Separated by just a couple of blocks and a vigilant police force, supporters and opponents of Park51 rallied simultaneously on Sunday in hopes of influencing the public debate over the Islamic cultural center and mosque.
The rally against Park51 was the more sophisticated of the two events, boasting a stage and sound system from which Bruce Springsteen, John Phillip Souza and various country hits blared. The crowd numbered around 500 at its peak, about double that of the rally supporting Park51.
Here, the crowd was filled with motorcyclists -- some of them big, burly men in denim and leather vests, sporting red, white and blue bandanas, and plenty of tattoos along their tanned limbs. Many in the crowd held up signs with the word "Sharia" written out in big, red, drippy letters.
But one man, who only gave his name as Satya stood out: He wore a Gandhi T-shirt to the anti-mosque rally, and as someone from India, was one of the few opponents at the rally who was visibly a minority. Along with a friend, Satya displayed a banner with graphic images, showing the bloody aftermath of terrorist attacks around the world. This, he said, was the true nature of political Islam, and he insisted that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind Park51, was not to be trusted.
"He is a stealth jihad," he said. "Taqqiya is a very developed concept in islam. You can use deceive to propagate Islam. And that is the reason why we have to be very careful who is saying what."
Bob Tichenor arrived from Yonkers, wearing his "Proud Infidel" T-shirt. He said he worries about radical Islam.
"I think we could all live together, be together -- they have rights, too, in this country," said Tichenor. "But I just think they're not being concerned about our people at this time, deciding what they want to do with this mosque here."
The other rally, supporting Park51, was organized by a coalition of anti-war and socialist groups, but drew unaffiliated individuals and some Muslims as well. The organizers weren't able to secure a permit for a soundsystem, so speakers ended up standing on a small step ladder and shouting their remarks to the assembled demonstrators. Many of them felt the opposition to the mosque was borne of Islamophobia.
"In the last 10 years we've seen all this demonization of Arabs and Muslims to help justify two unjust wars, Iraq and Afghanistan," said Hannah Fleury, a member of the International Socialist Organization. "And so to me this is the logical conclusion of that climate since September 11. So I'm absolutely opposed to it."
Wajid Akram came from Midwood, and brought his 11-year-old son as well. He was discouraged by what he saw as the low turnout from Muslim New Yorkers: "At this event, I see a lot of anti-war, pro peace, interfaith people who are here. And the Muslim community is very small. I would say less than maybe 20 percent, 30 percent at this rally. And it's just general apathy."
But Ieman Elzhogby, a Muslim woman from Staten Island who showed up at the event, says it's less apathy than a sense of fear that keeps Muslims at home.
"I think a lot of Muslims now are just so afraid," she said. "They're afraid to say, 'Hey, we're Muslims, we're Americans, why can't we have a mosque?'"
This week, defenders of Park51 are expected to come out in larger numbers; a coalition of groups including Common Cause NY and the New York Civil Liberties Union says it will issue statements in support of the project. Opponents are also upping their game: Stop Islamization of America is organizing a big rally featuring marquee conservatives like John Bolton and Dutch politician Geert Wilders, an outspoken critic of Islam. The event was originally supposed to include Republican and former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich, but he has since pulled out.