Madison Ave. Lessons in Faith

Note: this was originally written for my NYU class about an event that took place on Sept 26, 2010.


He was trying to do me a favor. The security guard at the side of the press pen opened the gate as soon as he spotted my notebook. In the chaos of the crowd, I’d ended up standing in the middle of six very tall men, at the beginning of what was to be nearly three hours of speeches after the 25th annual Muslim Day Parade. I looked at the guard, into the pen, back at the crowd. I said, “No thanks. But thanks.” and he closed the gate and turned away. The parade officials were listing the names of their Board of Trustees. At the back of the shell hung a giant American flag. I walked back through the crowd into the bazaar.

Jabir Choudhry, one of the parade’s co-chairs, told me that the purpose of the parade was to bring Muslims in the New York area together, “so that they could learn from each other.” I had seen this in varying degrees of literalness: multiple tents at the post-parade bazaar sold books from around the world. One tent offered sign ups for free Arabic lessons. But I learned something, too: despite what I’d been told in my theology classes, one doesn’t really need to read the Qu’ran in Arabic in order to be Muslim. That is, practically speaking. I was asked, “Have you read the Qu’ran?” and replied, “Yes, but in English.” Three times I was asked, and three times, the reply was, “Oh, I don’t know Arabic either.” I asked why. One woman, who preferred that I didn’t use her name, said that for her it was something to learn as a way of deepening faith, not as a gateway. What was important first, she said, was that I believe, and know what is true. I thought about faith of a mustard seed. I thought about Latin Mass. I thought about Hebrew School and bat mitzvahs. It occurred to me that I had never before been proselytized by a Muslim. I knew some quotes, I knew some politics, but I didn’t know the “why.”

I ended up back in the crowd before the bandshell, in a small group of Bosnian women who stood uncomfortably close to me, scolding their teenaged kids (in a small group directly behind us) and, once, pointing to my notebook. Four speeches in, one of the women muttered, “I haven’t heard a word about Bosnia yet.” Although many of the speeches were about Muslim unity, standing up for one’s self, and the importance of being proud of one’s faith, what was being said on the stage at that moment was directed squarely at the journalists and other outsiders in the audience: Muslims must stand up and tell their own American narratives. The current narrative was wrong, and it wasn’t going to be fixed by those outside of the faith.

The crowd thinned out by the end of the second hour of post-parade speeches. I was waiting around to hear Nihad Awad, Executive Director of CAIR and one of the two Grand Marshals of the parade. The press pen was nearly empty, and at least half of the men (and one woman) on stage had not yet spoken. I wandered off into the park, still in earshot of the speakers, and listened.

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