US president Barack Obama, US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Admiral Michael Mullen (left) and defence secretary Robert Gates stand during the playing of the national anthem at the Pentagon Memorial. (AFP: Mandel Ngan)
- United States president Barack Obama has told a deeply polarised America that Islam is not the enemy as ceremonies took place to mark an unusually tense, ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Moving remembrance ceremonies were held to honour the nearly 3,000 people killed when Islamist hijackers slammed airliners into New York’s World Trade Centre, the Pentagon outside Washington and a field in Pennsylvania.
But with protests planned at a proposed mosque two blocks from Ground Zero and a Florida pastor triggering demonstrations across the Muslim world with his threat to burn the Koran, this was the most politicised 9/11 anniversary yet.
Speaking at the Pentagon, Mr Obama addressed the politically explosive domestic debate as well as enraged Muslims abroad.
“As Americans we will not and never will be at war with Islam. It was not a religion that attacked us that September day. It was Al Qaeda, [a] sorry band of men, which perverts religion,” he said, urging Americans not to succumb to “hatred and prejudice”.
“Just as we condemn intolerance and extremism abroad, so will we stay true to our traditions here at home as a diverse and tolerant nation.”
Usually a day of carefully choreographed respect, this year’s 9/11 anniversary has been marred by an angry debate over the planned mosque near Ground Zero and Florida pastor Terry Jones’ threat to publicly burn the Koran if the mosque is not scrapped.
The pastor arrived in New York to continue publicising his campaign, while rival street rallies were planned near the controversial mosque project site.
Mr Jones said he no longer wanted to desecrate the Muslim holy book, “not today, not ever”.
But his stunt had already raised political temperatures in the United States and triggered protests across the Muslim world, including a riot in Afghanistan where US commanders say they fear a backlash for their troops.
Mr Obama, who has forcefully defended the mosque plan as being protected under the US constitution, said again that “we champion the rights of every American, including the right to worship as one chooses”.
Hundreds of demonstrators supporting the right of Muslims to build an Islamic community centre and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero said that Muslims across the United States were being demonised over the nearly decade-old 9/11 attacks.
Nearby an anti-mosque group slammed the project as a slap in the face to the memory of 9/11.
They accuse the Islamic centre of aiming to honour the 9/11 terrorists and argue that Muslims should not be allowed a significant presence anywhere near Ground Zero.
Others say that the feelings of families of those killed on 9/11 are still too raw to accept the project.
The political turmoil around this year’s anniversary has disturbed many who have asked for the day to remain purely commemorative.
“Let me say just one thing,” one of the survivors said in tears, after reading the name of her lost family member in the Ground Zero ceremony.
“This is a day to be sombre, a day to reflect on all those thousands of people who died on us in the United States.”
Despite the protests, this was still a day of reflection for many across America. At Ground Zero, where for the first time reconstruction work is visibly gathering pace, a youth choir opened the ceremony with the national anthem.
US vice-president Joseph Biden and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg were among those attending the annual ritual of reading the names of all 2,752 people killed when two hijacked airliners destroyed the Twin Towers.
Bereaved relatives held up portraits of their lost loved ones under a perfectly clear sky as they listened to the litany of names read by often tearful survivors and members of the reconstruction team.
“We come not to mourn but to remember and rebuild,” Mr Biden said.
At a third ceremony in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the fourth plane seized by the attackers crashed in a field, first lady Michelle Obama and her predecessor Laura Bush addressed relatives of the passengers and crew.
“May the memories of those who gave their lives here continue to be a blessing to all of you and an inspiration to all Americans,” Ms Obama said.
As part of the remembrance, a group of Australian firefighters took part with their American colleagues in a coast-to-coast run across the US.
Patrick Ritchie was among them at Ground Zero this morning.
“Our commemoration began on August 12 and our journey has taken us right across the country, and you know, we’re lucky,” he said.
“I think we’ve achieved what we set out to. But today is a day we should all remember. It took the lives of a lot of people in some really sad terrorist attacks.”