July 1st, 2010
08:44 AM ET

My Take: New York's schools should observe Muslim holidays

Editor's note: Imam Khalid Latif is a chaplain for New York University and Executive Director of the school's Islamic Center.

By Khalid Latif, Special to CNN

I was recently eating dinner at a restaurant with a friend near Times Square when it became time for me to pray. Muslims pray five times a day and this particular prayer, called Maghrib, is performed at sunset.

Having lived in New York City for decades, I’ve become comfortable praying pretty much anywhere. It also doesn’t hurt that there are stranger things happening on the streets here than a young guy bowing and kneeling for a few minutes.

After I started to pray, a tour bus parked in front of me and a large group of people proceeded to spill out.

While I continued, a woman from the group came closer to where I was praying. She removed a scarf from her neck, placed it on the ground so that I would be praying on something clean, then walked away before I finished.

A truly amazing woman whose name I don’t even know. But if I had not felt comfortable being myself and praying on the street, I would never have had the opportunity to learn from her.

A child at a recent rally for Muslim holidays to be observed by New York city schools.

It’s not easy fitting in. Whether you’re 15 years old or 55, most of us have to compartmentalize our identity in order to feel accepted. We let go of things that we hold dear in hopes that we can just belong and in doing so we assume the worst of the people around us. We think that they wouldn’t be able to understand and accept us for who we are.

A year ago this week, more than 80 faith-based, civil rights, community and labor organizations came together under the title Coalition for Muslim School Holidays. Our purpose was to encourage New York City to give permanent recognition to its Muslim community by adding two holidays observed by Muslims to the public school calendar: Eid ul-Fitr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, the sacred month of fasting and Eid Ul-Adha, which celebrates the end of the Hajj, the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca.

New York’s City Council convened to vote on the issue and almost unanimously passed resolution 1281, calling for the Department of Education to recognize the holidays. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg has decided that the holidays won’t be added to the public school calendar

Yesterday, the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays held a late morning rally on the steps of New York’s City Hall. Hundreds of people attended and even more stood at the gates waiting to get in—a 300 person limit had been placed on the gathering—as politicians, city officials, interfaith leaders and activists spoke from the steps telling Mayor Bloomberg why he should change his mind.

The expectation that people have of Muslims these days is pretty confusing. On one hand, Muslims are explicitly told they need to integrate Islam more effectively into mainstream society. On the other hand, Muslims are implicitly shown that can’t really happen. The construction of our mosques is protested, our communities are profiled, and our children have to go to school on their holidays.

“One in every eight school kids in the City of New York observes the Muslim faith,” New York City Comptroller John Liu said in a statement issued yesterday by the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays. “Yet these students are forced to choose between their education and their faith, and it’s a situation that needs to be rectified.”

In addition all the presidents of New York’s five boroughs have sent letters of support to our coalition, while Public Advocate Bill de Blasio support the City Council resolution recognizing Muslim holidays.

“About 12 percent of New York City students are Muslim,” says de Blasio, “and consequently thousands of students miss exams and important activities because they are scheduled on Muslim holidays. The Department of Education should treat these students equally and include the two main Islamic holidays in the school calendar, just as it does with other major religions.”

It was a beautiful thing to stand amongst a diverse group of people yesterday in support of a cause that really goes beyond a holiday. I’m looking forward to the day that it’s celebration—not contention—that brings us together. Who knows? Maybe it’ll even be on Eid.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Khalid Latif. Author photo courtesy Bryan Derballa.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Education • Islam • Muslim • Opinion

soundoff (1,105 Responses)
  1. +CGO+SenseiC

    Disclaimer: I am Christian
    As always, people seem to think easy answers exist. I attended public schools. Until I entered universities, no school (NY, CA, nor with our children in VA) observed any religious holiday. SUNYAB closed early on Fridays in observance of Rosh Hashanah and/or Yom Kippur, but observed no other religious holidays I can recall.

    The challenge comes in how to decide on WHICH holiday(s) to observe. IMHO schools should only close for Federal holidays (aside from things like winter/spring/summer break) as that eliminates the risk of First Amendment challenges ("establishment of religion" and "... or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"). At the same time, individuals (or children) should have the right to miss holidays on a "religious observation" ground, provided it adheres to a prescribed date and not simply as an excuse to "not attend school on Mondays." For example this means that a Jewish child could get EXCUSED for missing class for Yom Kippur, but the school remains open and any student missing that day would need to make up what the student missed.

    My two cents (which no longer buys a piece of Bazooka bubble gum).

