About 120 demonstrators gathered in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, to protest a proposed mosque that opponents argue will dramatically alter the quality of life in the neighborhood. The protest, organized by about 80 supporters of the mosque, was within shouting distance of a counter-protest and drew locals and nationally prominent critics of Islam.
"These people are entitled to their neighborhood!" thundered Pamela Geller, founder of Stop the Islamization of America and the leading organizer against the Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero known as Park 51. "Why put it here? There are hundreds of mosques in this city, there are thousands of mosques in this country. Why here?"
The competing, often raucous protests, were closely monitored by police. Geller was joined by her partner, JihadWatch.org blogger Robert Spencer, who responded to the mosque supporters' cries of "Shame on you!" from across the street by raising doubts about the project's backers.
"Yes, shame on you! You are carrying water for the most repressive ideology on earth," said Spencer. "The Muslim American Society is building this mosque. Do you know what the Muslim American Society is?"
The group, he said, traced its roots to the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that earlier espoused violence as a means of carrying out its political agenda but has officially renounced extremism.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is dedicated in its own words to eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within, and sabotaging its miserable house," said Spencer, addressing opponents and supporters of the mosque from the top of a stoop. "You are enabling them in their project by allowing them to build a mosque here or anywhere. The problem is not mosques, the problem is the Muslim American Society."
The demonstration was organized by a local group, Bay People, which argues that a mosque would create traffic congestion in the neighborhood. The group also worries that the mosque would broadcast the call to prayer outside.
But Allowey Ahmed, who is developing the mosque, said that the call would not be broadcast outside, out of sensitivity to neighbors, most of whom are non-Muslim. And he has argued that the congregation of about 150 families will not generate much traffic, in part because most worshipers would arrive on foot.
The counter-protest, attended by dozens of young Muslim children and sign-toting teenagers, was organized by the NYC Coalition to Stop Islamophobia, a group that formed last summer in response to the controversy over Park 51. In promoting the demonstration online, organizers argued that opposition to the mosque "comes at a time when the Peter King hearings [on Islamic extremism] have caused more fear-mongering throughout the country!"
Indicating that mosque opponents weren't the only ones with prominent allies, Imam Shamsi Ali, one of the city's most well-known Muslim leaders, spoke up for the Muslim American Society, saying it encourages its youth to integrate into the mainstream and avoid going down the extremist path.
"Their activities are very much American," said Ali. "Culturally, it's very much American. Probably the girls are covering their head, but they're Americans. They want to lead their lives as Americans, and this is what Americans should understand."
Although Bay People has sued to stop construction of the mosque, supporters are confident the project will go forward.
And in response to David Storobin, a Brooklyn GOP party official who said the mosque's backers "are refusing to condemn terrorism," Ahmed appeared resigned.
"I don't know what is required of us to do, but of course we denounce terrorism," said Ahmed. "Everyone denounces terrorism. We are the first ones to suffer from terrorism. We are the ones who are labeled terrorists."