Nine years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, thousands of Americans gathered near Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan on Saturday, raising their voices in protest against a proposed Islamic Mosque and community center just blocks from where the World Trade Center towers fell. The rally, coordinated by Pamela Geller of the Atlas Shrugged blog, and Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch, featured repeated denunciations of the plan and exhortations to relocate the mosque.
The crowd and speakers often took aim at American politicians who’ve voiced support for the plan, such as New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and President Barack Obama, but the most pointed remarks from the podium were directed at Feisal Abdul Rauf, the controversial Imam behind the project. Several speakers listed off several of Rauf’s most inflammatory statements, drawing loud boos from the assembled throng. Flanked by bodyguards, keynote speaker Geert Wilders, a Dutch Parliamentarian and outspoken critic of Islam, led the crowd in a sustained chant of “No mosque here.”
“I have not forgotten how I felt [on September 11]. Those scenes are imprinted on my soul,” Wilders said. “How could anyone forget?” After labeling Rauf an extremist and the Cordoba mosque initiative a “provocation and humilation,” Wilders condemned those who he said are intent on imposing Sharia (Islamic) law in the United States. “New York and Sharia are incompatible. New York and America are about freedom, openness and tolerance. We are here today to draw the line,” he said to approving applause. “A tolerant society is not a suicidal society. It must defend itself against the forces of darkness. If a mosque were built here, some people would feel triumphant, and we should never, ever given them that feeling,” he said.
A number of speakers also questioned Rauf’s stated goal of fostering tolerance, understanding, and “building bridges” by forging ahead with the effort. If mosque organizers truly want to accomplish those goals, it was argued, they’d bow to the sensitivities of the vast majority of Americans and move the center to a less divisive location. New York radio personality Steve Malzberg assailed Rauf’s recent warning that not building the mosque as planned might lead to anger in the Muslim world. “We don’t care,” Malzberg said, arguing that if Americans tailor their public policy and behavior to satisfy Islamists, “we are finished.”
Nationally syndicated radio show host Mike Gallagher shared his perspective with the protesters, saying the controversy isn’t really about freedom of religion or the letter of the law, but rather common decency and respect. The plan is “probably on solid legal footing,” he said, “and this isn’t anti-Muslim hysteria. [Our message is] that a mosque at this site is wildly inappropriate.” Gallagher then addressed President Obama and challenged him on his stance on the issue. “The president is definitely not on the same page as most Americans and New Yorkers on this Mosque. Shame on you, President Obama. Shame on you!” he thundered, prompting the crowd to begin shouting the phrase in unison.
The protest officially began at 3pm ET with a moment of silence and the playing of Taps. Other elements of the program included moving remarks from 9/11 family members and first responders, an ecumenical series of prayers, and a stirring speech by a dissident from Iran (a Muslim) condemning the current Iranian regime and Islamic extremism. Several small pockets of counter-protesters gathered around the perimeter of the main protest, but did not disrupt the proceedings.
The crowd of several thousand that took up the better part of two city blocks was composed of young and old; black and white. As New York prepares for fashion week, the dominant fashion statement at the downtown rally could best be described in three words: Red, white, and blue. But the crowd was not exclusively American. British Union Jacks, Canadian, Australian, and Israeli flags peppered the crowd, signaling international disapproval of the mosque’s construction at a location known globally as a symbol of radical Islamic terrorism.
A Norwegian in attendance named Rune Stearo told Townhall he was offended by the mosque and inspired by Saturday’s event. “There are now millions of Muslims in Europe, and many of them are anti-West,” Stearo said. “In Norway, if you mention this as a problem, you are called a racist. People try not to think or talk about it, but in America, the discussion is very open. This is a wonderful thing.”