On a frigid, windy night in Washington, a couple hundred people trekked to the Newseum for a vigil for the murdered French journalists from the Parisian weekly Charlie Hebdo, the police that died trying to protect them, and those that were wounded.
The gathering started off small, with maybe 15 or so trying to stay warm. But as the group grew, the organizers moved the participants inside the Newseum, where those without "Je Suis Charlie" signs were provided with one. The huge Jumbotron inside the Newseum bore the same message. After a few minutes, a hundred or so participants lined up behind the organizers holding their signs -- and two of the organizers spoke to the media.
Olivier Roumy and Alex Cournol, the two main organizers and French expatriates both, spoke to the camera-wielding press about the importance of freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and thanked the participants for joining them in solidarity. That lasted about three minutes, until Roumy introduced Nihad Awad, executive director and co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.
"He called me," said Roumy, "and asked to join us tonight, and I think that's..." Roumy couldn't finish his sentence, as Awad popped in front of the cameras to take center stage.
After introducing himself and his organization CAIR, Awad opened: "Thank you very much for doing this, you are all united." He continued: "This is not about religion, this is about narrow mindedness. It is about a myopic ideology that knows no religious bounds and has no respect for human life. As my friend said, one of the two officers who were gunned down, his name is Ahmed Merabet, he is Muslim, and that shows that these people are killing more Muslims than others. And there's no religious justification for the murder that they did today. We are all, Muslims, Christians, Jews, religious, not religious, we are all united against this barbaric act -- and we are all united in the face of tyranny and the face of this murderous act and mindset."
Roumy and Cournol briefed the crowd on the next step -- heading back outside into the cold Washington evening to read off the names of the deceased, one by one, followed by a cry of "Je Suis Charlie!" I chatted with a cameraman from a local TV outlet about Awad's mic grab and was told, "We [a local TV station] actually called him, and he's like 'what are you doing now?' He didn't know about it. So he came here because we called him."
A few moments later, the crowd was mostly organized for the relocated cameras, and Nihad Awad made his way to the front and center of the crowd, between Cournol and another organizer, who read the names of the dead. Unlike everyone around him, Awad was not holding not a Je Suis Charlie sign, but one for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The crowd was emphatic in chanting "Je Suis Charlie" after each name, but Awad was suddenly taciturn. Given his self-appointed front and center status on camera, it was awkward.
After a minute or two, the vigil officially concluded with the last "Je Suis Charlie." The group clapped, and Roumy shook Awad's hand. The cameras broke off of their tripods and the media closed in to interview folks. Awad quickly found D.C.'s ABC 7. His eventual appearance on the 11 p.m. news was clipped to a one-liner.
"These alleged perpetrators claimed that they avenged the prophet Mohamed, I say to them they offended the prophet today."
As Awad moved from ABC 7 to another willing camera, I asked an organizer next to Cournol whether Awad was invited. He replied, "He spoke to us, I think once we started getting the word out on social media about the event and everything. He made it clear that they wanted to be here."
IMF managing director Christine Lagarde also showed, waiting with the crowd behind the cameras. She greeted the many French citizens in Washington there to show solidarity with her countrymen. The majority of conversations I heard now were in French -- on a late night, in a land far from home.
They were sharing their grief over a tragedy that clearly was "not about religion."