The debate over the Cordoba House continued Sunday, as both supporters and opponents took their arguments to the streets near Ground Zero.
While fewer than anticipated showed up to the much-publicized demonstration against the Islamic center, the crowd was no less energetic. More than a thousand gathered at Park Place and W. Broadway to rally around a series of speakers in opposition to the project.
Among the crowd were firemen, construction workers, veterans, and 9/11 families. Many carried homemade signs, the most popular of which was a white sign with “Sharia” written in bleeding red letters. The audience frequently broke out in chants of “No Mosque!” and “Obama Must Go!”
One man could be heard shouting “Bomb Mecca!” And another, “Know who’s killing you!”
Several expressed disappointment over the rainy weather, blaming it for the smaller than expected turnout. One woman, a 40-year-old legal secretary who asked not be named for fear of verbal retribution, said she wished more had turned up for the event.
“It takes a lot of courage to come to something like this in a city like New York,” she said. “Everyone here is going to be considered racist, bigoted, ignorant, not multi-cultural. It takes a lot of courage to stand up.”
Susan Kone, a Republican candidate running for New York’s 8th congressional district, is campaigning on the issue. “This isn’t hate speech. This is sensitivity speech,” she told TheDC. “These are passionate pleas for respect and understanding. We should work together and make Ground Zero a common ground, not a battleground.”
Hundreds of supporters of the project held demonstrations a block away. A heavy police presence kept the two groups separated, but several disputes managed to break out in the space between.
One man, carrying a sign that said, “Religious tolerance is what makes America great,” was escorted away from the main demonstration after breaking into an argument with an opponent of the center. Shouting matches continued to erupt on the sidelines of the rally, causing more police intervention throughout the event.
Others were there to simply observe. Safwon Mujahid, a Muslim from New York, stood across the street from the rally, where he occasionally engaged in peaceful arguments when challenged by protesters. He said those who oppose the Islamic center and mosque are reacting more from emotions than logic.
“The law is the law. That means that every time we feel strongly about something, we can’t just change the law according to our feelings. It’s not even an argument to me,” Mujahid said. “You can’t make something lawful that is unlawful. You can’t make something unlawful that is lawful.”
Debra Burlingame, who lost her brother Charles on American Airlines Flight 77, was an organizer of the event and spoke on stage. While many opponents have claimed they’re against the location—not the existence—of the Islamic center, Burlingame drew widespread applause Sunday when saying the Cordoba House shouldn’t be built at all.
“One of the most irritating questions I am asked again and again and again by the media is this one: ‘How far is far enough away? Two blocks? Four blocks? Ten blocks?’ When it comes to this imam, there isn’t a place far enough,” Burlingame said.
The crowd again grew charged when Burlingame spoke out against the project’s leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who’s currently away in the Middle East on a lecture tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
“We now know we’re after you, Imam Rauf. We are going to come get you,” Burlingame said. “We are going to expose you for what you are.”
The audience became most ignited whenever speakers mentioned Imam Rauf, President Barack Obama, or New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Crowd members replied with boo’s and shouts of the word “terrorist.”
Narain Kataria, founder of the Indian American Intellectual Forum, joined 14 other Hindus at the event. Kataria said he was a survivor of the 1947 partition of India, in which the sovereign states of India and Pakistan were created. Kataria, now an American citizen, says he fears Muslims will try to overrun the U.S. like he says they did in parts of India.
“They will destroy this country. They will convert this country like Afghanistan and Pakistan. These people are not very sensitive. They want to show that they are in control,” Kataria said. “They will bring Sharia law here, and that is the antithesis of this country.”
Ali Karim, a representative of the Councils of Imams in the Metropolitan Area, referred to the rally as hype and hysteria, saying the Cordoba project has been misunderstood and taken out of context. He says he supports the center and mosque because Islam commands that Muslims stand up and defend all houses of worship.
“Even if a church had this problem—or a synagogue or a monastery–we’re told to stand up for them, too,” Karim said.
He says the Muslim community has been relatively quiet on the issue in hopes that the debate will fade. But since the issue continues to grow increasingly divisive throughout the country, Karim believes more Muslims will become more vocal in defense. “You’ll be hearing soon from big organizations and a collation of Muslims coming together and taking a stand.”
DEBATING THE GROUND ZERO ISLAMIC CENTER