More than 100 protesters rallied Tuesday outside the district office of Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who has stirred controversy with his plans to hold hearings on radical Islam in his role as homeland security committee chairman.
A counter protest backing King broke out as well, with the total number of protesters split about evenly “for” and “against.” The peaceful groups were watched by at least 30 police officers on Park Boulevard in Massapequa Park.
Christian, Jewish and Muslim opponents of the hearings had billed their event as an interfaith “pray-in.”
An emotional Judi Gardner, 64, of Huntington said she came out to support the Muslim community in their efforts to cancel the hearings.
“It’s not fair, they are Americans, just like I’m an American,” said Gardner as she teared up. “I think these hearings are McCarthyism. I think that it’s bigotry to single out one group.”
Richard Lazevnick, 55, of Levittown came out to the demonstration after a friend of his called and told him people were protesting King.
“We have to be worried about our safety and our security,” he said as held up an orange sign supporting King. “We let all sorts of people in and whatever they believe. If you don’t believe in the American way and our government and our system of laws than you don’t belong in the United States.”
“Al-Qaida is recruiting right under our radar screen,” King told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “We are not going to cave to political correctness. There is a real threat to the country from the Muslim community and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to investigate what is happening.”
Opponents remained unwavering in their criticism of the hearings, which are set to begin in Washington on March 10 and expected to be held periodically for 18 months.
“Holding a witch hunt and a political circus will not make the country secure,” said Dr. Shaik Ubaid, co-chairman of the New York Chapter of Muslim Peace Coalition, told those gathered at the rally. “It will weaken its security by alienating Muslim youth and pushing them toward radicalization. The circus will not only demonize the Muslim community, but it will contribute to escalation of violent attacks and discrimination against Muslims and thus weaken American society and offer propaganda material to Al-Qaeda.”
Fellow pray-in organizer Sister Jeanne Clark, coordinator of Pax Christi Long Island, still had President’s Day on her mind as she evoked the founding fathers.
“Remembering the words of George Washington who said ‘To bigotry no sanction; to persecution no assistance,’” Clark said. “We stand here outside Peter King’s office because we believe that singling out an entire community such as Muslim Americans is un-American, unfair and does not make us safer.”
Clark later walked into King’s office with a letter signed by more than 80 Long Island clergy members and people of faith asking him to cancel the hearings.
“We fear this effort will only further divide our community and undermine our nation’s highest ideals,” the letter reads. “We urge you to cancel these hearing.”
Supporters were undeterred by the opposing side’s persistence. “We support King, we support King,” they chanted throughout the demonstration.
Some held signs that read, “No home-grown terrorists in America,” and “Nothing is more expensive than regret.”
Although the two groups were separated by a barricade, King supporters and those with the “pray-in” shouted at each other at times. The rally walked the line of noisy yet peaceful, but police stepped in at times to calm down demonstrators when the debate grew too heated.
When the verbal barrage became to loud, a man playing an acoustic guitar stepped in to calm the crowd by playing folk songs like “America the Beautiful,” and “This Land is Your Land.”
“Congressman King is one of our few leaders who has the courage to speak the truth and actually take action on a problem that was identified by this current administration,” said Tim Brown, a retired New York City Firefighter who went into the World Trade Center to rescue people on Sept. 11, 2001.
Talat Hamdani of Lake Grove, who lost her 23-year-old son, Mohammad Salman, in the terrorist attacks, condemned the hearings and called for more unity around the nation.
“He’s playing a blame game, which is not conducive to healing this nation,” Hamdani said as she held up sign that said “Muslims are American Too.”
“You know its been almost 10 years. We need to heal and move forward in solidarity, in unity, to overcome when the nation was traumatized by those attacks. And to hold the American-Muslim community and the whole faith of Islam accountable is not right.”
-With Associated Press