Thousands of Muslims, prostrating themselves in prayer, gathered just feet from the Capitol on Friday for “A Day of Islamic Unity,” an event intended to showcase what organizers called the “peace, beauty and solidarity” of Islam.
Hassen Abdellah, a lawyer and president of the Dar-ul-Islam Mosque in Elizabeth, N.J., said he was inspired to organize the event by President Obama’s attempt to reach out to Muslims in his inaugural address.
“We should also extend our hand,” Abdellah said.
The turnout fell far short of the 50,000 predicted, but the crowd was energetic as participants rolled out variegated prayer mats and plastic tarps in front of the Capitol, where Obama’s inauguration was held in January.
“We can show the world that not all Muslims hate America,” said Habib Beyah, who came from New Jersey with his son to participate. “Not all Muslims are terrorists. Not all Muslims are extremists.”
Beyah expressed his pride in the United States. “We don’t believe in Sharia,” he said, referring to Islamic law. “This is the United States. We were born here, and we will die here.”
Some conservative and Christian groups objected to the gathering. About 50 people waved signs with statements such as “Trust Jesus” and handed out fliers in small demonstrations outside the prayer area.
“When Islam is weak, they will be the religion of peace,” said Rusty Thomas, a minister who traveled from Waco, Texas, with Operation Save America to protest the event. “When they get the upper hand, out comes the sword.”
Other conservative groups highlighted the fact that Abdellah was one of the lawyers for Mahmud Abouhalima, who was convicted of conspiracy in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Abdellah brushed off the criticism, noting that accused criminals have a constitutional right to legal counsel.
Several Muslim leaders said the presence of a small but vocal opposition was expected.
The event was just “another example of Muslim participation in society,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “What is noteworthy is that when Muslims seek to participate in society, they are going to face a small minority of bigots and racists.”
Abdellah agreed. “Muslims aren’t here to take over the country,” he said. “They’re here to help make it better.”