Ground Zero Circus

As the President and others appealed for tolerance and calm, protesters gathered in Lower Manhattan to commemorate 9/11 and to demonstrate for and against a proposed Muslim center. Asra Q. Nomani reports.

09.12.10 9:15 AM ET

As President Obama commemorated the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by appealing to the nation not to “sacrifice the liberties we cherish or hunker down behind walls of suspicion and mistrust" at a sober wreath-laying ceremony in Arlington, VA, on Saturday, a very different scene played out in New York, where protestors demonstrated against plans to build an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero, and counter-demonstrators gathered to protest against the protestors.

In the days leading up to the demonstration, politicians, pundits and religious leaders had hit the airwaves, worried that the dual spectacle of a proposed Quran-burning in Florida and the dueling demonstrations near ground zero might end in violence.

And when demonstration organizers Pam Geller and Robert Spencer began the main show, a flag marked “Flag of Honor” flapping in front of them, the couple was flanked by a phalanx of security guards armed with earpieces and BlackBerries.

But, in fact, the New York showdown of hundreds of protesters and counter-protesters in lower Manhattan seemed more like a bad episode from MTV’s The Real World.

In my native language of Urdu, we’d call it a first-class “ tamasha,” a more ridiculous spectacle than high drama.

“It’s mosque-omania,” said 53-year-old Bob Allen, 53, who had tucked a Most Wanted poster of alleged terrorists into his pocket.

Nearby, a demonstrator wore a t-shirt with the subtle message: “F--- Racists & Teabaggers.”

“Police! Police!” another woman yelled, pointing to a portly man with a handmade sign, marked “toilet paper” with a spindle glued onto his sign, a tattered Quran attached to it.

“Get him out of here!” the woman yelled as NYPD officers hustled over to the man and swept him in the direction of his supporters, assembling a block away on West Broadway Street.

“It’s mosque-omania,” said 53-year-old Bob Allen, 53, who had tucked a Most Wanted poster of alleged terrorists into his pocket.

“Better than Charmin!” shouted Toilet Paper Guy, who would reveal only that his name is Mark, that he is 58, and from Pennsylvania. “I got sick and tired of hearing ‘Americans are going to be killed, Americans are going to be killed, Americans are going to be killed,’” he said, when asked what had prompted him to stage his anti-Muslim protest. “They are savages,” he said, standing under his toilet paper sign.

“Why are you here?” asked Joe Raicaldo, a U.S. Army Iraqi war vet limping with a cane in his right hand. “You’re spreading more hatred cause of the thing you’re doing here. Somebody is going to lose their life because of this nonsense. You could care less. You could care less about that.”

“That’s what they have B-52s and napalm for,” retorted Toilet Paper Guy.

A teen on a bike shook his head at Toilet Paper Guy: “Get the f--- out of here. You’re crazy, man!”

Around the corner, an elderly woman debated a Muslim cab driver, who had just walked by, joined moments later by a construction worker from Linwood, N.J., named Ron Sheehy. “What are you here about? Sharia law? Stoning women for wearing lipstick?” asked Sheehy.

The cab driver was taken aback. “Say it again?”

“You like stoning women for wearing lipstick?”

As the Muslim man moved to walk away, Sheehy snarled, “I’ll slap that f---ing beanie off your head!”

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A young African-American woman, Marketta Stewart, a student at Manhattan Community College, a Yankees baseball cap on her head, yelled back at Sheehy: “Not every Muslim is a terrorist.” He responded: “Blah! Blah! Blah! Blah! Blah! Shut up!”

For weeks now people have debated the proposed Muslim center near the World Trade Center site, and on Saturday thousands came down to demonstrate for and against it—and to mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11—among them several well-known figures, including John Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who spoke out against the Muslim center via video. The controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders also gave a speech.

Earlier, the names of those who died in the attacks had been read out loud at a different ceremony in Lower Manhattan.

Near Church Street, just south of the proposed Islamic center, a man stood, holding a sign, “The Quran is full of hate.” Microphone in hand, he took questions from the crowd. “On a scale of one to ten, how big of an a—hole are you?” asked a woman.

“Zero,” he responded, “because I’m not on that scale.”

Another woman walked by; her T-shirt spelled out “Waterboarding Instructor.”

As the day wound to a close, an NYPD officer clapped his hands, as cops on horses shepherded folks off the streets: “People go home. We’ve all got dinner reservations with our wives.” And as evening fell, normalcy returned to the streets.

Elizabeth Quinn, a secretary from Brooklyn, walked by with two friends, signs from the counterdemonstration, an American flag and a horseshoe tattoo on her shoulder. “It’s been somewhat of a circus,” she said.

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace. [email protected]