On September 11, the streets around ground zero were a battleground of rallies over Park 51, the proposed Islamic community center at 45-51 Park Place – but at stake was not just the role of Islam in America or the principle of religious freedom. What was being fought over was the image of America, reflected in the as yet unbuilt glass face of Park 51. Four faces of the US could be seen in the media spotlight: America the betrayed, America the amnesiac or criminal and America the innocent victim who must fight back.
At 1:00 PM the buzzing crowds near ground zero were parted by black-shirted members of 9/11 Truth, marching with the image of America as a betrayed nation. 9/11 Truth, an organization that believes the terrorist attacks were an inside job, charged up Vesey Street with signs demanding another investigation. One Truther stood silent against the wall with a flag tied around his eyes.
Next to City Hall was the Rally for Unity and Solidarity, a kaleidoscope of groups ranging from Worker’s World, Bail Out the People Movement and the International Socialist Organization. The audience was diverse, with whites and people of color, Muslims in traditional clothes and secular Arabs, anti-Zionist Jews and college youth. They waved signs that read, “The Attack on Islam is Racism” and “Your Bigotry and Hatred is a National Security Risk.”
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In between the bobbing signs was the stage where speaker after speaker raised the chant, “Racism, no! Unity, yes!” Two images of America took shape. The first was of the US as an amnesiac that has forgotten its own best tradition. Rutgers University student Priya Ramachandran said, “The US is built on religious tolerance and freedom. We got to keep our minds open and see people as individuals.” She warned, “We forgot this and the War on Terror has become a War on Religion.” Another student and practicing Muslim, Shiva Darion said, “This rally is really touching because we all fight for things that affect ourselves but here,” – she waved her hand around – “people are fighting for others.”
The other image was of America as a criminal. Brooklyn-based Abdul Isham took the podium and said, “America killed half a million Muslim babies with its sanctions. Those were premeditated murders. America is worse than Hitler.” The people stiffened and there were half-hearted cheers. In a less bombastic way, Michael Letwin of New York Labor against War said, “The right wing pundits Palin, Newt Gingrich, Beck are scapegoating Muslims. On 9/11 America suffered blowback. We are in a War of Terror – not against terror.”
The rallies were contained in police pens, but isolated arguments flared up in the streets. In one, a white man with a crow-bar mustache yelled at a Muslim man, “Can you build a church in Saudi Arabia? Yes or no? Answer the question!” The Muslim man shouted back, “I’m not from Egypt. I live in America!” As he left, the white man yelled louder, “Yes or no? Answer the question!”
At 3:00 PM, a mostly white, mostly male audience gathered at Park Place and West Broadway for the 9/11 Rally of Remembrance. Flags waving back and forth, they created the image of America the innocent. A man named Victor, gulped Red Bull from two cans, and said, “They’re going to build a mosque there over my dead body. We got too many different groups coming into this country. I was in Hawaii. Lost my truck because I couldn’t make the payments.” He swigged more Red Bull. “I couldn’t work because of the immigrants. They work cheap, do cheap work but everyone wants them. Too many people coming and sucking our nation dry.”
The audience began chanting, “USA! USA!” Pamela Geller of the group, Stop the Islamization of America, led the speakers up to the podium. A mother of a man killed on 9/11 spoke of her lost son, giving the crowd an emotional dispensation for their politics. She said, “Do not put a mosque on the cemetery. I have nothing against Islam but all the terrorists on the plane were Muslims.” Everyone waved flags and cheered. She finished, “This is the Real America!”
Speaker after speaker took their turn. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton and journalist Andrew Breitbart via video stream, conservative talk show host Mike Gallagher, among others, added variations to theme of America, the innocent nation under attack.
The keynote speaker, Dutch politician Geert Wilders, rhetorically celebrated tolerance while in effect denying its practice by portraying Park 51 as a base for an Islamic takeover of America. He said, “When the forces of Jihad attacked New York, they attacked the world. No place on earth was more multi-ethnic or multi-lingual and this is exactly the reason they were targeted.
“They were an insult to those who hold that can be no peaceful cooperation among people without submission to Sharia.” The audience growled in approval. “As we all know, America and New York and Sharia are incompatible.” Louder cheers came up from the crowd. “New York stands for freedom, for openness and tolerance, but suppose it was intolerant and allowed people with only one persuasion within its walls; it would not be New York but Mecca.”
Flags waved back and forth vigorously. “This Iman Fiesal Abdul Rauf, who, by the way, is not a moderate. This Iman claims the right to build a house of Sharia on hallowed ground.” He pushed further and quoted President Abraham Lincoln, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”
Among the cheering, a barely detectable tension formed around the contradiction that he celebrated tolerance in theory, while opposing its practice. Wilders smoothed it over by portraying Park 51, the Islamic Community Center, as the deceptive face of a demonic enemy. It was the necessary image that was the background against which Conservatives performed the role of American patriots.
As the rally ended, Geller warned them not to speak to agitators or be caught doing anything inflammatory. Down the street was the huge iron cross of ground zero. Tourists stared up as if it were the crosshairs of a gun and behind it they saw Muslims.