Alaska Muslim family 'afraid' as city leader spreads unsubstantiated claims about their religious beliefs

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - An Anchorage Assembly member faces backlash after she drew attention to an unsubstantiated report which alleges that a Muslim man who lives in Big Lake has ties to terrorism.

Several dozen people accepted an online invitation from Alaska Young Democrats to attend an Assembly meeting Tuesday evening to speak out against the "untrue and Islamophobic attacks" on Gregory Jones, claims that Assembly Member Amy Demboski highlighted on social media last week.

The controversy goes back to July, when the Washington-based Clarion Project singled out Jones because he is a member of the predominantly African-American religious group Muslims of the Americas, also known as Jama'at ul-Fuqra. Clarion is a nonprofit that describes itself as dedicated to "challenging Islamic extremism" but is derided by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "anti-Muslim."

At the time the group put the electrician's name and picture on its website -- alongside allegations that he is a member of an “Islamic sect that seeks to purify Islam through violence” -- Jones had been selected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and was running for a seat in the state House. The organization describes Muslims of the Americas, MOA, is a "cultish Islamist group that is led by an extremist cleric in Pakistan and has a history of terrorism and criminal activity."

In an effort to substantiate the claim, the group points to 2003 documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation which detail the activities of a compound operated in rural Texas. Reached by phone, an FBI spokesperson would not confirm or deny the authenticity of the documents, which claim that MOA "possess(es) an infrastructure capable of planning and mounting terrorist campaigns overseas and within the U.S."

"MOA emerged in 1982 as a splinter group of Dar al-Islam which previously espoused calls for young men to join Afghan guerrillas in their fight against the Soviet Union," the document states. "Members have participated in 10 murders, one disappearance, three fire bombings, and ... two explosive bombings." It is unclear when and where the incidents allegedly occurred.

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (CTC) in 2008, however, found there is "no evidence" that Jama'ats at any time functioned as covert paramilitary training compounds.

"Even opponents of the group concede ... (MOA) has not engaged in that sort of criminal behavior since the early 1990s," Farhana Al and William Rosenau wrote in an article published by the center. "MOA’s long history of criminality makes the group a proper subject for official interest and attention.

"It is unlikely, however, that (the group) will become a terrorist threat, or serve as a U.S. platform for al-Qaeda, as some sources have alleged."

That is not the Islam Jones knows: "I have not seen any of these people that want to make any trouble in America," he said. "They come here in peace, and I haven’t seen any radicalism at all here in Alaska."

What thrust this religious group into the spotlight now is a December 1 Fox Business Network segment with Ryan Mauro, a national security analyst from Clarion. During the segment, Stuart Varney listens dotingly and without a single request for substantiating information as Mauro warns of "Islamist compounds in the U.S.," including one in Alaska that is allegedly operated by Jones.

In addition to her role representing Eagle River on the city Assembly, Demobski is a talk radio host for KVNT 92.5. She picked up on Varney's segment and shared this thought on her radio show's Facebook page on Friday: "How is it a candidate pops up in the last Alaskan election, who is a member of this group, and we are the only ones who even mentioned it (or asked him about it) here in Alaska? He seemed like a nice guy, but doesn't the group, associations, and past history deserve at least a little attention?"

Alaska Commons, a left-leaning blog, first reported on the controversy surrounding Demboski's Facebook post.

In an interview, even though she indirectly referred to Jones in her Facebook post ("a candidate"), she stands by her comments but insists her criticism is directed at MOA and not at Jones as an individual. She also questions why local news organizations did not investigate the group before Fox Business Network, while Jones was running for office. (Jones lost the state House race with just 18 percent of the vote compared to incumbent GOP Rep. Mark Neuman's 81 percent.)

Still, the response from some corners has been to try and find out where the Jones live so they can be targeted.

"Where is this at and why haven't we taken it out?" Jerry Richardson wrote on Facebook.

Another post on the social media site listed the address of a Palmer man with an Arabic name who is unrelated to the Joneses. But a series of commenters believed it was the address of a "compound."

"Nice," wrote Robert Bacod. "Who is up for some hiking and training up there?"

"I'm in," wrote Stevan Geiger.

"I was absolutely critiquing the fact that I hadn't seen any Alaska media covering this group," she said, adding that she does not consider herself anti-Islam. "The focus was on the group and saying, 'Is there any validity to this?'"

The unsubstantiated claims and subsequent public scrutiny from neighbors has rattled the family.

Big Lake has been their home since they relocated seven years ago from Holy Islamville, South Carolina, the site of one of MOA's rural compounds.

Jones has a wife, eight children aged 13 to 30, and 10 grandchildren. The family home schools. They have an organic garden, volunteer frequently in a homeless shelter, and the parents volunteer as chaplains for the fire and police departments. Jones is a Sunni and practices Sufism. He considers himself a "moderate" Muslim and says he dedicates much of his time to helping bridge gaps between the various Abrahamic religions.

"My biggest thing that I like to do is join hands with people of other faiths: visiting other churches, synagogues, places of other faiths," he said. "We have common traditions with Jews and Christians, and that's what people need to see, that there's a common thread of belief in the God of Abraham, the 10 commandments of Moses, our love for Jesus and for his mother Mary."

Even with roots in the community, Jones and his wife say they now feel unsafe and fear for their children.

"We've made a lot of good friends out in the (Mat-Su) Valley, but to be honest with you, my family is afraid now that some vigilantes, these right-wing extremists will want to take matters into their own hands and come out here and confront us," he said.

"I’m not taking away from her that she was practicing freedom of speech," Malika Jones said. "But my children who wake up in the middle of the night thinking someone is going to knock in the door, that is a problem for me."