The 27th Annual United American Muslim Day Parade began with a standard march down Madison Avenue in Manhattan, calmly falling in line with the day’s theme, “Islam Advocates Peace and Justice for All.” Then two speakers launched into heated diatribes at the tail end of the event, causing honorary parade marshal and state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) to drop his planned remarks and very publicly storm off in anger.
The speeches made at the Sept. 23 event crossed an uncomfortable ideological line for many, as the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, remained fresh in American minds. The violence led to the death of four members of the U.S. State Department, including well-regarded Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
The dual speeches at the parade did little to stop growing post-Benghazi perceptions of Islam as a religion that advocates everything but peace and justice.
Heavily edited footage of the comments and Avella’s subsequent exit was posted on YouTube. Parade Committee Chairman Ainul Haque identified the speakers as Imam Shabaz Chishti of the Makki Masjid Community Center in Brooklyn, and a Muslim woman, Maryam Kashmir.
“The freedom of speak [sic] and freedom of rights [is where] our problems starts,” said Chishti, gesticulating forcefully as his hoarse voice shouted into the microphone while Avella was seated to the imam’s left. “So I would like to demand United Nations to make an international law that would criminalize blasphemy. … I again demand to the United Nations and this platform, please make an international law for the protection of our beloved prophet.”
Chishti’s proposal was meant as an inoculation against a repeat of the Benghazi attack, which the U.S. government initially said broke out over a YouTube video entitled “Innocence of Muslims” which skewered the Islamic prophet Mohammed. Other protests eventually spread to over 20 countries.
Islamic law expressly prohibits depicting the prophet at all, let alone as a homosexual, misogynistic, petty twit as the controversial YouTube video did.
The footage of the Muslim Day Parade also shows Kashmir presenting a spoken-word poem.
“We have unborn martyrs in our wombs and drop bombs in here because all that we blow up is minds in minefields,” she said with a bouncing cadence. “They resonate in refugee camps and housed by Zionist Nazis.”
It was around the Nazi reference that a red-faced Avella took his leave. The senator said the speeches at the parade ran contrary to U.S. ideals, likening himself to an angry cartoon character with steam coming out of his ears.
The amateur videographer found Avella after walking off stage and requested comment, but the senator declined.
“I’m sitting there like, this is not what this parade is about. This is off the wall,” he said Monday in a phone interview. “It was hard to hear what [the imam] was saying, but it was clear he was a radical person within the Muslim community. He was saying the problem is freedom of speech and freedom of rights in this country, which I disagree with; that’s what makes this country great.”
Avella claimed members of the Muslim Foundation of America, who organized the event, tried to apologize and asked the senator to fulfill his speaking commitment. He took a pass.
“Not only as an elected official but as an American, I was deeply offended,” he said.
Avella sent a letter to the foundation explaining his exit. The organization responded in kind with a written apology to the senator, who provided the Queens Chronicle with a copy.
“We are really sorry one of our speakers hurt your feelings,” reads the letter, signed by Haque. “It is really hard to control someone once he or she goes to the microphone, especially the youngsters full of their sentimental feelings.”
The Muslim Foundation of America did not fully vet the afternoon’s speakers, according to Haque.
“They come at the last minute and ask to speak, supporters of ours,” he said in a phone interview.
Haque found little wrong with either speech, however, likening Chishti’s call for a global blasphemy ban to similar laws regulating anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi speech in some European countries.
“I think he was right about the blasphemy laws,” he said. “There are 1.5 to 1.6 billion Muslims living around the world. If you insult our prophet, it feels bad. It hurts everybody. Under the expression of freedom, we should have a limited ban.”
Haque claims the imam was calling for a blanket ban on blasphemy against all religions, not just Islam. He pointed to artist Andres Serrano’s controversial depiction of a urine-soaked Jesus Christ as an instance where Muslims would understand and support outrage against religious desecration targeting any faith.
The imam does not call for a pan-religious ban on blasphemy in the edited YouTube footage, referencing the Islam-exclusive “our beloved prophet.” Several attempts to reach the imam at the Makki Masjid Community Center were unsuccessful.
Haque also defended Kashmir’s poem.
“I read that poem; there was nothing that bad,” he said. “They were talking about Palestine.”
Avella’s temper has cooled since the event. After spending months reaching out and interacting with the Islamic community within his own district, he said he firmly believes the speeches were the views of a few bad apples.
“I think it’s unfortunate for the Muslim community, who have been trying to overcome some unfair attacks in the media,” he said. “I just could not sit there.”