The first came amid the August heat wave when Mayor Bloomberg went to Governors Island to eloquently remind us, as we debate this downtown mosque business, that part of this city's history of religious tolerance is rooted in its Dutch heritage.
A more modern lesson came on Saturday, September 11. It was a perfect late-summer day, a lot like the one nine years ago that makes many of us stop breathing for a few seconds whenever the memory resurfaces.
This is supposed to be a day of mourning and reflection, but some people can't help themselves. A speaker's platform was erected just north of the World Trade Center site where the annual memorial service had ended only a couple of hours earlier. There, a huge crowd stood two blocks deep on West Broadway going wild over a Dutch guy named Geert. He had a thick double-decker mane of platinum hair, wore a neon green tie, and spoke perfect English. Bloomberg, he said, needed to learn that tolerance should only go so far. He won loud boos at mention of the mayor. "A tolerant society is not a suicidal society," Geert said to roars. "Openness can never be open-ended." Keep going down Bloomberg's road, he warned, and you're headed directly to a place called "New Mecca." More roars.
His full name is Geert Wilders, and the movement he heads back home in the Netherlands has apparently done the best job of arousing fanatics since little men in brown and black shirts were strutting around European capitals just before World War II. His solution to the presence of Muslims in his own country is the banning of the Koran and of the construction of mosques. Another inventive proposal he has offered is to tax Muslim women for the right to wear headscarves. To show he is not prejudiced, he would use the money to fund women's causes.
This is the role model for rally organizer Pamela Geller, founder of a group called Stop Islamization of America. Geller, who has long, curly locks and talks in heavy Long Island nasal, has demonstrated her own liberation by posing in a bikini for a Christmas postcard to American troops. Despite battalions of police on the street, she had two dozen hulking private security guards dressed in black suits surrounding the stage. She sounded giddy as she announced Wilders: "Our keynote speaker has come all the way from Holland," she cried. "I want a cheer for him!"
She got her wish, but many were still puzzled about the guy up there with the luminous hair. "Who is he?" asked a tiny woman in her 70s holding a "No Obama Mosque" sign. "Some Dutch politician," she was told. "Dutch?" she said, her nose wrinkling in puzzlement. Moments later, she was applauding his punchlines. "We are here today to draw the line," shouted Wilders. "Here, on this sacred spot."
On a packed block of demonstrators between Murray and Warren streets, Wilder's words were drowned out when a slim woman with brown curly hair blew one of those long plastic horns that blared throughout the South African soccer games in June. A big man with a bald head tried to grab it. There was pushing and shoving. A row or two behind, a man in shorts and a red polo shirt bellowed for police. "Get her out!" he screamed. "Grab her by the neck and force her out!" A pair of cops, both African-American women, eventually unhinged the metal pens and escorted the woman with the vuvuzela and two of her friends away. "Pull your bushels over your head and go home," yelled the man.
Asked what that was all about, the man in the red shirt seemed a little embarrassed: "I was just going to come here, to stand and listen," he said, shrugging. He said his name was Joe Meagher and he lives on Staten Island and works for a bank. "I just don't see why they can build this mosque, and that Greek church that got wiped out down here on 9/11 can't even get a permit to rebuild."
Since the mosque debate broke, Fox News has been heavily promoting the story that the rebuilding of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, destroyed when the towers collapsed, has been blocked by bureaucrats. Actually, the Port Authority thought it had a deal, after years of negotiations, to provide a plot of land on Liberty Street, plus $60 million in public funds, for a new and bigger church. The deal fell apart, officials say, when church leaders upped the ante at the last minute. Negotiations are stalled.
Still, that's pretty much the way fractured history gets relayed in the Internet era. A steady refrain from the stage and among protesters was that Muslims want the center on Park Place as a "victory mosque" to mark their success in taking down the towers. "They've done it every time they've conquered, from Jerusalem to Cordoba," said a man in sunglasses holding forth on Church Street. If so, I must've missed the Battle of 96th Street. That's where Muslims built the city's largest mosque at the corner of Third Avenue. When they broke ground back in 1987, then-mayor Ed Koch, a noted terrorist-coddler, shouted, "Allahu Akbar"—"God is Great"—over and over.
At the rally, not far from where the fracas over the horn broke out, a Pakistani man wearing a Nehru jacket was debating all comers. Syed Haider was holding a sheaf of leaflets with tiny print headed, "What is Islam?" His wife and small daughter stood nearby as he argued with a man in a porkpie hat with a long braid down his back. Alongside him was a woman wearing a cowboy hat and a low-cut bright orange dress, with an "Elvis" tattoo on her shoulder. What would Elvis have said about the mosque? "I honestly think Elvis would've said, 'Live and let live,' " answered the woman, Susan Atkinson. "Of course, Elvis was a patriot. He served his country, so he would've said something about it."
As she spoke, her friend was trying to get in the last word in the debate. "So what do you tell your nine-year-old daughter here about the fact that the Koran says you should marry her off at her age?" he asked. Haider stared at the man: "She's 10, and the Koran doesn't say that," he answered.
"Believe it or not," Haider said after the couple moved away, "I didn't even plan on coming to this. We drove in from New Jersey for lunch. We were headed to a very nice Pakistani tea house right up the street here. I saw this old man in religious dress with these leaflets, and people were giving him a very hard time. I said, 'I'll help you out,' and took some of his papers. I felt I had to tell these people the truth about how Muslims hate terrorism, how there are more of us getting killed in Pakistan by terrorists than anywhere else."
His daughter looked up and said something about being ready to eat. Haider smiled and patted her head. "Yes, we'll go," he said. A few minutes later, he was spotted deep in another debate huddle, defending his faith the old-fashioned way: with words.