Just a few blocks over, it was a typical busy Sunday in midtown Manhattan, packed with shoppers and tourists. But at the intersection of Madison Avenue and 38th Street, roughly 200 Muslim men and women quietly knelt down on the green and white tarpaulins spread across the Avenue, faced Mecca, and began their midday Zuhr prayers.
It was a fitting start for the 25th annual Muslim Day Parade, which dispensed with the over-the-top flair that draws thousands to New York’s more iconic parades on St. Patrick’s Day or Halloween. Though the American Muslim community continues to be dogged by controversy over the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero, the Muslim Day Parade went off without major incident. The festivities showcased a modest but diverse group of Muslims with origins across the city—and the world.
“What we’re looking to do is…show the peacefulness of Islam,” explained Rafeek Mohammed, who led the noon worship, singing melodious prayers that were broadcast on loudspeakers and echoed through midtown.
In 2007, protesters hurled insults at parade participants and accused organizers of supporting terrorist activities. This year it was quiet.
The heckling was “only human,” Mohammed reasoned. “We just have to show that we’re peaceful, and that we will ignore what [Islamophobes] say.” Still, fewer people attended this year’s parade, he suspected, because of fears of being hassled by passersby.
Even last year’s parade, which fell on a rainy day, had about a hundred more people than the 300 attendees on Sunday. Organizers aspire to one day attract 40 or 50 thousand people, said Shahi Bezar, a co-founder of the event, and member of the Muslim Foundation of America which organizes it.
What the parade lacked in numbers, though, it made up for in diversity. In addition to the city’s large Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi populations, Muslims from countries as diverse as Nigeria, Bosnia, and Guyana participated. Among the crowds, African-American policewomen wearing Muslim headscarves mingled with Indonesian teenagers in traditional batik printed shirts. From schoolteachers to city officials and homemakers, “unity” was the word on everyone’s lips.
“We have to ensure that the parade doesn’t become a [tool for] organizations with ulterior motives,” said Bezar. He condemned both radical Islam and Islamophobic protesters, like Florida Pastor Terry Jones, who threatened to burn the Muslim holy book, the Quran on the anniversary of September 11.
The Muslim Day Parade first took place in 1985. “The goal was to show that Muslims are a part of America, that we’re strong and united, and diverse in our language and culture,” Bezar added. “That was, and still is, the aim of the parade.”
“It’s great to see all our Muslim brothers and sisters together,” said Thanvir Laskar, a Bangladeshi-American high school student carrying an “I Love Islam” sign. He had come to the parade with Muslim family friends from Pakistan, Egypt, and even Mexico.
The parade also featured two unostentatious floats—one shaped like Jerusalem’s golden Dome of the Rock mosque, the other, the Mecca’s obsidian House of God. “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) chimed spectators from the sidewalk.
This year, the celebrations ended with speeches from the organizers, but also musical performances from children in the community. “I’m trying to liberalize [the parade] and emphasize Muslim culture,” Bezar explained. “I want to continue to improve the quality of the [show].”
It’s a tough proposition, he acknowledges, in a religious culture known more for refined simplicity than extravagance. “Having music and entertainment is not anti-Islamic, but some do think that to have [these things] in a parade is against Islam,” noted Bezar.
Though it might have been modest, Sunday’s event was more than just a festival for Islam. The occasion assembled an array of Muslims from myriad cultural backgrounds, asserting their right to the quintessential New York celebration, the parade.
Added Mohammed, “We try our best to show that we belong in this country, just as much as everyone else.”