The scene seemed surreal, yet oddly poignant: at a silent, deserted intersection in the center of Midtown Manhattan, beneath bland corporate logos and brick office buildings, hundreds of Muslims knelt on a sprawling tarpaulin, faced due east and commenced the midday call to prayer.
The ceremony, held along a blocked-off portion of Madison Avenue, marked the start of the American Muslim Day Parade on Sunday, an annual event, first held in 1985, that brings together Muslims of many ethnicities and nationalities who worship in the New York region.
The parade is intended as a celebration of diversity and pride in the Muslim community, but this year it had a difficult context: national controversies over a planned Islamic center and mosque near ground zero, the threatened desecration of Korans by anti-Muslim ministers, and recent incidences of what the authorities called hate crimes against Muslims, including a New York City cabdriver who was slashed.
Some marchers had feared protesters on Sunday, but only the occasional Christian missionary appeared. Still, the turnout was far smaller than at the city’s better-known ethnic parades, and a few organizers speculated that safety concerns kept many Muslims away. “Some people are too scared to show up,” said Zaheer Uddin, executive director of the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York, a sponsoring group.
But many participants, while acknowledging their concern over the increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric, said the troubles had only further encouraged them to attend this year.
“This has been a tough year for Islam,” said Shahid Khan of East Northport, N.Y., who brought his entire extended family into the city for the event. He and his children wore traditional Muslim clothing, outfits that he said they did not otherwise wear during the year.
“This is for my children to see different cultures, different people speaking different languages, marching together under the banner of Islam,” Mr. Khan said. “We want to come down here more than previous years to show we’re united against this bigotry.”
The participants included imams wearing full-length religious garb and more secular Muslims in T-shirts and denim. A group of Muslim police officers, in full uniforms, marched the length of the parade.
A lieutenant with the fire department of Elmsford, N.Y., Syed Alirahi, said: “We are public servants. Most of us are born here, live here and die here. We’re going to fight for our country. Today is our opportunity to show ourselves to other people, and our contributions to the country as Muslims.”
Still, for all its celebratory nature, the event could not stray far from recent controversies.
“To the man sitting in the Sunshine State, I feel sorry for that man,” said Shamas us-Zaman, the event’s master of ceremonies, referring to Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who gained worldwide attention for threatening to burn Korans. “We want to send a message to these kind of sick people: Muslim Americans respect the holy Bible, the Koran and other religious books.”