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Push to Close Schools on Muslim Holy Days Gains Momentum

July 2, 2009

We’re in favor! That was the message city council members sent out on June 30 when they voted to approve a bill to add two Muslim holy days to the public school calendar.

Only Councilman Oliver Koppell, of the north Bronx, voted against.

Still, for those supporting the measure, hurdles remain. The City Council vote was a resolution, meaning it’s non-binding. Moreover, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is firmly against the idea – and he has the ultimate say.

“Educating our kids requires time in the classroom, and that’s more important to us that anything else,” Bloomberg told reporters before the vote, echoing comments he’s made before.  He said the city’s too diverse to close schools on every religious holiday.

The issue first received widespread attention in January 2006, when a New York State Regents exam fell on Eid Ul-Adha, a day of celebration marking the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. For Abdul Muhaimin Ladan, then a teacher in Queens, it was a kick in the teeth: his students, many of whom were Muslim, had to choose between taking a mandatory test and being with their families. 

“We thought it wasn’t right,” recalls Ladan, who now splits his time between running his own business and working as an assistant Imam at Mt. Hope Masjid, a mosque on Mount Hope Place near Jerome Avenue.

Ladan’s frustration was shared by many Muslim parents, says Zahida Pirani, an organizer with the New York Civic Participation Project (NYCPP).

Afterward, the NYCPP, Mt. Hope Masjid, and 50 other organizations from across the city formed the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays. That September, the group’s advocacy work helped successfully maneuver a bill through the New York State Senate that prevents future tests from being scheduled on religious dates.

The bill’s passing, Pirani says, was “a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t enough.” Since then, the Coalition has been trying – without success – to get the city’s Department of Education to close schools on Eid Ul-Adha, and Eid Ul-Fitr, which commemorates the end of Ramadan.  Supporters say doing so would be no different than closing schools on Christmas Day, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

“We shouldn’t be forced to choose between education and our religion,” Ladan said.

Advocates went even further. In a 2006 report, “Acceptance, not Exclusion: A Case for Muslim Holidays in New York City Public Schools,” NYCPP officials and others said that the DOE’s unwillingness “to recognize Muslim holidays alongside the Jewish and Christian holidays…denies Muslim students their rights to freedom of religion and access to an equitable education.”

Bourema Niambele, president of the New York Council of Malians, agrees. He remembers a conversation with his niece back in 2007. She asked him why she had to go to school on Eid, an Arabic word for festival, when her school closed on holidays her non-Muslim classmates observed. 

“It broke my heart,” Niambele said, whose organization also joined the coalition. “Like in any community, it’s very important to celebrate it [the Eids] with the family.”

Marge Feinberg, a DOE spokeswoman, said there are no plans to add the Eids to the school calendar. She said the department already makes “accommodations to any students who want to take time off” for religious reasons.

“When you have a city as diverse as we do, with virtually every religion known to man practiced, if we closed school for every single day there wouldn’t be any school,” Bloomberg told reporters last year.

This year, Eid Ul-Fitr is expected to fall on Sept. 20, and Eid Ul-Adha on Nov. 27. The dates are subject to change because the Islamic Calendar is a lunar calendar, based on phases of the moon, which are difficult to calculate. Those who oppose adding the two holidays to the school calendar say this unpredictability makes planning difficult.

The Coalition for Muslim School Holidays counters by pointing out that 600,000 Muslims live in the five boroughs. According to a 2004 Columbia University study, one in every eight public school students (or 12 percent) is Muslim. That equates to more than 100,000 Muslim children in the system.

In the Bronx, the Muslim population has been growing steadily, with immigrants from Mali, Ghana, Gambia, and other West African countries settling in neighborhoods just west of the Harlem River, including Highbridge, Mount Hope, and Morris Heights.

When Ladan, 42, moved to the Bronx from Ghana nine years ago, there were seven mosques in the borough. Today, there are nearly 30. On any given Friday, he said, up to 400 people attend Mt. Hope Masjid, a converted four-story row house, for Friday prayers, called Jumu’ah.

Typically, Ladan says, children join in the Eid festivities  – and miss school in the process. While their absence is marked as “excused” (provided their parents send the school a letter beforehand), missing a full day of classes puts students at risk of falling behind. 

