gun battle, Muslims For Liberty’s outreach is more necessary than ever.
MintPress News spoke with Muslims For Liberty’s founder, Will Coley, last week before he set out on his drive from Tennessee to New Hampshire.
Muslims For Liberty and the Tea Party
Coley formerly co-hosted Tea Party Patriots Live, the first U.S. radio broadcast devoted to the movement. He says the modern tea party began in 2009 as a grassroots movement with a focus on the corruption of democracy in America.
“The tea party, when it started out, was basically a libertarian movement,” Coley explained. “They were tired of the bailouts, they were tired of big governments, they were tired of over-taxation. They were tired of war. The original message had no social conservatism in it.”
That changed in 2010, according to Coley, when conservative Republican pundits and Fox News commentators joined the movement. “Glenn Beck dubbed himself the king of the tea party,” he said. “Sarah Palin dubbed herself queen of the tea party, and that was the end of the tea party’s libertarian streak.”
While some tea party groups and individual activists struggled to keep the message alive, they were outnumbered and outspent, and Coley describes how the “social conservative, moral majority and religious right crowd took over the movement in a month.”
Coley is openly dismissive of the message he perceives coming from the modern tea party, which he sees as unwelcoming to both his faith and his brand of conservatism: “Taxes are bad if they’re paying for welfare or programs we don’t like, but taxes are still good as long as we’re funding Israel and bombing the hell out of every country with brown people.”
As an early participant in the tea party, Coley gave lectures on the true meaning of Islam’s “Sharia law” to tea party groups erroneously concerned by right-wing rumors that Muslims want to impose this religious law over all Americans. Over time, though, his message became less welcome.
“I saw tea party groups that were openly friendly to Muslims start having speakers like ACT! For America court them and court their membership. The next thing you know, their membership and these tea party groups become one and the same,” he explained.
ACT! For America is a right-wing group which claims that America is under attack by Muslims and their culture. Coley felt unwelcome in the tea party and unwanted by mainstream Muslim lobbying groups, which almost universally support the Democratic Party, inspiring the formation of Muslims For Liberty in 2010.
Coley’s activism led to what Loonwatch, a site that tracks Islamophobic rhetoric and right-wing conspiracy theories, described as a 2011 “civil war” over Tennessee’s proposed “Sharia Ban,” with Republican operatives embarrassed when the local tea party, educated by Coley’s lobbying and classes, came out in opposition. “We do not feel that peaceful gatherings by ourselves, our friends, or neighbors is the problem, nor do we feel that increased surveillance by the State of Tennessee and intrusion into its citizens’ lives is the answer. The federal government already does far too much of that,” wrote the Knoxville Tea Party in a statement in April 2011.
Islam and voluntaryism
For Coley, libertarian values and Muslim beliefs are closely aligned, especially within a school of libertarian philosophy called voluntaryism. The term originated with 19th century opponents of mandatory public education, but its popularity returned thanks to a modern movement that began in the late 20th century. Under voluntaryism, all forms of human association would be voluntary, with people free to form groups or enclaves based on shared values and ethics, but no one would be coerced by government-based force to participate.
During his conversation with MintPress, Coley compared the ethics of voluntaryism to the Compact of Medina, the ruling constitution created by the Prophet Muhammad to govern Medina and its surrounding Muslim empire during the first years of the faith, during the medieval era.
“A lot of things that are advocated by voluntaryism are perfectly in line, if not exactly the same as, the ideas which were advocated and practiced in Medina. Competing courts with decentralized leadership where under the Compact of Medina the Christians ruled among the Christians, judged among the Christians, the Muslims among the Muslims, the Pagans among the Pagans,” Coley said.
Each group was allowed to keep their own customs, he explained, such as Christians being allowed to drink alcohol even though Muslims were forbidden. “That’s voluntaryism in action. The voluntaryist doesn’t have a problem with communism, or constitutionalism, or republicanism, he just doesn’t want to have to fund them at the point of a gun,” Coley said.
The third of five “universal maxims” which govern Muslim law is the removal of hardship — which according to Coley, translates into letting others live by their own preferred lifestyle and culture.
Coley offered gay and lesbian marriage as an example: “Muslims shouldn’t have an opinion,” he said. “It’s not our way, it’s not our community. The culture here, by and large, based on polling, is completely accepting of it. So it’s none of our business, so long as there’s not a point where they try to force Muslims to perform gay marriages at their mosques.”
Coley added that in years of research, he’s been unable to find any instance where Muhammad punished followers for not paying taxes.
Changing minds through food
Coley and Muslims For Liberty see feeding people as a key way to spread their message, and the Muslim teachings of the Sunnah, orally transmitted guidance that is meant to accompany the Quran, seem to support this idea. Muslims For Liberty’s Virginia Coordinator, Ramy Osman, wrote on June 7:
“Spreading food and peace is a prophetic teaching that Muslims take pride and comfort in. As was reported in the book Riyad-us Saliheen: ‘A man once asked the Messenger of God (ﷺ): “Which act in Islam is the best”’ He (ﷺ) replied, “To give others food to eat. And to greet with peace those who you know, and those who you don’t know.”’”
PorcFest 2015 will be the second and largest effort by Muslims For Liberty to simultaneously feed and educate their growing circle of friends at the event.
“This year we raised over $3,000 and we plan to go back and offer over 3,000 meals,” Coley said. Attendance at PorcFest grows every day, so he expects to serve 750 free meals on just the final Sunday of the event. Muslims For Liberty will serve Indian food, a cuisine Coley honed with help from his mother-in-law, a native of India.
The outreach seems to be working. He recounted an incident during the question and answer segment of a presentation he gave at PorcFest 2014 called “Liberty Brings Us Together,” when a late arrival interrupted to ask about his belief that mainstream Muslims had celebrated the 9/11 attacks.
“I’d never seen the guy before but he took the microphone and started telling stories about how Muslims had held a parade on his street on September 11,” Coley recounted. “He was immediately shouted down: ‘Shut up! Go home!’ The audience was shouting him down!”
After the presentation, attendees confronted the man and helped change his mind. “It wasn’t like a fight,” Coley explained. “He had a breakthrough.”
But beyond PorcFest, Coley credits Muslims For Liberty with shifting Libertarians away from Islamophobia on a national basis. There’s a growing awareness in the movement that extremist terrorists don’t represent everyday Muslims, and as a consequence, Islamophobes aren’t welcome at national libertarian events.
“The anti-Muslim voice isn’t there anymore,” Coley said. Islamophobic pundits are now often forced to rent venues outside of mainstream conservative events. “We’ve spent the last three years, specifically, pushing them out. They don’t even come out and table because they know no one is interested in hearing what they have to say.”
Watch “Ramadan at Porcfest XI” for footage from last year: