Play Music – And They May Come

Muslims linger around the stall for the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays, after the Muslim Day Parade procession.

Muslims linger around the stall for the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays, after the Muslim Day Parade procession.

BY TALA AL RAMAHI

Clusters of men and woman chanted “Allah Akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic), as they marched 20 blocks down Madison Avenue, holding flags of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Turkey and other countries. Several feet behind them, the New York Police Department marching band followed, playing “This Land is My Land,” the only musical soundtrack to the two-hour procession.

Once they reached their final destination- across from Madison Square Garden- the participants took off their shoes, spread plastic sheets on the street block, and began to pray.

This was the 24th year that New York City has hosted a Muslim Day Parade, but also the year that will most likely mark a change in the way it is held. When the parade first made its way to the streets of New York 24 years ago, more than 8,000 people from the tri-State area showed up –Muslims and non-Muslims, alike.
However, in the last eight years, Muslims of New York City–a little shy of 1 million—stopped attending. This year marked the lowest turnout yet.

“When we first started, people were very enthusiastic, but interest started fading quickly,” said Ainul Haque, a Pakistani immigrant and the Director of the Muslim Foundation of America, the organization that runs the parade. He estimates that 2,500 people attended event on the Oct. 18 – an unseasonably cold, wet day — , though some observers said the turnout seemed much lower.
Manzoor Hussain, the Executive Editor for a weekly Pakistani paper based in Brooklyn, Dunya International, said he counted only 400 spectators by the time the procession reached its end on 23rd street.

Haque believes he knows why the tables have turned. “Profiling,” he said matter-of-factly. After a pause, he explained: “Muslims are worried that if they get involved in an event like this now, they will be wrongly associated with terrorists.”

In the past, the parade has sparked confrontations with anti-Muslim protestors who lined the barricades, some wearing t-shirts critical of the Council for American Islamic Relations. YouTube clips from previous years document the confrontations
This year, even the protestors didn’t come.

But there is also another reason why the parade is not living up to the organizers’ expectations. “Muslims are very diverse and come from different countries,” Haque explained. “They are divided into sub communities in the US, and some of these communities have their own parades.”

While other ethnic parades are not necessarily new, their organizers have managed to secure funding more easily, from their direct communities, which in turn allows them to set up “more attractive” shows, Haque believes.

One especially popular parade in the City is the Pakistan Independence Day Parade, which annually hosts big-name singers from Pakistan, as well as flavorful ethnic food and dance from the country. New York is home to the largest concentration of Pakistani immigrants in the Unites States; 48 percent of the total Pakistani immigrants moving to the US live in the state.

Hussain, who observed the Pakistan Parade this year and described it as “very successful- almost 8,000 people were present,” explained that what was missing from the Muslim Parade was “the fun” that the Pakistani equivalent offered.

“People are interested in dance, and music, and they will come if they think they will learn something, but also enjoy themselves,” said Hussain.

However, a large part of the Muslim Day Parade is about serious issues, said Haque, “to involve Muslim Americans in the political process, and have their voices heard.”

One group that participated was the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays, a partnership of 55 labor, religious, community and advocacy organizations pushing to include two of the largest Muslim holidays in the New York City public calendar.

One of its members, Hesham El-Meligy said the weather contributed partly to the particularly low turnout this year; people had to brave a chilly 40-degree wet and overcast October afternoon. But he also said that the most recent arrest of Ahmad Wais Afzali, a popular Imam based in Queens, allegedly involved in a terrorist plot, “renewed fear and the backlash against the Muslim community, similar to what erupted after September 11.”

One woman, Mariam Ali, a Pakistani immigrant who attended the parade this year said she came despite the backlash.

“I wanted to show people in America that we are not terrorists,” she said. “Islam does not stop us from being Americans and connecting with other communities.”

Ali has been attending the parade for five years now, and said she noticed the dwindling turnout, but has been adamant at showing up every year to compensate for the lack of interest by others.

Despite her enthusiasm, she said she hoped organizers would acknowledge the lack of interest and do something about it.

Haque said he realizes that the Muslim Parade might be missing the “fun factor” that keeps people interested. He said the team that runs the parade is already looking at innovative ways to recapture the interest of Muslims and non-Muslims, by adding dance and “sharia compliant” music routines to the schedule.

“We want to add cultural aspects,” he said. “People want entertainment, so we might add Sufi music to our agenda.”

But because this is a parade representing a religion, there are limitations to how much fun can be on the menu, Haque explained.

“We must make sure we don’t go beyond the limits of Sharia (Islamic Law), but still find a way to keep people engaged and entertained,” he added.

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