Tearful ceremonies in New York and at the Pentagon marking the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks were part of an annual ritual meant to bring the country together.
This time, though, the mournful music was barely over in New York before unity disintegrated into angry debate between thousands of demonstrators under the control of a heavy police presence.
The immediate issue was whether a proposed Islamic cultural center should be built, as planned, two blocks from Ground Zero. But how to coexist with Muslims – even American Muslims – was the bigger question and it’s one deeply dividing the United States.
At the protest against the Islamic center, speeches were filled with bellicose rhetoric against Islam and against President Barack Obama, who on Saturday told the country not to blame Islam as a religion for the 9/11 massacre.
About 2,000 people cheered as speakers told them that the Islamic center was a covert plan by jihadists to conquer the United States and erect a monument honoring terrorists.
“It’s a victory mosque they want to build,” New Yorker John told AFP, refusing to give his full name.
Shaven-headed members of the far-right British group the English Defense League joined large contingents of current and former US service personnel at the rally, as did Dutch hardline anti-immigrant MP Geert Wilders.
Wilders got a huge cheer when he exhorted the crowd to “draw this line so that New York… will never become New Mecca.”
No one burned the Quran at the rally, as an obscure Florida pastor threatened to do this week, triggering worldwide Muslim protests.
Just over a block away – though separated by multiple rows of police – more than 1,000 supporters of the Islamic center project denounced what they called their compatriots’ discrimination and fear-mongering.
“Racists, bigots: out of New York!” they chanted.
“People are afraid because there’s such a campaign against Muslims in our country,” protestor Jane Toby, 70, said.
For a long time the row over the location of the proposed Islamic center was barely noticed outside New York.
But it exploded in the run-up to November 2nd midterm congressional elections, becoming a lightning rod for rightwing radio hosts and grassroots anti-Obama groups.
With US troops bogged down against the Taliban in Afghanistan and domestic terrorist threats like this summer’s car bomb attempt in Times Square becoming a regular occurrence, some Americans already consider the Muslim world the enemy.
And polls show a big majority against the location of an Islamic center anywhere near Ground Zero, signaling that nearly a decade after 9/11, Islam remains equated with the terrorists who carried out the attacks.
Obama, a Democrat, has repeatedly stated the constitutional right of all religious groups to establish a house of worship wherever they want.
On Saturday, in his speech at the 9/11 ceremony in the Pentagon, he addressed the broader issue, saying that America was at war with Al-Qaeda, not Islam, and urging an end to “bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander.”No one in New York seemed to be listening.
Police had to fence in the dueling demonstrations behind separate pens.
Even so, the volatile crowd mixed on sidewalks and crossroads and when the two
sides met they resembled citizens of hostile countries.
In one confrontation, a large man with wrap-around sunglasses approached a cyclist holding a placard in favor of the Islamic center.
“I’ll tell you what you can have a mosque for – so that we can burn it down,” the man said, before stalking off.
At another corner, a woman dressed in a Statue of Liberty costume made an incongruous opponent for an enraged, middle-aged man.
“As a Christian, I believe in religious freedom,” the woman said calmly.
“Well I hope the next time the terrorists hit us that you’ll be first. That’ll be poetic justice,” the man screamed, before being hustled away by police.
Another man – this time in favor of the Islamic center – took his message right up to the massed ranks of the opposing rally.
The man, wearing a cap inscribed “Che Guevara,” yelled that the crowd hated Obama “because he’s our first black president.”
Several police tried to herd the intruder out of the area and the man, chanting “Obama, Obama, Obama!” tried to slip back.
The cat-and-mouse game went on until the whole group realized it was treading in a large pile of manure left by a police horse. – AFP