By Nivia Martinez
The revival of Islam came about in the Arabian Peninsula, but today we can find a Muslim practicing Islam, reading the Qur’an and living a lifestyle of peace in every corner of the world. Those who were not raised Muslim sometimes think they have to make a choice whether or not to continue acknowledging their cultural heritage once they become a Muslim. The beauty of Islam is that it does not ask an individual to destroy his or her individuality. We can still follow the customs and traditions we were raised with, as long as they are in accordance with Islam.
Today we see Islam on every continent. Within the U.S. there are communities that have shattered the idea that Islam is exclusively for people from Africa, the Middle East or Asia. In reality, the Muslim community is inclusive of everyone. Its diversity is something to be valued and embraced as a means to unify. It is a reminder that though we came from a singular being, Adam (may peace be upon him), we have taken on a wide variety of political lines, customs and beliefs. Yet, thanks to God, we are united as one body and can pray side by side with an individual from a different background that we may never find in our own cultural enclave.
Still unbeknownst to many, there is a Latin Muslim community thriving within the US and growing day-by-day in Latin America. The phenomenon of the growing and diverse Latin Muslim community received exposure in the 50th Annual Hispanic Day Parade in NYC, which gathered 18 Latin American countries in a single event. This annual gathering is one of the most colorful scenes in NYC, as it features the folkloric culture of every Latin American country. The themes are played in music, dance and costumes. The Hispanic Parade committee that organizes the event allows each group that participates to demonstrate their unique character.
Our goal in participating in this parade was to demonstrate that within the mostly Christian Hispanic community, there exists a diverse Hispanic Muslim community from countries such as Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia and the Dominican Republic. We wanted to show that we are just as proud of our heritage and that our faith does not separate us from our roots. It in fact brings us closer to these roots as it is a community-oriented way of life, which praises fellowship among humanity. Hispanic Muslims still share the same passion and love for their family as the rest of the Latin community throughout the world. Islam does not restrict anyone from participating in such events and marching peacefully with our Christian friends that share our cultural heritage. What mattered most in our participation is that it was a public venue with thousands of spectators who have probably never witnessed Muslims gathered in one of the largest parades in NYC. Our participation demonstrated that we are not closed off from society, and that our beliefs do not separate us. It unifies us all.
Our theme of unity was displayed through a colorful float which consisted of an arch displaying the words “Un Creador, Una Familia, Una Planeta” (One Creator, One Family, One Planet), with a globe underneath. On the back panel of the float we displayed the message “Somos Musulmanes Hispanos” (We are Hispanic Muslims). The headscarves on the women, men donning long beards and thobes (traditional Arab garment for men), and the Latin American flags we held were the real symbols of who we are. Our float was designed to give a message of unity and to show Islam in a positive light.
In preparing for this event, many of us wondered how the crowd would react to our participation. As this is a day when thousands of people are gathered with a sense of pride and happiness to see their country being represented, I knew that the overall happy nature of the event would be reflected in the spectators’ view of us. As we passed them in our float, there were flags waving back at us, shouting the name of their country at us, and some glaring while taking a moment to read the message on our float. The NYPD officers that were guarding the event were mostly serious in their gestures. On the other hand, I noticed a few officers crack soft smiles and one that snapped a picture as he stood in front of a divider.
There was one particular spectator that showed his enthusiasm when he saw us passing by throwing his fist in the air followed by a kiss on his knuckles, in what I see as a symbol of solidarity with the struggle many Muslims are facing. Further on, a man waving his flag yelled, “Alhamdulillah,” a common Arabic phrase meaning “All praise be to God.” A man and a woman from Colombia who were there to march with a different group decided to jump in along with us instead and even asked a fellow participant for his Palestinian flag. These two proceeded to walk among us and wave the Palestine flag to the crowd. These situations were unexpected, but it made me feel as if though the struggle we are facing is not as deep as some of us may think.
What I learned from this event is the impact a positive message has on the way people view us. When we show the world a positive message, the only thing that we can get in return is even more love and positivity. This is extremely valuable in a time when hateful speech towards Islam is louder than the kind, rational voice of Islam. It helps to discourage listeners of hateful speech towards Muslims from accepting this rejection and hatred. On the contrary, justifying our beliefs through endless debates creates a notion that it is okay to use a person’s faith to understand why bad things happen. It creates an atmosphere in which it is okay to generalize and categorize people by the actions of a smaller group. It promotes bigotry and justifies hostility among people. What we do not see in the media are the people who support us, empathize with our struggle and want to see the Muslim community demonstrate even more acts of peace that refute what the media says. The media does not showcase individuals that want to march with us and show their solidarity by waving their fists in the air when they see us striving. These people do exist and will continue to stand with us as long as we continue to show our gratitude and desire for peace.