Six Flags over Islam

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LINSEY ADDARIO / CORBIS FOR TIME

Participatants in The Great Muslim Adventure Day at Six Flag in New Jersey play a game of chance by rolling a ball. Friday, 17 September 2004

For half an hour at about 2 p.m. last Friday, the main attraction at Six Flags New Jersey was not the Nitro, the "tallest and fastest roller coaster in the East," or the Superman Ultimate Flight ride. Within sight of the front gate, not far from the faux Revolutionary battlements of Fort Independence, a succession of blue tarps had been stretched. Prostrated on them, facing Mecca (and, unintentionally, the Cannonball Lemonade Stand) were hundreds of men, heads to the ground in sajda, Islamic prayer's gesture of submission to Allah. As hundreds more entered the park and took note, many set up individual prayer rugs or simply dropped to their knees. Great Muslim Adventure Day at Six Flags had commenced.

The website ad had been an attention getter. "Insha Allah," it enthused. "The New Jersey theme park, Six Flags Great Adventure, is set to be transformed as 'The Great Muslim Adventure Day' ... ENTIRE PARK FOR MUSLIMS ONLY ... Alhamdullilah [Praise be to God], tickets are selling fast!" It promised a "special dolphin show," leading into a talk by a well-known Islamic scholar, and the comic stylings of "Allah Made Me Funny: The Official Muslim Comedy Tour." Was this for real?


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Well, yes. The first Muslim Day at Six Flags, brainstormed by the New Jersey chapter of the grass-roots organization Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), was in 2000. It drew 8,000 customers. The next did better, with co-organizer Tariq Amanullah proudly announcing the sale of 10,000 tickets. That was on Sept. 8, 2001. Three days later, Amanullah, a finance executive, was one of the dozens of Muslims who died in the World Trade Center. After that, observed ICNA's Farhan Pervez, "we couldn't do it for a time." But this year they decided to revive it. "It'll be a fun day for people to enjoy an environment they're comfortable in," said Pervez. "We're not trying to make a statement."

This being post-9/11 America, however, everything Islamic becomes a statement. The cottage industry that monitors Muslim websites publicized the event to a distinctly non—Muslim-friendly audience last week, emphasizing ICNA's alleged connections to terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists. (A Six Flags spokeswoman said the FBI assured her firm that "there is no link between the ICNA and terrorism." The group denies any.) Critics began threatening Six Flags with boycotts. A local talk-radio caller suggested that such a concentration of Muslims would make a useful bombing target.

Consequently, the park was sniffed for bombs, "Muslims Only" was struck from the website, and security at the gate was beefed up. None of that hampered the hybrid entertainment unfolding within. Boardwalk barkers persevered ("Arright, at the sound of the buzzer, you want to press both buttons on the gun") but competed with a bazaar offering stylish Islamic headwear and Koranic commentaries. Standard food concessions were shuttered in favor of ritually correct halal vendors like Shalimar and Kabob King. There was no opposite-sex canoodling, and halter tops and shorts were replaced by a vast array of hijab head scarves and ankle-length jilbabs and abayas.

Shireen Khan, 19, in running pants, a plain white shirt, Reeboks and a lavender hijab, was waiting in line for the Nitro with two female friends. She pooh-poohed the notion that the day's event might be a kind of refuge for an overscrutinized community. "It's not about that," she said. "I come here twice a year, and I like it, but today there's good halal food, and there's prayer. We have so many friends in the tristate area, we never see each other, and today everybody's here." Her cousin Soofia Tahir suspected there might be a bit more to it. Perhaps it's a pride thing? "No, it isn't," Khan asserted. "Yes, it is," said Tahir. "There's no pride," Khan shot back. "You mean like being vain? " "No," said Tahir. "I mean like bonding." She paused and gazed up at the Nitro's looming bulk. "If it's raining, I'm not going up on that thing."

But eventually they did. Higher and higher their car climbed--230 ft. and then 85 m.p.h. free fall. Khan's hijab flapped but held. "It was good," she exclaimed at the ride's exit. "I'd never been on a roller coaster at night before. When you open your eyes, there was just, like ... nothing!" She smiled broadly. Then she made her way to the ladies' room, ritually washed her hands, face, arms and feet and found a small group of other women by the Ferris wheel. Turned into silhouettes by its dazzling illumination, they prayed.