A battleground over Islamophobia

David Judd reports from New York on a counter-protest against anti-Muslim bigotry.

Thousands march in New York City to defend the rights of Arabs and Muslims (Matt Swagler | SW)Thousands march in New York City to defend the rights of Arabs and Muslims (Matt Swagler | SW)

THOUSANDS OF people descended on Lower Manhattan on September 11 for rival protests over the planned construction of an Islamic and interfaith community center a few blocks from the site of the destroyed World Trade Center.

Over the last few weeks, the site has been a focus for racist, anti-Muslim bigots--but also a growing number of anti-racists who are standing up to oppose the hate. On Saturday, a diverse group of between 3,000 and 5,000 anti-racists, according to media estimates--Muslims and Arabs, Jews, Blacks, Puerto Ricans, all races, religions and ethnicities--turned out to defend the religious freedom of Muslims and stand up against the Islamophobia of about 2,500 anti-Muslim protesters who made September 11 the focus of their bigotry.

The right-wing rally, called by the Freedom Defense Initiative (FDI) and Stop the Islamization of America (SOIA), featured Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who has built a career out of promoting bigotry against Muslims and who favors banning the Koran. Many of the protesters were bused in from outside New York.

Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, cofounders of SOIA and FDI, were the main rally organizers. Geller is a right-wing blogger known for wild claims not only about Muslims, but also about Barack Obama, which includes a charge that the president is, in fact, the "love child of Malcolm X."

Spencer, a professional Islamophobe, has posted a video on his Web site of a young girl associated with a Hindu extremist organization calling for the use of nuclear weapons against Pakistani cities. "The girl is right," Spencer comments in the post.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE RALLY and march in defense of the community center, which has been referred to by its developers as Cordoba House or the Park51 project, was called on an emergency basis by the International Action Center and endorsed by a range of political and religious groups, including the NYC Coalition to Stop Islamophobia, which organized a similar rally three weeks before.

The demonstration calling "for unity and solidarity" took place about two blocks away from the anti-Muslim event, and was lively and confident. Demonstrators chanted, "We say no to racist fear; Muslims are welcome here!" "Hey racists, get off our streets. You called a Klan rally but you got no sheets!" and "As-Salamu Alaykum, Welcome to New York."

Protesters carried signs against racism, in defense of Muslims and against the occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. One sign pointed out that Muslims have been in New York for 400 years--the first were brought to the U.S. as slaves. Another asked, "Burning the Koran, burning a cross--what's the difference?" The most visible contingents included those from the North American Muslim Society and International Socialist Organization.

One demonstrator, Kashif, said he was there "as a Muslim American to stand up for my religion, and for the American tradition of freedom...We are more American than they [the bigots] are."

Devra Morice, who came with the NYC Coalition to Stop Islamophobia, explained, "They chose this day, and Lower Manhattan, our backyard, to bring their hate, and we had to stand up and confront it."

The right-wing rally had a quieter crowd (though a better sound system). The organizers discouraged attendees from bringing signs, for fear of embarrassment on a sensitive day and on ground that they describe as "sacred"--although the rally took place directly across the street from a New York Dolls strip club.

The attempt to discourage posters was mostly successful, although there were a few that were almost as hostile to President Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg--one of the few mainstream political leaders to make an uncompromising defense of the Park51 project--as they were to Muslims. One said, "Bloomberg: The Koran Calls You a Pig/Monkey (Jew): I say Jackass."

Demonstrators sported not only a large amount of Tea Party gear, but also a few T-shirts expressing support for the English Defense League, a violent neo-fascist group based in Britain.

Wilders, the featured speaker and representative of the European anti-immigrant far right, tied his opposition to Cordoba House to the September 11, 2001, attacks. He started by pretending to show tolerance, saying that "no place was more multi-ethnic and multi-lingual than the World Trade Center." He noted that "people of every religion" were victims--which may have sounded like a gesture toward unity to those of his audience unaware of his stated belief that Islam is not a real religion.

But Wilders couldn't contain his hostility to Muslims very long, arguing that any mosque in Lower Manhattan would be a symbol of Muslim "triumph," as represented by the September 11 attacks, and a humiliation for "the West." He described Cordoba House proponents as "the powers of darkness" and "those who want to subjugate us."

Wilders' speech was twice interrupted by protesters--at the beginning by shouting and later by an air horn.

The battle against anti-Muslim bigotry isn't over in New York City, and activists are already planning the next step in their campaign to send the message: Muslims are welcome here!