New York The proposed mosque near ground zero drew hundreds of fever-pitch demonstrators Sunday, with opponents carrying signs associating Islam with blood, supporters shouting, “Say no to racist fear!” and American flags waving on both sides.
The two leaders of the construction project, meanwhile, defended their plans, though one suggested that organizers might eventually be willing to discuss an alternative site. The other, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, said during a Middle East trip that the attention generated by the project is actually positive and that he hopes it will bring greater understanding.
Around the corner from the cordoned-off old building that is to become a 13-story Islamic community center and mosque, police separated the two groups of demonstrators. There were no reports of physical clashes but there were some nose-to-nose confrontations, including a man and a woman screaming at each other across a barricade under a steady rain.
Opponents of the $100 million project two blocks from the World Trade Center site appeared to outnumber supporters. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” blared over loudspeakers as mosque opponents chanted, “No mosque, no way!”
Signs hoisted by dozens of protesters standing behind police barricades read “SHARIA” — using dripping, blood-red letters to describe Islam’s Shariah law, which governs the behavior of Muslims.
Steve Ayling, a 40-year-old Brooklyn plumber who carried his sign to a dry spot by an office building, said the people behind the mosque project are “the same people who took down the twin towers.”
Opponents demand that the mosque be moved farther from the site where more than 2,700 people were killed on Sept. 11, 2001. “They should put it in the Middle East,” Ayling said.
On a nearby sidewalk, police chased away a group that unfurled a banner with images of beating, stoning and other torture they said was committed by those who followed Islamic law.
A mannequin wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress, was mounted on one of two mock missiles that were part of an anti-mosque installation. One missile was inscribed with the words: “Again? Freedom Targeted by Religion”; the other with “Obama: With a middle name Hussein. We understand. Bloomberg: What is your excuse?”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has fiercely defended plans for the proposed mosque, saying that the right “to practice your religion was one of the real reasons America was founded.”
The mosque project is being led by Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, who insist the center will promote moderate Islam. The dispute has sparked a national debate on religious freedom and American values and is becoming an issue on the campaign trail ahead of the midterm elections. Republicans have been critical of President Barack Obama’s stance: He has said the Muslims have the right to build the center at the site but has not commented on whether he thinks they should.