March 23, 2015
Recently New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced what some American Muslim children had been waiting years to hear: NYC public schools will be closed in observance of the two holiest Muslim holidays. So come next school year, NYC public schools will close the first day of Eid al Fitr, a 3-day celebration immediately following Ramadan, and on Eid al Adha, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God. On these holidays, Muslim families typically gather for prayer, dinner parties, and gift exchange.
The significance of this decision is far greater than ending a child’s annual dilemma of deciding whether to attend or miss school on a holiday. (Although with 12.5 percent of NYC's current students being Muslim, it does impact the lives of thousands of Muslim students.) More importantly, this decision mainstreams Islam in the nation’s most diverse city. It also reassures minorities that while rights do not come easily, the political space does allow for their recognition and this achievement serves as a model for successful coalition work among Muslims and allies.
And with Eid marked on school calendars as a holiday, students are more likely to have discussions around Eid, its history, and how Muslims celebrate, and it will become normal in public schools, as has been the case for Christmas, Hannukkah, and Kwanzaa, among other holidays. And with the current rise of Islamophobia following 9/11, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the Chapel Hill Shootings, this decision can, even on a small scale, raise greater awareness of common Muslim practices in a sociopolitical climate where Islam has been for decades vilified in the news and entertainment media.
The Coalition for Muslim School Holidays
The achievement of recognizing Eid as an official holiday in the NYC public school calendar is the result of a nine-year coalition effort beginning on January 11, 2006, when the state scheduled a state-wide English Language Arts exam on the Muslim holiday. To my surprise, the state had been aware of the potential conflict in advance. Jonathan Burman, NYS Education spokesman passively noted, “We do consult the calendar when scheduling exams in order to minimize conflicts with people’s religious holidays. It’s important to remember that students who are legally absent because of a religious observance are able to make the test up,” according to a New York Post article from 2006. This insensitivity of those in power to minority needs perpetuates—directly or indirectly—the stigmatization of minority religions and cultures.
The recognition of Eid as a holiday resulted from coalition work of 84 organizations in cooperation with politicians to further the cause of diversity in the city. Serving as a model of tolerance, of respect for equal rights, the coalition work indicates the importance of having Muslim voices heard, the power of grassroots organizing, and of having faith in a political process. While NYC’s former mayor Bloomberg had been unwilling to recognize the holiday across all city schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised he would have the holiday recognized were he to be elected—and he delivered.
Just the Beginning
At a recent celebration hosted by local Muslim organizers in Queens, a guest speaker—Imam Talib Abdul Rashid of the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood encouraged all those in attendance age 18 or older to register to vote. Certainly the years'-long effort and achievement has reinvigorated Muslim leaders with an appreciation for the political system as they have had their voices heard on behalf of their communities.
Yet with this great stride, there is still work to be done both internally among the Muslim American community with all its diversity and externally. We have yet to see how the Eid holiday will actually play out in practice—will most Muslims choose to celebrate on the day that has been scientifically pre-calculated based on the moon-sighting, or will some continue to celebrate based on their home countries? I’d suggest that when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Two days off from the school year does not mean Muslims are safe on the other days: Muslims are still subject to profiling and monitoring by law enforcement agencies, and efforts to end these practices have a long way to go.
For now, at least, gone are the days of writing an absence note each Eid holiday needing to explain what Eid is or how the lunar calendar works, to a teacher who in her training or lifetime may have never heard about the Eid holiday. And after all, what teacher or student would not appreciate knowing why they are getting the day off from school?
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