By Deborah Horan, Chicago Tribune reporter
On any other day, Sobia Ahmed would opt to forgo many of the snacks on offer at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee. To perform the Islamic prayers she recites five times a day, she likely would slip onto a secluded path at the amusement park or look for solace under a shady tree for a few furtive minutes.
But this Saturday Ahmed and her family will eat and pray at their leisure in the park with hundreds of other Muslims from the Chicago area who plan to visit the sprawling entertainment center for a day catered especially to them.
For the fourth time since 2004, Six Flags in Gurnee is sponsoring Muslim Day, bringing in outside caterers to provide halal food and turning an amphitheater into a makeshift mosque to accommodate Muslims who observe dietary laws and strict prayer schedules. Muslims who plan to go say they appreciate the sense of community the event creates as well as the opportunity to talk about Islam with curious non-Muslims at the park.
“If you go on regular days, it’s kind of tough to find a place to pray,” said Ahmed, a stay-at-home mom from Bolingbrook who has attended previous Muslim Days at Six Flags with her husband and five children. “Usually we can’t eat the food, but now we can.”
Started in New Jersey by an interethnic Muslim organization called the Islamic Circle of North America, Muslim Day at Six Flags has grown from a one-time gig focusing on youth—which took place a few days before the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy—into a popular annual family event at several of the company’s theme parks, Muslim organizers and park representatives said.
One of the New Jersey organizers died in the World Trade Center, which stalled efforts to organize a Muslim Day in 2002, according to Raza Farrukh, the Islamic group’s New Jersey representative. Today the New Jersey event is so big that the organizers typically buy a day at the park for Muslims only. There are also special days for Muslims at parks around Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles, in addition to Chicago, organizers said.
In Gurnee, the park will remain open to all, but the day has steadily attracted more and more Muslims. According to park officials, 345 Muslims attended the first year; nearly 1,400 came in 2006. The event was canceled for logistical reasons last year. This year, organizers say they hope to attract as many as 4,000, though park officials expect
“The kids love it and adults also,” said Zulfiqar Khan, a Pakistani immigrant living in Plainfield who is coordinating this year’s event. “We can socialize, have some ethnic food, just create a sense of community.”
Six Flags also has created special events for Catholics, Baptists and Methodists, park officials said, and Episcopalians have booked the amphitheater for prayer services. Traditional Polish dancers joined in the park’s opening ceremonies during a recent Polish Day, and last week the park supplied American Sign Language interpreters during a “hard-of-hearing-awareness day.”
For the Muslims’ prayer needs, the park chose an amphitheater near the restrooms so worshipers can perform ablutions beforehand. Two outside caterers will provide food that complies with Islamic standards of