Inter Press Service
If you think that most citizens of the United States are racist or anti-Muslim, perhaps you have been relying too much on television news, especially the shows produced by the private networks in the United States.
On the ninth anniversary of the tragic events of Sep. 11, thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets of the downtown financial district to call for peace and harmony among all communities and to denounce hatred against people of any faith.
Among them were Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheists, communists, anarchists, and, of course, Muslim men and women, who marched in the streets near the site where the World Trade Centre towers once stood.
"You see, this is New York. You saw that demonstration, and you saw this one too," said Saeed Shabazz, a long-time observer of U.S. domestic politics who covers the United Nations for the Final Call weekly newspaper. He was referring to a second, nearby gathering Saturday opposing the widely-publicised plan to build an Islamic community centre, known as Park51, near the fallen World Trade Centre towers site.
"That rally is nothing compared to this one, I mean in terms of numbers," Shabazz said.
Those who opposed Park51 – arguing that the location of the centre showed insensitivity – came out in the hundreds. The New Yorkers who supported Park51, following a call by the International Action Center that was joined by scores of groups, turned out in the thousands.
The police kept the rallies at a distance, but failed to prevent participants from shouting at each other, with people on both sides arguing loudly in favour of and against the centre.
"No mosque here. No mosque here," chanted the latter crowd, an overwhelming majority of them white.
A few blocks away, demonstrators of all ethnic and religious backgrounds chanted slogans against racism.
"We want jobs and justice in this country, not racism and war," said Ibrahim, who is in his 20s. "The real way to end war in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere demands nothing but peace."
Standing next to him, 50-year-old Annette Rovinsky, who said she had never taken part in a demonstration before, agreed with Ibrahim. "The opposition to the mosque building is an insult to the people who died in the 9/11 attacks. Many of them were Muslims, you know," she noted.
But for 52-year-old Samantha, who is not originally from New York, that line of reasoning is unacceptable. "If the powers behind this centre want to build a mosque, they should move somewhere else," she said. Asked if she had lost any family member during 9/11 attacks, she said "no".
In Shabazz's view, the movement against the centre is a sign that fomenting racism and fear is still a strategy of the political elites in the United States.
The centre has been opposed by conservative Republicans such as Sarah Palin, Rick Lazio, and Newt Gingrich, who had agreed to speak at Saturday's anti-Park51 rally but later pulled out.
"This is definitely related to the upcoming election campaign," Shabazz said, referring to the Republicans' bid to win back the House of Representatives and the Senate, which they lost to the Democrats in the 2008 elections.
Among others, the anti-Park51 rally was addressed by the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and far-right Republican leader John Bolton, and Geert Wilders, a conservative politician from the Netherlands who believes that Islam is comparable with fascism.
The demonstrations took place amid reports that a Florida pastor, Terry Jones, might or might not carry out his plan to burn copies of Quran, the holy book of Muslims, whose faith is embraced by more than 1.5 billion people across the world.
For their part, both U.S. President Barack Obama and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned Jones's threat to burn the Quran. The U.N. said such an act would be "abhorrent". Under tremendous pressure from the U.S. government, the pastor indicated Friday that he would not burn the holy book.
The U.N. has been hesitant, however, to wade into the fray over the community centre, although the world body has long championed building bridges among different faiths and religions.
"It's a local issue," Marc Scheuer of the U.N. Alliance of Civilisations told IPS at the first anti-community centre rally last week. "We cannot dictate what the practical outcome should be."
He said the U.N. is not part of this controversy, but added, "This debate should not be abused."
The Alliance was formed by the former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to explore the roots of polarisation between societies and cultures, and to recommend a practical programme of action to address this issue.
Under the Obama administration, as a member state of the U.N., the U.S. has become part of the Alliance.
Scheuer said religious leaders should come together to reduce tensions and suggest alternative solutions and urged the media to introduce "what we call the third voice in a polarised debate".
But some watchdog groups argue that to a large extent the media itself is to blame for growing inter-faith hostility in the United States and beyond its borders.
"It's largely a media story," said Steve Randall, a senior researcher at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watchdog in New York, about the lingering controversy over Park51.
"Watch the CNN and Fox [TV]," he said. "There is anti-Arab Islamophobia in the U.S. media."
Does it have something to do with the upcoming election? "Absolutely," he replied. "That is why they are adopting the language of hatred."