    Sensei bows out.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  2. Eric

    As a protestant I don't really have a problem with this at all. I am very thankful for the freedom to be able to practice my faith openly and that includes no school sometimes. Unfortunately I think an already cramped school calendar is the main enemy of this passing. Maybe a comprimise? For example, school would still be in session on these days, but teachers could be instructed not to have exams, quizzes, or projects due that day that would put an Islamic student at a disadvantage if he/she chose to stay home.

    As for the protesting of Mosques, again, I am proud of the fact that in America we have the freedom to celebrate our own religion (it's great you can openly pray on the sidewalk) but I believe that trying to put a mosque in so close to Ground Zero is extremely insensitive and unneccessary. I underatand that it would send a message to Americans everywhere that Islam is a peaceful religion, however, the men that committed those dreadful attacks on September 11, 2011 also claim that their faith tells them it was an honorable act. There are many other ways to show this country what true Islam is all about, but that is not it.

    Mr. Latiff, I very much appreciate you sharing with us, thank you for shedding light on the issue. I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  3. Dale Wayne

    Do you really think if I moved to any Muslim country they would they would include Christmas or Easter into their school calendar. If you do not like the way we do things here, please go where you do like it. I don't believe anyone here is forcing you to stay.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:11 am |
    • Stan

      I concur.

      July 1, 2010 at 11:15 am |
    • Yaz


      It is obvious that you have never traveled to a Muslim country – maybe not traveled outside of the US at all, actually. The truth is that (with the exception of Saudi Arabia), there are churches and synagogues in practically every Muslim country. They are free to worship, they celebrate their religious holidays and those holidays are national holidays that are acknowledged and respected by the entire population. I am really tired of folks just making statements about things which they don't understand or of which they have no knowledge. I am originally from Syria and can discuss this factually from first-hand knowledge. So, the short answer is yes: Christian and Jewish holidays are acknowledged, celebrated and respected in the vast majority of Muslim countries. Oh, and those of you who think that Christians can't built churches, sorely misinformed. There are many, many churches and synagogues all over the Middle East, and no barring construction of them.

      July 1, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
  4. Ashok Bhagat

    There are hundreds of religions and sects in USA. I think we should allow holidays for all of them and close schools and universities of at least 3 major festivals for all of them, just like we do for Christmas, Good Friday, and Thanksgiving day.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:10 am |
    • Eric

      Thanksgiving is not a religios holliday. It is a Federal holliday that celebrates the heritage of the founding of the Americas.

      July 1, 2010 at 11:15 am |
  5. lisa

    My son has every major Christian holiday off, you know why? He attends private school! No faith based holidays in the public schools, if you want those privileges then go to a faith based school and pay for it.

    Your other option is to just take the day school off and observe your holiday; missing one day of class every now and then will not hurt a good student.

    Separation of church and state exist for ALL religions, public schools are part of the state. There should be NO school days off for observance of any religious holiday, period.

    In my opinion.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  6. chuckster

    Yea, what Kathleen said, pack your crap on your Camels and hit the road you toads!!!!!!! Hell with Muslims and Islam!!!!!!

    July 1, 2010 at 11:07 am |
  7. Red October

    If you can prove that ANY god exists RIGHT NOW then we can talk. Until then keep chasing your fairies and unicorns.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:06 am |
    • Ballz

      Actually, i think thats a talking snake, not a unicorn 😛

      July 1, 2010 at 11:17 am |
    • +CGO+SenseiC

      You see therein lies the problem. I held my newborn son and saw a marvel of creation (in the Biblical context). You would (effectively) see just a collection of cells that followed a pre-programmed series of divisions.

      I look at the "remains" of our daughter's car after the accident with a semi on an Interstate last month from which she walked away w/o any injury as a blessing. You see it as only a coincidence.

      You look at the Universe, point to a moment in time, and say it began with a "bang". I look at that same point, marvel at the mathematical improbability that "your bang" happened without too much force (to still allow planets, etc. to form) or too little (to prevent it collapsing in on itself), all the while wondering why you find MY belief so ridiculous yet your belief so credible.

      Sensei bows out.

      July 1, 2010 at 11:30 am |
  8. Angel

    Thanks but no thanks.

    I understand the Islamic extremist don't "represent" the majority of Muslims but in essence (if you read the Koran and see what it says they should do to people that refuse to believe in Islam) it is a very VERY violent religion. Not about love, not about peace, not about coexistence, it's either accept it or die. Read it for yourself. So I'm surprised even after all the Muslim terrorist hooplah, that this toleration has even gotten THIS far.

    They keep pushing the Muslim religion on our faces. Even want to build a Muslim Temple across ground zero?? I mean, really? This political correctness and acceptance will be the end of us. Practice your religion in Temples and don't force the public to practice it with you.

