MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to take a few minutes to talk about rallies happening today in dozens of cities across the country called the March Against Sharia. Sharia is a legal and philosophical code derived from Islamic scripture and tended to guide observant Muslims. Marchers say Sharia law and Muslim immigration is harming America.
In Syracuse, N.Y., marchers turned out to support President Donald Trump, and they were met by other demonstrators who are calling the rallies anti-Muslim bigotry. Here's what that sounded like.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) America first. America first.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Chanting) Stay. Stay. Stay.
MARTIN: North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann was at the rally in Syracuse. He's with us now. Hi, Brian.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: So, first of all, who organized these rallies and how many were there?
MANN: Well, this was a group called Act for America. It's a lobbyist organization that's had close ties to the Trump administration, and they've been active for a number of years passing state-level bills that target Islamic law and also refugee policies. They organize the protests nationwide looking at about 19 different states where they say these rallies were happening.
MARTIN: So tell us what you saw at the rally you covered in upstate New York.
MANN: Battle lines really drawn here. I saw people on both sides of the street actually wearing uniforms, a lot of military militia-style fatigues on the pro-Trump anti-Sharia side of the street. And on the other side of the street, dozens of protesters wearing face masks and carrying red and black protest flags. The organizer of the main event here was Lisa Joseph.
She describes herself as a Jewish woman who believes that Muslim Sharia practices could be a real threat to American society, though, she couldn't point to any examples of it actually being implemented in the country right now.
LISA JOSEPH: Well, not yet, but we make sure that we're guarding against it. We want to make sure that the radical Islamist ideology did not hijack the peaceful Muslims here in this country.
MARTIN: It does sound as though this concern about Sharia law was actually shorthand for something else. So what is that something else?
MANN: President Donald Trump was really the big invisible presence here today. Pro-Trump people told me that this idea of Sharia is sort of a shorthand, a symbol of where they think the country might go if more Muslim refugees and immigrants arrive. They see Donald Trump as a man who will hold the line or not. They want to support him. While she was leading the rally outside the federal building here in Syracuse, Lisa Joseph described President Trump as the country's savior.
JOSEPH: If anybody can save us from becoming a nation more torn than we already are, it's him.
MANN: Joseph told me she thinks by protesting against Sharia, she's actually supporting things like gay rights and women's rights.
MARTIN: You know, that's interesting because, you know, there are groups that keep track of groups like Act for America, groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center which tracks hate crimes and hate groups, and they suggest that Act for America is in fact an anti-Muslim group. You told us earlier that Act for America denies that. But what did the counter-protesters tell you today?
MANN: Well, there was a lot of anger. Emotions really high here today, the anti-Trump crowd arguing that this was in fact part of a broad effort to smear Muslims, an ongoing effort to raise fears about Islam. I talked to Garan Murphy Babson (ph) a gay man.
He was on his way to join the anti-Trump side with his husband. And they told me they just don't trust Donald Trump. They don't trust those conservative protesters, and they say their big fear right now in America isn't Sharia law.
GARON MURPHY-BABSON: I really don't think that these people are going to protect my rights.
MANN: So really deep divisions here and profound distrust.
MARTIN: That was Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio. He was in Syracuse, N.Y. Thanks, Brian.
MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.