On the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the morning's rituals of remembrance in New York City were overshadowed by an afternoon of bluster and discord. After the official ceremony at Ground Zero, where the names of all the victims were somberly read out, the streets nearby filled with protesters demonstrating for and against a proposed Islamic center two blocks away from the site. One man began burning pages from a Koran before being stopped by police, while sidewalks became the arena for shouting matches. As the sun set over the Hudson nearly a decade after America's most traumatizing terrorist attack, emotions were as raw as ever.
At the heart of the events was an anti-mosque rally led by Pamela Geller, the conservative blogger credited with first drumming up opposition to the planned Park51 complex and transforming the issue into a politically loaded national debate. The rally occupied an expanse of avenue along Park Place, the main stage set against a backdrop of cranes rising out of Ground Zero (and just around the corner from New York Dolls, the neighborhood's longstanding gentlemen's club). A host of speakers addressed a riled-up, flag-waving crowd. Nelly Braginsky, who lost her son Alex in the towers of the World Trade Center, urged developers to reconsider building "a mosque on top of a cemetery," repeating the now familiar refrain that the presence of an Islamic holy site so close to where Muslim terrorists killed thousands would be insensitive. "This is not about freedom of religion," she said, taking aim at the central argument of many of Park51's defenders. "It's about geography."
The rally, though, was about much more than that. Signs carried by many declared "No to Obama's Mosque" despite the fact that the project has not received clear backing from the White House and quite a few speakers echoed Tea Party talking points to bash the President. Nor did the rally's participants disguise their distrust of Islam. Lofting a poster that read "No to Sharia," Jim DiMaria, a Queens native, told TIME that "this mosque is just the first stage of Saudi Wahhabist takeover of the United States." (Park51's leading cleric, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, practices the moderate strain of Sufism and has spoken out against the more puritanical beliefs of jihadists and terrorists.) A group of heavy-set tattooed men claiming to belong to the English Defence League, a far-right movement in the U.K. that agitates against the presence of Muslims there, bore British and American flags stitched with the emblem "Never Surrender."
The event's anti-Islam credentials were made all the more clear by its keynote speaker: Geert Wilders, a controversial Dutch politician who has championed European opposition to Muslim immigration. Geller hailed him as "a modern day Winston Churchill." Flanked by a phalanx of grim-faced, suited bodyguards, Wilders invoked the clash of civilizations, saying it was time to "draw the line so that New York ... will never become new Mecca." One street over from the rally, another group of anti-mosque demonstrators had set up a Christian "prayer station" along Church Street, replete with oversized posters of aborted fetuses. A pastor with a mike preached that "God is using Muslims as a rod to punish us for our iniquities."
The scene there had been very different the previous night, when hundreds of New Yorkers gathered for a candlelight vigil in defense of Park51. As twin beams of light shooting out from Ground Zero formed ghostly columns in the sky, Valerie Lucznikowska, whose nephew perished in the 9/11 attacks, said the grief of 9/11 families was being exploited ahead of the midterm elections. "I have a great deal of anger for the extremists who attacked the World Trade Center," she said. "But the [people behind Park51] have nothing to do with them."
Still, polls show that a majority of Americans, as well as New Yorkers, oppose the mosque. Doris Kelly, a Tea Party activist from Massachusetts, drove down to attend the rally on Sept. 11. "Politicians need to hear our anger. How can they let this happen? How can Muslims be allowed to build this mosque here, of all places?" When told that a Muslim congregation has been meeting near the World Trade Center for decades, Kelly quickly retorted, "Well, why do they need another one?" Gina Shedid, an Arab-American graduate student at New York University who attended the Sept. 10 vigil, lamented the growing American hostility to Islam. "It's really frustrating, there's a lot of misinformation," she says. "Do I hold every Catholic responsible when there's a sex-abuse scandal? Of course not. But xenophobia seems to be on the rise again."
Near Ground Zero on Sept. 11, pockets of left-wing activists from an earlier protest march holding up "Supporting Freedom of Religion" signs or decrying racism against Muslims were confronted by far greater numbers of those opposed to the mosque. Heated discussions ensued, with police on occasion moving in to prevent any confrontation. One group of shaggy-haired college students defending Park51 were upbraided by a pair of elderly ladies, who told them they were "standing up for a religion of hate" and that "the Koran is a book of violence." One of the students offered the ladies a fresh copy of the Koran from his bag to disabuse them of their ideas about Islam, but was batted away. Another man, standing further down the block on Murray Street, slumped quietly against a wall as arguments raged around him. He held up a poster that read, "Humans Welcome Here."