Hundreds of descended on Villa Park City Hall in response to anti-Muslim comments made by Councilwoman Deborah Pauly at a February event. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011 | A strip center parking lot in Villa Park became a cauldron of religious and ethnic venting Tuesday as hundreds of protestors descended on the town’s city hall to release weeks of pent-up feelings over Villa Park Councilwoman Deborah Pauly’s perceived anti-Muslim comments at a Muslim charity event in February.

Muslims showed up to the Villa Park City Council meeting with signs and anger to condemn Pauly’s comments, as did mostly white pro-Pauly protesters — with their flags and signs — to defend her First Amendment rights. Jews, Christians, Christian Arabs, Quakers and a Sikh man also came, the entire scene bringing to a climax a controversy that has brought nationwide attention to the North Orange County bedroom community.

In a video put together by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Pauly, who is also the local Republican Party’s first vice chair, can be heard saying at the February, 13 protest in Yorba Linda: “I know quite a few Marines who would be very happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in paradise.”

The comments have sparked a debate here and elsewhere over what constitutes hate speech. Many of the protestors who supported Pauly said she was well within her First Amendment right to freedom of speech, while others said that Pauly’s comments were not right for a public official to make.

As Tuesday’s protest swelled, a multitude of debates on religion, assimilation in America, geopolitics, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the United States’ broader foreign policy role could be heard. Some debates were civil, while others turned into shouting matches.

Dozens of Orange County Sheriff’s deputies were on hand to prevent violence. That afternoon the District Attorney announced the arrest of 27-year-old Paul Andrews for, a press release said, threatening Pauly with violence.

Throughout the night, Muslims chanted “I am Muslim, I am not a terrorist!” While others chanted, “Racists go home!”

“Quakers have been in that position,” said Betty Guthrie, who said she was a Quaker. “350 years ago, Quakers were getting hanged for their faith. We are historically interested in peace and religious tolerance.”

A small group of protestors defended Pauly’s comments, and some voiced suspicion of Islam.

“No Sharia!” Members of the counter-protest shouted repeatedly.

“Islam means submit, and if you don’t submit then you’re wrong,” said pro-Pauly protestor John Hastings.

Dolly Hishmeh, a Christian Arab who is also president of the mostly Muslim Union of Arab-Americans, says she came out to support the Muslims. “I work for peace, I don’t work for prejudice people,” she said.

“I don’t want that hate to someday rub off on me,” added a Sikh man who attended and spoke at the protest. In an argument about assimilation into American society with a white protestor, the Sikh said “I am Sikh, do I have a right to be here?”

The woman replied, “when people come to America, they need to learn to assimilate.”

The council chambers, located between a day spa and a café in the shopping center, was filled to capacity within minutes of the doors opening at 7:00 p.m. The next hour was chaotic with overwhelmed city officials denying access to angry protestors and members of the media. They ultimately brought loud speakers out to the parking lot so the assembled could hear and participate in the meeting.

Inside, the City Council listened to speaker after speaker say their piece regarding Pauly’s comments.

Pauly did not speak during the meeting, but afterwards blamed CAIR for inciting the protests and “terrorizing this small city.”

“Had I know that CAIR was going to make that video, I would have been more specific,” Pauly said in reference to the fact that she did not single out the two controversial speakers at the Muslim charity event in her comments at the Yorba Linda protest.

Pauly also said she didn’t feel the need to clarify the context of her comments at that protest and said “it was absolutely crystal clear what we were talking about.”

Muslim leaders called for a public apology from Pauly. Leaders also called for her to be censured by the Villa Park City Council and for the Republican Central Committee to remove her title as first vice chair.

The protest also highlighted a debate among many about the compatibility of Sharia Law — a legal system prevalent in countries like Saudia Arabia — and American style Democracy. Protestors supporting Pauly said she had brought up an important debate.

“You’re seeing the clash of two world-views,” said Tom Trento, Director of The United West, an organization Trento says is aimed at directing Americans’ attention toward the Islamic system. “A 7th century Sharia compliant mindset versus Jeffersonian Democracy and the right of free speech.” He added, “It’s beautiful I think.”

But Salam Al Marayati, Executive Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, dismissed the perceived threat, saying that intolerance was the only threat to Democracy.

“If there’s anything that threatens the U.S. Constitution, it’s this hatred,” Al Marayati said.

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