Crowds face off at Ground Zero
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 7:03 PM
NEW YORK - A day that began with quiet rituals of mourning--church bells and long moments of silence--ended with noisy squabbling Saturday, as supporters and opponents of a proposed Islamic cultural center faced off in lower Manhattan.
The ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which killed more than 2,700 people and altered this swaggering city's skyline, began like the rest. There was a ceremony near Ground Zero, at which family members and workers helping build a 9/11 memorial took turns reading the names of the city's dead.
But, by mid-afternoon, the names had been read, and the action shifted a few blocks to the north. There, the day's solemn remembrances were replaced by two suspicious camps chanting slogans.
At 3 p.m., several hundred protestors had gathered into two city blocks near the proposed Park 51 Islamic Center, waving American flags and chanting "U.S.A. U.S.A." and "No Mosque." The "Rally of Remembrance" event featured speeches from conservative figures such as former UN Ambassador John Bolton--who spoke via video--and keynote speaker Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who has attacked Islam.
"American, New York and sharia are incompatible in New York," Wilders said, mentioning sharia, or Islamic religious law. "New York stands for openness and tolerance. Suppose there was a place and it only allowed people of one persuasion within its walls. It would not be New York. It would be Mecca."
Another speaker exhorted the Islamic Center's Imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, to abandon plans to build the center. "Imam Rauf, tear up those plans!"
Around the same time, a crowd of about 300 supporters of the project marched to the building, about two blocks away from the former World Trade Center site. Chanting "Unity Now," the marchers -- a coalition of many liberal and civil rights groups -- held signs that said "U.S. Tolerates All Religions" and "No to Racism and Anti-Muslim Bigotry."
Larry Holmes, 57, a rally organizer and New York City resident, said that the marchers wanted to voice their concern about what he called the rise in Islamophobia in this country.
"This is part of a larger effort to counter any effort to scapegoat groups of Americans, whether they be Muslims or immigrants in Arizona," he said.
A large group from Albany's Muslim community came on a bus from the state capital, including Abdul Mohammad, a Yemeni American who is 40 and, he said, disabled.
"I came because we have a right to build a mosque where we want," he said. "This Islamic Center is peaceful -- and meant for the people, everyone in the community."
As the afternoon sun beat down, tempers heated up. Operation Save America's allotted time to use amplifiers began, and thus the voice of Rusty Lee Thomas, a bald man in a black suit and black cowboy boots who is the group's assistant director, reverberated between the canyon of buildings.