At one point, a portion of the crowd menacingly surrounded two Egyptian men who were speaking Arabic and were thought to be Muslims.A bigoted crowd targets two Christians who happen to be Arab, and who in fact are so devoted to their faith that they work at a Christian TV station and came to protest the mosque (which is neither a mosque nor at the World Trade Center site) themselves. All those protesters needed was to see a swarthy complexion and assumed that the two could not possibly be fellow travelers.
"Go home," several shouted from the crowd.
"Get out," others shouted.
In fact, the two men – Joseph Nassralla and Karam El Masry — were not Muslims at all. They turned out to be Egyptian Coptic Christians who work for a California-based Christian satellite TV station called "The Way." Both said they had come to protest the mosque.
"I'm a Christian," Nassralla shouted to the crowd, his eyes bulging and beads of sweat rolling down his face.
But it was no use. The protesters had become so angry at what they thought were Muslims that New York City police officers had to rush in and pull Nassralla and El Masry to safety.
"I flew nine hours in an airplane to come here," a frustrated Nassralla said afterward.
The whole undignified situation reminds me of the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit," one of the few pieces of music—like the Queen of the Night's aria in The Magic Flute—whose dissonant, insistent melody is itself terrifying. The lyrics, no less hard-hitting, were inspired by a 1930 photograph of a double-lynching in Marion, Indiana. (NPR's All Things Considered recently did a segment on it, which is how I heard the song for the first time. NPR includes a remarkable archival interview with a third man who was to be strung up on that day in 1930 but escaped.)
"Strange Fruit" was one of Holiday's most popular songs but the opening verse makes it clear why it was not part of my cultural upbringing:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,Is this really what we want to go back to?
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.