Several thousand Muslims convened on the Capitol grounds for a peaceable day of prayer Friday, voicing their religious fervor and solidarity with American values while ignoring scattered protesters of other faiths.
"Allah Akbar!" shouted the sea of worshippers in flowing white and gold robes and headwear, following a mid-afternoon recital from the Koran. The estimated 8,000 in attendance chanted and used carpets, blankets, jackets, and plastic tarp as the traditional ground cover on which they knelt in prayer. A sermon afterward urged all Muslims to "God bless America" and avoid the "trap" of hating anyone, particularly Christians and Jews.
The crowd in attendance on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol Building was comprised predominantly of people of color and men, with females seated separately. They arrived from disparate points across the country, mostly the East Coast, to take part in what organizers billed as "Jummah Prayer on Capitol Hill: A Day of Islamic Unity." In Arabic, "Jummah" refers to a day of gathering, usually traditional Friday prayers.
No arrests or disturbances of any kind could be seen in several hours of observing the event. Asked if any such incidents had occurred, a law enforcement official on site who declined to provide her name said, "Only what you see."
At remote locations, distanced far away from the proceedings and under the watchful eyes of uniformed and plainclothes Capitol Police, scattered groups of Christians used microphones and public address systems to voice their displeasure with the Muslim event.
One such group, whose members displayed two oversized tablets similar to those seen in Biblical depictions of the Ten Commandments, called itself "Operation Save America" and distributed pamphlets saying: "Abortion is Murder!! Homosexuality is Sin!! Islam is a Lie!!"
The organizer of the Muslim event, Hassen Abdellah, a criminal defense lawyer from Elizabeth, New Jersey, urged the Christian groups to "show respect" and not disrupt the Muslim worship service. But the din of the Christians' rally chants, amplified over their portable public address systems, could still be heard while an aged Muslim cleric led the thousands of Muslims in prayer.
At one point, Abdellah, adopting a sarcastic tone, told the crowd: "Look at all these terrorists!" In his remarks and others', a recurring theme was affronted astonishment that anyone would express suspicion of, or protest against, people of faith gathering at the Capitol simply to pray en masse.
"The idea [behind the event] is to express and illustrate the beautiful diversity in Islam, the spirituality in Islam, the humanity in Islam," he told FOX News in an interview Thursday.
"Americans have been asking and requesting and calling out for Muslims to come out who renounce the violence, who renounce the criminality and the hijacking of the religion," he said. "And we believed that if we started a grassroots movement, Muslims would appear and show up in tens [of thousands] and droves, because the majority of Muslims in America love this country."
An open letter signed by 19 activists, mostly conservative Christians and including Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, was circulated in the days prior to the Muslim day of prayer. It called on Abdellah and other organizers to "unequivocally denounce" specific terrorist acts and plots of recent years, starting with the Sept. 11 attacks.
"[W]e note," said the signatories, that "the overwhelming number of terrorist acts are carried out by Muslims, that many Muslim-American groups have terrorist ties and that justification for acts of violence against 'infidels' is found in the Koran."
Other attacks the signatories called on Abdellah to denounce, in addition to 9/11, included the March 2002 Park Hotel bombing in Netanya, Israel, which killed 30 people and injured 140 others; the October 2002 Bali hotel bombing that killed 202 people; the plot to attack Fort Dix, disrupted by U.S. officials in May 2007; and the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, in which 173 people were killed.
Abdellah had not seen the letter until a FOX News reporter showed it to him during Thursday's interview. Asked for his response, Abdellah said: "Muslims, individually and collectively, repudiate these acts, but I don't think tomorrow is the place for us to repudiate specific acts. Tomorrow is about our faith; it's not about politics. Because if we involve politics in the Jummah prayer, then what we'll do is only bring on other controversies. We're trying to bring people together."
A former Union City, New Jersey prosecutor, Abdellah in private practice has represented a number of confessed and convicted terrorists. They include one who took part in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and another who sold fake identification documents to the 9/11 hijackers. Asked if this background made him a poor evangelist to spread a message of Muslim solidarity with America, Abdellah disagreed, saying such logic would preclude an attorney who has represented drug dealers from taking part in anti-drug events.
Still, not all sentiments expressed at the Capitol event were unqualifiedly pacifist or positive. One speaker addressed news media present and said, "Some of you can be friendly, but you can also be vicious." The same speaker, who could not immediately be identified, also chastised Oprah Winfrey for promoting actresses who make money by "baring their bodies," and said such activities encourage the establishment of prostitution rings like the one that brought down former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
There was also no denying that the day of prayer attracted some individuals and groups fanatical in their hatred of Muslims. At a separate event, held simultaneously in a conference room at the Rayburn House Office Building, a group calling itself Stop Islamization of America warned about the supposedly hateful, violent, and anti-Western teachings of the Koran.
John Cosgrove, who identified himself as a counterterrorism consultant, called on "American males" to "stand shoulder to shoulder" in the battle to save America from the imposition of Sharia on American law. Sharia is a body of Islamic law used, with varying degrees of severity and harshness toward women, in many Muslim societies. At one point, Cosgrove brandished a book called The Quranic Concept of War to demonstrate the supposedly aggressive and confrontational nature of ancient and modern Islam.
Noting the arguments of some that Thomas Jefferson possessed a copy of the Koran, Cosgrove conceded this was true and added: "He had it so that he could know his enemy, so he could confront them, know them, kill them, and vanquish the Islamic pirates, the scourge of the seas and spreading tyranny abroad. After reading the Koran, founding the Marines and expanding the Navy to go kill them, I think he laid the Koran down thinking perhaps he was done. Sadly, it was not the case."
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).