MANHATTAN (CN) – On Saturday I joined thousands of demonstrators in support of the Ground Zero mosque. Actually, that’s not accurate; I should define some terms before I describe the march. The “Ground Zero Mosque” is not a mosque; it’s an Islamic cultural center, with a swimming pool, art galleries, lecture rooms, performance halls, a special-needs center and a top-floor sanctuary. And it’s not at Ground Zero. It’s proposed to be built at a former Burlington Coat Factory, two and a half blocks away from the former World Trade Center – not visible from the site.
It used to be called the Cordoba House, for the Spanish region known during the Middle Ages for reason, culture, tolerance and coexistence among Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The name was changed to Park51 after right-wing pundits described it as a site of Muslim domination and expansion.
The opponents of Park51, if I understand them correctly, believe that this former coat factory is “hallowed ground,” and they demand that the developers move it elsewhere – or nowhere.
When applied to post-9/11 thinking, “hallowed ground” apparently refers to land within 3 blocks of the site of a massacre of Americans.
There is a mosque called the Masjid Manhattan 4 blocks from the World Trade Center site, where congregants have worshiped without complaint for 40 years. It is not on hallowed ground.
The rules to be followed within hallowed ground, apparently, are simple: Muslims are not allowed to gather in groups inside this three-block radius, and they may not own buildings there – or it would be “insensitive” for them to do so.
This applies even to Sufis, such as Park51’s Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who belong to a mystical sect of Islam that brought the world the love poetry of Rumi, whirling dervishes, and the belief that all of the Earth is suffused with God’s love.
God’s love apparently has no place on hallowed ground, which is reserved for sites of death and slaughter, according to many trusted religious, political and media authorities.
Other than that, everything is permitted on hallowed ground, subject to local laws.
There are two strip clubs on the same street as the proposed cultural center, where men of sensitivity flock to observe sacred dances and pay for rituals that take place in private booths.
For weeks, the self-appointed guardians of hallowed ground planned to gather a block away from the old Burlington Coat Factory on Sept. 11 to oppose Park51.
Being naïve, I believed that many of the protestors could be reached if they were exposed to what they opposed and feared.
So about a week before the protest, I contacted the International Action Center, which was organizing a counter-demonstration in support of Park51, and suggested that an email moderator invite Sufi dancers to perform a whirling dervish between the two demonstrations.
As I understand it, Sufi whirling is a mystical religious practice consisting of spinning around continuously to transcend the ego, balance one’s own will with God’s and merge with the universe and love.
Having seen it before, I knew it was beautiful to watch, and thought that it could change the conversation from bigotry-versus-tolerance to a shared, inspiring cultural encounter. So I sent out emails with the subject line “Whirl for Religious Freedom.”
One dancer responded with interest. He had performed at Lincoln Center. But as a father who had a performance that night, he didn’t want to risk getting arrested or assaulted at the demonstration, which can happen when one shares God’s love on hallowed ground.
Though there would be no dervish at the march, the counter-demonstration turned out to be a bit of a whirl.
The morning of the protest, I volunteered to help transport placards, platforms, sound equipment and other stuff from the organizer’s offices to City Hall, where thousands of demonstrators gathered, representing more than 50 groups, all there for different reasons.
Along the route that circled from City Hall to the New York Supreme Court and back marched a Buddhist sect known for anti-nuclear activism pounding drums for peace, Latino groups linking anti-immigrant xenophobia with Islamophobia, African-American and other minority groups decrying racism, Jewish peace groups pushing for a Mideast solution, pro-Palestinian activists declaring solidarity with the people of Gaza, socialist groups selling Marxist literature, two opposing Trotskyite groups hawking their newspapers, third-party candidates meeting constituents, conspiracy theorists calling for a reinvestigation of the 9/11 attacks, Muslims affirming their right to worship and exist in Lower Manhattan, and unaffiliated marchers who showed up to support Park51.
One artist unfurled a hand-painted banner demanding “Free Aafia Siddiqui,”
a Pakistani neuroscientist and MIT graduate who supporters say was falsely convicted for assault with intent to murder her interrogators and was tortured in custody at military black sites.
Other banners demanded freedom for attorney Lynne Stewart, convicted of supporting terrorism, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, on Death Row for shooting a Philadelphia police officer.
Another sign pointed out that Sept. 11 was the date of the U.S.-backed coup d’etat of Chilean president Salvador Allende, whose replacement the dictator Agusto Pinochet set off the killing of thousands.
My placard, made and distributed by the organizers, said, “Islam Has Been in New York for 400 Years,” and featured a picture of Cinque, the Muslim who led the rebellion on the slave ship Amistad.
Not everyone in the march shared the same ideologies, banners or causes, but everyone supported the construction of Park51. One of the most common chants of the afternoon was, “We say no to racist fear. Muslims are welcome here.”
In a separate demonstration, thousands of marchers opposed the idea of the Muslim cultural center.
The police kept tight control on the demonstrations, and the public was not allowed to pass through the anti-mosque rally. Since I was not there as press, I had no special access, but I saw them through the confrontations between people who strayed beyond the permit zones.
On side roads, one of the anti-mosque protesters held up a torn page from a Koran in front of a sign that said “toilet paper.”
Elsewhere, a middle-aged woman harassed a man wearing Islamic religious robes until a younger man asked her, “Why must you bother us? I’m just like you.”
One truck circled the area covered in fire-and-brimstone religious imagery, Biblical quotes and abusive slogans aimed at Muslims, gays, and people who support women’s right to abortion.
Dizzy from hunger, exhaustion and confrontation, I decided to step out early for food.
A few hours later, I met a friend with whom I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening visiting Ground Zero, a memorial site at Battery Park, and the performance by the Sufi dancer whom I had contacted earlier.
He was performing in celebration of Eid, a feast day marking the end of Ramadan, which fell on Sept. 11 this year – almost overlapping with the Jewish High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah. But this event was a secular affair.
The venue was an Arab-American cultural center a short walk from Ground Zero.
With the price of admission, we got free pastries and mint tea. A man in the kitchen said they also had “stronger beverages available,” such as wine and whiskey, which have “inspired poets for many generations.”
People clapped and stomped their feet to the Egyptian and Tunisian music, and flashed pictures during the belly dances and whirling, performed in brilliant colors rather than traditional white robes.
When my friend and I left, we saw two skylights pointed into the sky where the towers once stood.
Maybe I was tired from the day, or intoxicated by the culture, whiskey and mint tea, but it seemed that the dust particles in the towers of light were whirling.