By David DeKok
HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - About two dozen rallies were planned across the United States on Saturday to denounce sharia law, the Islamic legal and moral code that organizers say poses a threat to American freedoms but critics believe is camouflage for anti-Muslims hatred.
ACT for America, a self-described grassroots organization focusing on national security issues, has scheduled protests in New York, Chicago, Boston, Denver and Seattle, as well as many smaller cities. Hundreds of people pledged on social media to attend.
At a rally on the steps of the Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg, the atmosphere was tense.
Barricades and a heavy police presence, including officers mounted on horses, separated about 60 anti-sharia demonstrators from an equal number of counter-protesters, most of them in black face masks and hoods. Nearly dozen men carrying sidearms belonging to the anti-government Oath Keepers were on hand, invited by ACT to provide security.
On its website, ACT described sharia, which covers many aspects of Muslim life including religious obligations and financial dealings, as incompatible with human rights. It said sharia justifies the oppression of women and homosexuality, and advocate female genital mutilation.
But critics say the organization vilifies Muslims and has repeatedly equated Islam with extremism. In their view, the rallies are part of a wave of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by President Donald Trump, who called for an outright ban on Muslims entering the country during his election campaign.
A representative for ACT for America could not be reached for comment.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country's largest Muslim advocacy group, urged Americans to participate in one of several local educational events being organized in "a peaceful challenge to Saturday's hate rallies."
It also warned Muslims to take extra precautions against potential violence over the weekend.
Oath Keepers said on its website that it was "answering the call to defend free speech against those who would use terrorist violence or the threat of violence to shut it down."
It describes itself as a "nonpartisan association of current and former military, police, and first responders" sworn to defend the U.S. Constitution. The Southern Poverty Law Center says it is the "one of the largest radical antigovernment group in the United States," organized around a "set of baseless conspiracy theories."
Refuse Fascism, a coalition of activists advocating confrontational tactics to oppose what it calls the Trump "regime," said it would show up at the rallies "to counter the xenophobic hatred and lies, defy intimidation and drown it out.”
It said anti-sharia organizers were actually "against all Muslims" and were creating a climate in which extremists felt emboldened to carry out attacks on Muslims.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Frank McGurty in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Marguerita Choy)