New York City woke up on Saturday to a Sept. 11 anniversary like no other. Blue skies hummed with the buzz of helicopters as police conducted a major operation to patrol two rival mid-day protests about Park51, the planned Islamic center close to Ground Zero. The noise of the aircraft mingled with the sound of church bells ringing across Manhattan, marking the exact time that the first plane struck the World Trade Center.
Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who threatened to burn the Koran outside his church, the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, had arrived in the city overnight. Supposedly seeking a meeting with backers of the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” he told NBC’s Today show: “We have decided to cancel the burning. We will definitely not burn the Koran.”
The protesters against the Islamic Center later gathered to hear right-wing blogger Pamela Geller, who has spearheaded the drive against the project, as well as a host of Republican politicians.
Meanwhile the march in support of Park51, proclaiming the virtues of religious tolerance, wound its way from near City Hall to close to Ground Zero itself. The duelling demonstrations were in stark contrast to the official remembrance ceremony where relatives of the dead talked solemnly about the lives lost.
It was an acrimonious climax to a troubling week, especially for New York’s Muslim population. Mohammad al-Naqeb, a 35-year-old Yemeni immigrant who has spent 10 years in the US, said he had never before felt like such an outsider in his adopted country.
Standing in an electronics store in the Brooklyn suburb of Bay Ridge, Naqeb said he was worried for his own safety and that of his children.
“I feel scared. Everybody feels scared. For the future of my children and grandchildren, I think they should move it,” he said.
For Naqeb, who works as a newspaper sales representative, the solution is for New York’s Muslim community to accept that the Park51 project — the official name of the planned Islamic center — must be elsewhere. Even though Naqeb believes it is unfair and prejudiced that his religious community should be singled out for such treatment, he thinks it is for the best. It is a piece of classic immigrant thinking: Get your head down, keep quiet, ignore the insults and they will not send you back.
“They should move it. For my family’s sake. I want them to have a future here in this country,” he repeated.
The Park51 project has triggered a huge wave of protest by those claiming it desecrates the memory of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Republican politicians, and many Democrats too, have asked for Park51 to be moved. They have claimed its backers, including a moderate imam who does international outreach work for the US Department of State, have terrorist ties and are closet radicals.
Newt Gingrich, a leading conservative Republican, has compared Muslims to Nazis. The threat to burn copies of the Koran in Florida is just the most extreme of growing anti-Muslim sentiment. Other extremist pastors in Kansas, Wyoming and Tennessee have now come up with similar plans. Across the US have come reports of attacks on Muslim targets and the FBI is investigating crimes in four different states that range from windows being smashed at an Islamic Center in California to a fire being set at one in Texas. In New York a man is being prosecuted for trying to stab to death a Muslim taxi driver.