Vol. 20,  No. 8 April 19 - May 2, 2007


Muslim Community Wants Schools to Recognize Holidays


ON  MARCH 31, approximately 400 people showed
up for a community forum in the south Bronx, to learn more about
the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays' campaign to have
two religious holidays incorporated into the school calendar.

On Christmas Day, public schools across the city shut down. They close on several Jewish holidays, too. But Muslim holidays aren’t recognized in the same way by New York City’s Department of Education (DOE), leaving some parents with a dilemma: keep the kids at home so the family can celebrate together, or whisk them off to school so they don’t miss their classes.

The issue came to a head in January 2006 when a statewide test was scheduled on Eid-Ul-Adha, one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar. Many Muslims were furious, and on the coattails of this uproar, a new law was passed to prevent mandatory state testing from occurring on all future religious holidays.

Now, the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays, an amalgamation of 50-plus mosques and community groups, is trying to take things a step further by asking the DOE to close schools on both Eid-Ul-Adha (which celebrates the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca) and Eid-Ul-Fitr (the day that marks the end of the Ramadan, the holy month of fasting).

“As a parent I would like my children to have the same rights as children from other religions,” said Bakary Camara, of the Bronx-based Gambian Society, one of the organizations behind the Coalition.

While students of any faith are able to take days off on their religious holidays (providing the school receives a prior letter from a parent), Camara is worried that those absent on the “Eids” are falling behind their peers and blemishing their attendance records. A poor attendance, says Camara, can hurt a student’s chances of getting a “scholarship to a better performing school.”

The Coalition’s campaign is gathering steam. In mid-March, they published a report titled “Acceptance, Not Exclusion: A Case for Muslim Holidays in New York City Public Schools.” Then, on March 31, they held a forum in the south Bronx to educate the community and drum up support. Organizers say 400 people showed up.

So far, the DOE isn’t playing ball. “We’re very respectful of different populations [and] religions,” said Dina Paul, a spokesperson. “But we haven’t added any new holidays to the calendar in half a century… and we won’t be adding any now.”

The matter could soon be out of the DOE’s hands. John Sabini, a Queens state senator, and Assemblyman Ruben Diaz, Jr. (D-Bronx) have recently introduced bills in the Senate and Assembly respectively, which, if passed, would smother the city’s opposition, and force schools to close on both days, as they already do in several New Jersey cities.

“I’m optimistic [this will become law],” Diaz said. “It’s about time we recognized this growing population.”

And growing it is. Just look at the number of mosques. Before 1970, there were fewer than 10 citywide, according to a 2001 study by the Muslim Communities in New York City Project. Today, says Camara, there are close to 30 in the Bronx alone. (In the west Bronx, they’re particularly prevalent in Mount Hope, Morris Heights and Highbridge, neighborhoods with blossoming Ghanaian, Gambian, and Malian communities.)

Exactly how many Muslims call the city home, however, isn’t known - details of religious affiliation aren’t collected in the Census. But the Coalition says there are 100,000 Muslim students in the public school system (that’s 12 percent of the student body) and they’re working on collecting the signatures of 100,000 supporters in recognition of this figure.

Assemblyman Michael Benjamin (D-Bronx) is supporting Diaz’s bill. Making the “Eids” official school holidays would create “mutual respect,” said Benjamin, because non-Muslim students would be curious to learn why there was no school on a certain day.

Sadiq Abdul Malik, who worships at the Masjid-Hefaz mosque in Bedford Park, agrees. “It would help build bridges of understanding,” he said. “Ignorance makes us come to the wrong conclusions about people.”

“[Incorporating these holidays] would go a long way to show Muslims that we believe they’re also a part of our big New York family,” Diaz added. “It’s a small step, but I think it’s a significant one.”

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