By Zainab Arain
September 26th, 2010 – A flurry of negative media coverage was the backdrop for this year’s Muslim Family Day at Six Flags theme parks nationwide. Controversy and public outcry about the event’s nearness to September 11th produced threats of boycotts and unwarranted accusations against ICNA, but despite the misinformed backlash ICNA, the American Muslim community and Six Flags presented a united front in hosting a peaceful and fun filled event.
Marking the end of Ramadan & the celebration of Eid Al-Fitr, both determined by the lunar-based Islamic calendar, Muslim Family Day coincided with the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—a fact not lost on organizers of the event. Asim Khan, of the MFD New Jersey team stated, “We [didn’t] want people to be hurt, and [not scheduling our event on 9/11] is proof that we equally respect the lives lost and the emotional damage of [that day]. As American Muslims we are part and parcel of that pain.” One of the event’s original organizers, Tariq Amanullah, worked on the 96th floor of World Trade Center Tower 2 and died in the attacks. ICNA remembered him and other 9/11 victims in its Eid and Friday prayers at Muslim Family Day, showing that such acts in no way represent the thriving American Muslim population.
The Muslim Family Day tradition started in New Jersey in 2000. From there, its popularity exploded nationwide; this year it’s scheduled in eight cities. The event’s reputation has continued to grow, with Muslims and many of their friends, coworkers and guests regularly flocking to the park each year. The sight of soaking wet hijabis is rather uncommon; not so on MFD. Here, the sight is just another snapshot in a mix of Muslims making their way around the park. The casual exchange of Islamic greetings floating in the air, the sounds of nasheed echoing around you and the wide variety of halal food vendors make this a unique environment of halal fun in the United States.
Among the event’s many trademarks is its ability to bring together various cultural groups under one title: Muslim. The diversity of the attendees testifies to this unification; ethnic/racial groups such as Pakistani, African American, Arab, Latino, Eastern European, and white are all represented at MFD.
To be able to reach such a diverse crowd, organizers start advertising early on. Using any and all means of marketing, they begin by placing ads in local newsletters and on ethnic TV channels. Additionally, they create Event and Fan Pages on the social networking site Facebook, and spread the word on Twitter. Word of mouth also plays a significant role.
Local mosques are requested to announce MFD to their congregations at each Friday prayer in the weeks leading up to the event. One sermon in the Los Angeles area was dedicated entirely to MFD. In fact, the support of local leaders is a huge boost for the organizers. Shaikh Abul Haitham of Islamic Center of San Gabriel Valley, in Southern California stated that attending Muslim Family Day would be considered an “act of ibadah [worship]” because it illustrates that Muslims are not affected by the hostility and negative environment surrounding them; he deemed this “an act of courage.”
The advertising campaign is quite successful—this year MFD in Washington DC, Dallas and L.A. garnered around 5,000 attendees each. San Francisco, Chicago and Boston were neck in neck with 2,000 to 3,000 participants each. At Six Flags in New Jersey, attendees outnumbered 20,000. Atlanta, Georgia, has yet to have its day of fun, which is set for October 2.
Heart-stopping roller coaster rides at affordable prices are not the only attraction offered by Muslim Family Day. At each Six Flags location there is a sprawling bazaar with tents bearing everything from clothes and jewelry, to the latest nasheed albums. Some tents offer henna application while others display gorgeous glass bottles of ithar. Elderly couples slowly peruse the bazaar, while much younger children run on the grass, yelling in delight.
WhyIslam volunteers kept busy answering questions and engaging in constructive dialogue. Non-Muslims and Six Flags employees were given translations of the Qur’an and other pamphlets to dispel common myths. At the L.A. location alone, approximately 85 copies of the Qur’an in English and 15 in Spanish were distributed.
The availability of halal food is a major plus point for attendees. For the organizers, food is where many problems begin. When the size of the crowd exceeds expectations the food lines become too long; sometimes vendors even run out of food. To battle this, small changes were made in this year’s system that sped up the lines considerably. Another unique addition this year was the serving of halal food by five restaurants in Six Flags, Great Adventure.
Sumaya Bezrati, an L.A. resident could not contain her enthusiasm for events such as MFD, exclaiming, “It was the most fun day I have had in so long. No joke, I was grinning the whole day.” Farhan Pervez, an event organizer from New Jersey said that his kids shared the same enthusiasm for MFD, and he enjoyed “the atmosphere [as it] boosts morale. It makes [people] proud to be Muslim.”
Muslim Family Day is a uniquely American Muslim tradition. By hosting a day filled with family, friends, and fun, ICNA aims to portray an accurate and clear picture of what Islam and Muslims represent. With an organized and successful event such as this, it is well on its way to doing so.
By Zainab Arain