Angry crowds swell rallies over N.Y. mosque

Imam’s wife doesn’t rule out a different site

Supporters of a proposed Islamic center near ground zero gathered on Church Avenue in lower Manhattan yesterday, separated from foes of the plan by barricades and police officers. Supporters of a proposed Islamic center near ground zero gathered on Church Avenue in lower Manhattan yesterday, separated from foes of the plan by barricades and police officers. (Swoan Parker/Associated Press)
By Verena Dobnik
Associated Press / August 23, 2010

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NEW YORK — The proposed mosque near ground zero drew hundreds of fever-pitch demonstrators yesterday, with opponents carrying signs associating Islam with blood, supporters shouting, “Say no to racist fear!’’ and American flags waving on both sides.

The two leaders of the construction project, meanwhile, defended their plans, though one suggested that organizers might eventually be willing to discuss an alternative site.

Around the corner from the cordoned-off old building that is to become a 13-story Islamic community center and mosque, police separated the two groups of demonstrators. There were no reports of physical clashes, but there were some nose-to-nose confrontations, including a man and a woman screaming at each other across a barricade under a steady rain.

Opponents of the $100 million project two blocks from the World Trade Center site appeared to outnumber supporters. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA’’ blared over loudspeakers as mosque opponents chanted, “No mosque, no way!’’

Signs hoisted by dozens of protesters standing behind police barricades read “Sharia’’ — using dripping blood-red letters to describe Islam’s Shariah law, which governs the behavior of Muslims.

Steve Ayling, a 40-year-old Brooklyn plumber who carried his sign to a dry spot by an office building, said the people behind the mosque project are “the same people who took down the twin towers.’’

Opponents demand that the mosque be moved farther from the site where more than 2,700 people were killed on Sept. 11, 2001. “They should put it in the Middle East,’’ Ayling said.

On a nearby sidewalk, police chased away a group that unfurled a banner with images of beating, stoning, and other torture they said was committed by those who followed Islamic law.

A mannequin wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress, was mounted on one of two mock missiles that were part of an anti-mosque installation. One missile was inscribed with the words, “Again? Freedom Targeted by Religion.’’ The other read, “Obama: With a middle name Hussein. We understand. Bloomberg: What is your excuse?’’

New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has fiercely defended plans for the proposed mosque, saying that the right “to practice your religion was one of the real reasons America was founded.’’

The mosque project is being led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, who insist the center will promote moderate Islam. The dispute has sparked a national debate on religious freedom and American values and is becoming an issue on the campaign trail ahead of the midterm elections.

Republicans have been critical of President Obama’s stance: He has said Muslims have the right to build the center at the site but has not commented on whether he thinks they should.

Rauf is in the middle of a Mideast trip funded by the State Department that is intended to promote religious tolerance. He told a gathering yesterday at the US ambassador’s residence in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain that he took heart from the dispute over the mosque, saying, “The fact we are getting this kind of attention is a sign of success.’’

“It is my hope that people will understand more,’’ Rauf said without elaborating.

Rauf will be in the region for 15 days as part of an effort to foster a dialogue between the Muslim world and America. He will also visit Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

In an interview with Bahrain’s Al Wasat newspaper, he said that America’s sweeping constitutional rights are more in line with Islamic principles than the limits imposed by some Muslim nations.

Governor David Paterson of New York has suggested that state land farther from ground zero be used for the center.

Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, expressed some openness to that idea on ABC’s “This Week with Christiane Amanpour,’’ but said she would have to meet with the center’s other “stakeholders’’ first.

But Khan also said the angry reaction to the project “is like a metastasized anti-Semitism.’’

“It’s not even Islamophobia. It’s beyond Islamophobia,’’ she said. “It’s hate of Muslims.’’

At the pro-mosque rally, staged a block away from opponents’ demonstration, several hundred people chanted, “Muslims are welcome here! We say no to racist fear!’’

Dr. Ali Akram, a 39-year-old Brooklyn physician, came with his three sons and an 11-year-old nephew waving an American flag. He noted that scores of Muslims were among those who died in the towers, and he called those who oppose the mosque “un-American.’’

“They teach their children about the freedom of religion in America, but they don’t practice what they preach,’’ Akram said. top stories on Twitter

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