Islamic heritage celebrated at Philadelphia festival

Posted: June 12, 2011

As parades go, this one was small, but participants saw it as a way to make a statement about a big problem: prejudice against American Muslims.

They wanted to make the point - quietly - that Muslims are not a threat. Nor are they foreigners, in an area where many Muslims are African Americans.

About 100 representatives of Muslim organizations, ranging from a Boy Scout troop to the Moorish Science Temple of America to the Muslim American Veterans Association, gathered outside the Independence Visitor Center to start a gray, muggy day of festivities at the 19th annual Islamic Heritage Festival and Parade at Penn's Landing.

The marchers said they saw the parade as a way to combat the fear of Muslim terrorism with a message of peace, patriotism, and assimilation. "The principles that govern this nation are already principles that are adhered to in our faith," said Abdul Rahim-Muhammad, the primary organizer of the event for the ICPIC New Africa Center. "We don't see a conflict."

Like others involved in the event, he was worried that Americans associate Islam with terrorism. It also concerns him that many see Islam as a foreign faith when African Americans are among the dominant adherents in this country. Rahim-Muhammad, 60, is the son and grandson of American-born Muslims.

"Islam is not a foreign religion to me," he said. While Muslims from various countries mix, he said, the African Americans who predominated at Saturday's event celebrate Islam in a distinctly American way.

"We don't have to take on Arab culture or Arab life to be Muslim," he said.

In U.S. cities, African Americans account for about two-thirds of Muslims, said Khalid Blankinship, a Temple University expert on Islam who embraced the religion in 1973. He said most Muslims, regardless of ethnicity, shared the same Sunni doctrine.

He estimated that there were 100 mosques in the Philadelphia area and 60,000 Muslims. Between 2 percent and 4 percent of African Americans are Muslims, while the percentage is much lower for European Americans.

"America is not going to become Muslim overnight," Blankinship said. "It's just not going to happen."

Rahim-Muhammad said many African Americans had come to Islam through social movements, particularly in the 1960s. As many as 40 percent of the slaves brought to this country came from Islamic countries, he said, so embracing Islam was seen as a way of connecting with ancestors' preslavery roots.

At the parade, Ronald Hopkins-Bey, grand sheikh of the Moorish Science Temple of America in Philadelphia, said his group saw African Americans as descendants of the Moroccan empire. "We are Moorish Americans," he said.

He said his goal for the day was to "spread the gospel of love." Islam, he said, "is the religion of peace and not destruction. We hope to clear that up today to the best that we can."

Members of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community wore T-shirts that said, "Muslims for Peace." Meujeed Chaudhary, the group's president, said terrorism had "no foundation in Islam." He added that "America is a free country, and that is a fantastic thing for Muslims who are living in America."

Sameeh Ali, a Willingboro Vietnam War veteran who leads the Muslim American Veterans Association, said his group had come to the event for the first time this year "just to show America who we are and what we stood for." The organization, which was started in 1997 by a Korean War veteran who was a prisoner of war for two years, has 36 posts throughout the country. "Muslims have fought in every war that America has fought in, including the war of independence," he said.

Tourists snapped pictures of the marchers as they walked through the historic districts. They wound up at Penn's Landing, where booths offered religious pamphlets, henna designs, perfumes, colorful skirts and dresses, and typical festival food, including "Southern cuisine."


Contact staff writer Stacey Burling

at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.

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