In the tri-state area, a number of cities with sizeable Muslim populations have already incorporated the two holidays into their school calendars. Irvington, Atlantic City, Trenton, and Paterson are among them.

Farther out, public schools now close on both days in Dearborn (MI), a city with the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the country.

Muslim groups in Baltimore have tried – unsuccessfully, so far – to convince the school board there to do the same, according to Laila Al-Qatami, of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a Washington DC-based organization.

In New York, too, there’s been stiff resistance: bills seeking to modify the calendar have stumbled in the state Senate and Assembly.

Last month’s City Council vote, then, was a sign of progress. Speaking prior to the vote, Joe McNearney, Councilman Robert Jackson’s legislative and budget director, said a resounding “yes” vote would “make a point” and could prompt the state legislature to act. (Jackson, a Muslim, was the sponsor of the resolution.) 

Bloomberg still has the upper hand: mayoral control of the city public schools, in place since 2002, has curtailed much of the City Council’s law-making power when it comes to education.

But if mayoral control, currently up for review, was weakened, or if a new mayor was elected, things could quickly change. Likewise, if the state legislature were to resurrect the pending bills, and pass them, Bloomberg’s objections would be overridden.

“We need to show that New York City recognizes diversity and promotes tolerance,” insists Pirani. “Other cities and districts have done it… why are they making such a fuss in New York City?”

Said Naimbele: “Having these days would push [non-Muslims] to understand what it means to be a Muslim.”


Editor’s note: This article was written as part of an education reporting fellowship granted by New York Community Media Alliance.


2 Responses to “Push to Close Schools on Muslim Holy Days Gains Momentum”

  1. Iftikhar on July 8th, 2009 3:17 am

    Muslim parents teach their children to respect their teachers. From a very young age, we are taught that Islam teaches us that after our parents, our teachers are most deserving of respect.
    It must be an extremely confusing time for the Muslim parent in Leytonstone, London. For up to 30 parents may face prosecution for withdrawing their children from school, disobeying the teachers in the school, simply to secure a decent moral upbringing for their children. The school had decided to have a week of lessons about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. Part of this was a special adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet retitled Romeo and Julian as well as fairytales and stories changed to show men falling in love with men. Rather than filling the heads of impressionable boys and girls with fatuous drivel about gay penguins, schools should be ashamed of the fact that they are sending children out into the world barely able to read, write and add up properly. Muslim children are leaving schools without learning their cultural roots and linguistic skills.

    The action was being taken against the parents as part of a policy of ‘ promoting tolerance’. So why not tolerate parents, who, for sincerely-held reasons, consider their children too young to be taught about gay relationships? This isn’t education, its cultural fascism. A record numbers of pupils persistently played truant in 2006-07, with around 272,950 pupils persistently absent in 2007, missing more than 20% of school. We rarely see councils prosecute the parents of these persistent truants. Yet, the parents who removed their children as a one-off to protect their morality may be prosecuted!

    If the local council does decide to go through with a prosecution, it would be in line with the government’s approach to the Muslim community. Muslims who believe homosexuality is a sin would be labelled as extremists. Liberal totalitarianism is a growing phenomenon in Britain and the west in general but many people will be shocked that the school can override a parent’s view of what’s appropriate or inappropriate to teach their children.

    This latest episode should be a wakeup call for Muslim parents. Muslim parents MUST explain our moral standards to schools and be prepared to take steps to protect our children’s morals and values from a growing agenda to impose liberal values upon them. This is an eye opening for those Muslim parents who keep on sending their children to state schools to be mis-educated and de-educated by non-Muslim monolingual teachers.

    The solution of all the problems facing Muslim children is state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers. Those state schools where Muslim children are in majority may be designated as Muslim community schools. Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods.
    Iftikhar Ahmad

  2. Muslims Mark the End of Ramadan : Mount Hope Monitor on October 5th, 2009 9:27 am

    [...] the Bronx and throughout the city there’s a growing movement to add the holiday (Eid ul-Fitr is actually a three-day holiday but the first day is the most [...]

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