Opponents of the proposed Islamic center near the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City gathered near the site on Sunday to rally against the project. Supporters gathered two blocks away, while a national television audience listened to an organizer explain the purpose of the proposed center. The differing positions are based on each side's view of American liberty.
The protest against the center was announced days in advance and drew a crowd of people that filled a city block.
They cheered speakers who denounced the proposed Islamic center as an affront to the terror victims and their families. A banner behind an impromptu stage summed up another key concern of opponents. It read, "Stop Sharia Law Before it Stops You."
"To support Sharia law is an act of treason against the United States," shouted speaker Robert Lawrence.
Lawrence won loud approval when he implied that President Barack Obama, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other politicians are betraying the U.S. Constitution by supporting the right of Muslims to build an Islamic center so close to what is commonly referred to as Ground Zero - the site where the World Trade Center once stood.
Speaking on the perceived threat posed by Sharia, protest organizer Beth Galinsky cited instances in countries where Islamic fundamentalists stone people to death, deny education to women and repress non-Muslims.
"When you are told to accept as equal to our own a system of values and social mores that is harsh and cruel, you will stand up across the country and proclaim, 'I'm sorry imam, hear this: Sharia is not good for women or other living things," Galinsky said.
About the Imam
The imam she referred to is Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is behind the proposed Islamic center. He emigrated to the United States 45 years ago. He currently is on a Middle Eastern speaking tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Rauf also represented the United States in the Muslim world during George W. Bush's presidency.
Rauf's wife, Daisy Khan, appeared on ABC television's This Week program on Sunday. She said her husband's vision for the center is modeled after similar Christian and Jewish centers that are open to all Americans. Many include places for worship.
"There will be a 500-seat auditorium; there will be a swimming pool; there will be athletic facilities; there will be cooking classes; there will be schools, you know, small education forums, conferences. And it will become a place where ideas can be exchanged," Khan explained.
Appearing with Khan on ABC's This Week program was Rabbi Joy Levitt, director of New York's Jewish Community Center. Levitt said she welcomes the Islamic center. She argued that Muslims are confronting many of the same prejudices that Jews faced when Peter Stuyvesant was governor of New York.
"Peter Stuyvesant refused to allow synagogues to be built in New York in the 1600s. It took an act of Congress here in Washington to allow synagogues to be built. In Connecticut, there were no synagogues allowed to be built in the 1600s and 1700s," Levitt said.
Islamic center supporters gathered on a street corner two blocks from what many opponents are calling the Ground Zero Mosque. Many critics say they believe that Khan and her husband have ulterior motives for building the center and that they represent a faith that is at odds with American values. Supporters take the couple at their word and accept them as solid American citizens.
There is little sign of a compromise. Khan says the Islamic center must be built because there is too much at stake. Several speakers at the protest rally said it must not be built because it threatens American liberty.