Commentary by Chippy Dee
The anniversary of 9/11 was observed differently this year. It was, as always, a day of grief for the victims of the attack NYC endured 9 years ago. A day when over 3,000 people, our friends and neighbors, were lost to us. It was also a day that the workers in the city were the true heroes. Not only the firemen and police who gave their lives attempting to save others, but the transit workers who drove through rubble to get people out of harms way, the teachers who safely evacuated and calmed all their young charges, the steel workers who helped build the twin towers coming to help dig people out declaring, ‘We put this up, we know how to get it down’, and the thousands of workers from all over the city who left their jobs to line up outside hospitals to donate blood to victims that never came. All were gone.
It is, therefore, hateful that right-wing opportunists have used 9/11 to spew hatred against a group that lost 300 people when the towers were attacked – our Muslim fellow citizens. They have used the building of a Muslim community center (Park 51 / Cordoba House) to whip up hostility and unite their followers in a way that Hitler’s toxic propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, would have admired.
They planned a rally on 9/11 and were bringing haters from near and far to attend and speak at their rally.
The people of NY responded with 4 separate actions of their own. On Sept. 10th there was a candlelight vigil near the World Trade Center site organized by NY Neighbors for American Values, an umbrella group that included about 100 community, labor, political, and religious groups. One of those groups was the ACLU who, in an e-mail to their members dated the day before, made the statement, “Religious freedom is one of America’s most fundamental liberties, and a founding principle of our nation. But the battle over the proposed Muslim Cultural Center in Lower Manhattan is about more than religious liberty – it is about the very soul of our city.”
According to TV newscasters “thousands” of people filled 2 blocks along Church St. There were clergy from every denomination, Jewish families with fathers and their sons wearing yarmulkes, young and old of every race. The crowd was generally subdued. There were no signs. All expressed strong support for the community center. There was music and the crowd sang “This Land Is Your Land”. There was also a few speeches, one being from the first Muslim elected to Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) who reminded everyone that the Muslims were our fellow citizens. This crowd already knew that. An imam read the names of Muslims who perished on 9/11.
The next day, Saturday, the reactionary Stop Islamization of America took place. Perhaps 2,000 people came – including a large anti-abortion contingent. It was led by Pamela Geller, who has called for the removal of the Dome of the Rock, an extremely holy sight for Muslims, and she posted, on her blog, a picture of the Prophet Mohammad with the face of a pig. The other rally leader was Robert Spencer who has an anti-Muslim blog called Jihad Watch. He believes that the Muslim community center is an insult to the victims of 9/11.
A few blocks away, along Broadway near City Hall Park, the counter-demonstration took place. It was organized by the Emergency Mobilization Against Racism and Anti-Muslim Bigotry, also an umbrella group, representing over 60 organizations including Al-Awda, Bronx Greens, Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition, Green Party Power to the People NY, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Stonewall Warriors, Labor Against The War, World Can’t Wait, and the International Action Center. It was different in tone from the candlelight vigil the night before, much more raucous. There were thousands of people holding hundreds of signs calling for peace, justice, jobs, and against racism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and Islamaphobia (a word that doesn’t make much sense because hatred is being expressed, not fear). There were about 50 speakers including Cynthia McKinney, Cindy Sheehan, and Ramsey Clark, each mercifully limited to 2 minutes. Some likened the current Anti-Muslim fever being whipped up by a small group to what happened in Germany in the 30’s when the bad economic times made the population vulnerable to anti-Semitic violence.
Many spoke of the need for unity to defeat what was going on. Many more said that this demonstration had to be called to respond to the hate filled rally being held by the other group. They said they could not remain silent, surrendering the streets of NY to those filled with such hostility. There had to be an antidote to their poison.
The following day, Sunday, an interfaith group, Religious Freedom USA, held a rally at St. Peter’s Church, the oldest Catholic parish in NY, located very close to the World Trade Center site. The church was badly damaged on 9/11/01 and underwent extensive renovations. It reopened on 9/11/10, the day before. The restoration was beautifully done. Every seat was taken and many remained standing in the back and in the balcony. The huge room was filled with people of faith, priests, rabbis, ministers, imams, and their flocks.