    Liberals don't tolerate christianity, then it shouldn't tolerate islam.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:06 am |
    • GregB

      Good point. The Bible has absolutely no references to violence towards non-believers at all and the Catholic church doesn't have a tarnished history of slaughtered indigenous cultures and different religious groups in record numbers...

      Good thing you pointed this out for everyone.

      July 1, 2010 at 11:10 am |
  9. Muhammed

    Anyone who does not understand that the goal of Islam is to spread the faith across the world and destroy the infidels has not read the Q'ran or does not live by it. We believe women have no rights are to be controlled by men, and anyone who is not Muslim is an enemy of Islam. Having US schools recognize muslim holidays is just the first step of our take over. After all, it has to start with the children, who are the most impressionable.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:05 am |
    • Muhammed

      Ok so Im not really Muslim, but am I wrong about their agenda? I have read the Q'ran.

      July 1, 2010 at 11:10 am |
  10. KR

    Maybe schools need to start observing all the holidays in the world, then nobody will have to study bc schools will be closed all the time.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:05 am |
  11. lobuz

    reductio ad absurdum; if I give space and time for the agnostics and the atheists to claim their beliefs, then those of us who believe must be given the exact amount of time and space.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:05 am |
  12. max

    I am amazed by the responses from everyone. 75% of you should be ashamed.

    Who cares? The one sane person (no name credit, too lazy to look back) said something along the lines of have the parents write a note. Ding. problem solved.

    If your religion is not worth giving up a perfect attendance award, regardless of the name of the religion, then its not worth much.

    As an atheist, i could care less what you worship, or dont worship. Just write a note to the teacher. Why do we need to make this complex?

    July 1, 2010 at 11:05 am |
  13. James

    Here's a thought – so long as schools are 'public', e.g. run by the government, which is supposed to NOT favor any religion, how about we not have ANY religious holidays. No Christian, No Jewish, No Muslim, no Buddhist, no Sikh, no Hindu, no Zoroastrian, no Rosicrucian, no nothing. You want a religious holiday where your kid goes to school, send him to a religious school.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  14. sue

    If we start hlidays for every religion then It will be all year long shool holidays. No school wow.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  15. sbak

    I guess we should just close schools because if public schools begin to observe muslim holidays, then public schools would have to observe all other religion's holy days – Judaism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Asatru, Pastafarianism. Where does it stop? Or another solution is to do away with all religious holiday observances altogether, but the likelihood of that happening is pretty much zero. I'm not saying it's the best solution, but our law provides that all people will enjoy religious freedom and that they will not be penalized or discriminated against for observing their religious holidays at school or work. So, there is no one stopping you from practicing your religion or observing your holy days, it's just that the non-muslim students will still have to attend school.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  16. Tarceinus

    Don't act like Christmas is some monolithic date in the world calander. Long before the late Roman emperors changed dogma to state that jesus' birth was on Dec. 25, the holiday was called Saturnalia and was observed by "Pagan" religions as the winter solstice. Christianity took something that celebrated the observable shortest day of the year and turned into a mythical faith story for its followers.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  17. Tony

    Do schools in Muslim countries close on Christian holidays?

    July 1, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  18. qmcs

    Get religion out of schools, government, and society at large. How much blood has been spilled in the name of various gods? Celebration of religion is like a celebration for the next war. LIVE FREE of religion!

    July 1, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  19. Natch

    Schools USED TO schedule days (or periods of time) off for religious holidays, i.e.-Christmas and Easter. But we now have gone to "winter break" and "spring break", because people felt that giving children time off from school for religious holidays was pretty darn close to violating the sacred seperation of church and state.
    Add to that the fact that Christmas has become less of a religious day, and more of a commercial (secular) day, and we definitely don't take off from work or school for any Christian religious holidays anymore.

    Why, then, would it suddenly be okay to take off for Islamic holidays? If you want seperation of church and state, that will be acceptable only if ALL religions are treated the same. Can't have you giving time off for one and not the other, can we?

    July 1, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  20. Natasha Ross

    Funny, I was raised in American schools that taught about the separation of church and state. Those same schools observed Christian holidays as school holidays. As a jew, none of my holidays were school holidays and even now, many years later, I work at a company where the president and CEO is a conservative jew and we still only get christian holidays off.
    And now a muslim wants his kids to be able to observe holidays and not have to decide between faith and education. I'm sorry to say that this country was founded on christian principles and that will never change – people of other faiths will have to sacrifice, as we always have – some things never change.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:01 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.