First Father Kevin Madigan welcomed everyone to his church. He began by saying, ” I believe that an overview of our Roman Catholic experience, viewed just within the confines of St. Peter’s Parish, can provide enough examples of religiously based fear, bigotry and prejudice, to demonstrate that this terrible virus is never completely eradicated, but simply lies dormant, seeking new targets to attack, particularly in times of perceived threat and uncertainty.” He spoke of the enormous hostility against Catholics that existed throughout this country’s history. In 1701 any priest discovered within city limits could be sent to prison for life. JFK had to convince the nation that he would not be taking orders from the pope if he was elected president. He ended by saying that grief cannot trump or give veto power over a right so basic as freedom of religion. And somewhere in this country there is a little Fatima or Mohammad who wants to grow up to be our president – and they will.
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Congregation Ansche Chesed on the Upper Westside spoke of interfaith unity and support. He reminded those gathered that the US Constitution is still in effect below Canal St. Charles Wolf, husband of 9/11 victim Katherine Wolf, also spoke strongly in support of the Muslim community center. Speaker after speaker, spoke of interfaith unity and support for Park 51. When the speeches ended all filed out of the church and took a “Liberty Walk” passing the 9/11 site as well as several houses of worship. Some participants were holding small American flags. When the walk ended back at St. Peter’s everyone stood in a find drizzle singing patriotic songs like “America the Beautiful” and “This Land is your Land”.
The religious leaders that spoke at the church showed great courage because the solidarity they expressed and their support for the mosque was either in contradiction to the ‘official’ positions of their religious hierarchy or against the silence of the hierarchy.
On Thursday, September 16th there was a formidable picket line of about 100 people, who came out in a rain storm, to protest at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum Of Tolerance on East 42nd St. in Manhattan. As they walked they chanted, “Islamaphobia isn’t pretty. It has no place in New York City” and “Islamaphobia is a shame. New Yorkers say, not in our name.”
The event was sponsored by American Jews for a Just Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and Jews Say No because the Simon Wiesenthal Center has demonstrated anything but tolerance – they are opposing the building of the Muslim community center at the present site. In doing so they are reinforcing the idea that all Muslims are responsible for the 9/11 attack. This is the same organization that is violating international law by destroying the Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem, a cemetery that dates back to the 7th century and holds the graves of some of Mohammad’s prophets. The Mamilla Cemetery has been completely destroyed so that the Wiesenthal Center could build a Museum of Tolerance there!
The coalition sponsoring the demonstration made the following statement:
” As Jews, we understand well how hateful stereotypes easily become vehicles for exclusion, demonization, discrimination and violence. Our history teaches us that we must always stand up against injustice. We also recognize the connections among our many movements for justice and equity, such as those of low-income and communities of color, immigrant communities, women, LGBT communities, and groups fighting for religious and cultural expression.
In the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many of us reflect upon the past year and think about the ways we can participate in the struggle for a more just world. During this time of increased anti-Arab racism and Islamaphobia in NYC, in the US, and in many parts of the world, we want to make clear our opposition to the targeting of Muslim and Arab communities since 9/11 and to the use of Islamaphobia as a means of shaping US foreign policies and public opinion.”
9/11 dramatically changed the lives of all Americans. For the 1st time we are truly frightened. We have been made painfully aware that we are part of the world, we don’t live in isolation. In the name of the ‘War on Terror” the Muslim population has become objects of suspicion and persecution, we have lost many of our most fundamental freedoms, we openly admit to using torture, we are in a period of seemingly endless wars where hundreds of thousands have died, including our own fellow citizens, and millions have been turned into refugees. There is no money for basic human needs like education, healthcare, housing and the infrastructure or for building a green economy because the wars are so costly. The destruction of the earth is on a back burner, if on the stove at all. And while we weren’t paying attention the functions of the federal government have been privatized, including our military and security apparatus. The government has become a big empty shell with vital services being performed by corporations whose only loyalty is to their bottom line.
The response of the good people of NY, fighting against the tidal wave of hate being created in their midst was an encouraging sign that most people here are maintaining their values and principles in spite of the pressures to do otherwise. The populace we saw on September 11, 2001 are still here.
Also see THIS fine report by Alex Kane