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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. Molly

    The last thing the United States needs is a mid-east holy war brought on itself. Ever hear of it? Pray whenever you want, just don't start making demands.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:33 am |
  2. chip

    I think that, in keeping with the separation of church and state (which is a good policy, I think), we should not observe ANY religious holidays, including Good Friday, which is widely observed by public schools throughout the US. Non-observance would be fair to all people. Or, if we are going to continue observing holidays like Good Friday, then we should include Muslim holidays as well.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:33 am |
    • rose

      I see your point, but it's strange you're pointing out Good Friday and not Christmas. Would you like to keep Christmas and get rid of Good Friday?

      July 1, 2010 at 9:40 am |
  3. Marty in MA

    There should be NO religious holiday, for any religion. Separation of church and state is just a slogan, unfortunately.
    So you miss an exam, you make it up like any other absence.

    Some very valid statements appear above, mentioning how this would play oput if the situation were reversed.

    good luck- we need it.

    -m

    July 1, 2010 at 9:33 am |
  4. Aaron

    This sounds completely reasonable to me. If there is a decent majority in a community, vote to have this enacted, or children could get an excused absence. It is important that we honor each others' faiths and holiday's that are important to them.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:32 am |
  5. Catholic NYer

    I agree with the author – the schools should be off for muslim holidays. In NYC, kids get off for every major jewish holiday and every major catholic holiday. With such a large percentage of students being muslim, it's only fair.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:32 am |
    • Catholic NYer

      Sam, no need to yell. I do not believe that Hindu's make up a large percentage of those in NYC.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:32 am |
  6. LeAnne

    I agree. Give students Thanksgiving off (US holiday – non religious), Christmas, New Years, Martin Luther King day, the two Muslim days and find a Jewish day or two that works best for that religion as well. The schools do not need a day off for Easter. Heck, I used to attend a Christian school and we attended on Good Friday. So secular schools sure do not need it off. If need be, extend the year by two days. The more folks show respect to different religions, the more other religions will respect other beliefs.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:32 am |
  7. Ankur

    Its a democracy, and not a particular religious country! Majority of the population is Christian, and thus we have more Christian holidays. Other than Christmas, and Easter, I don't think we have many christian holidays either. I follow Hinduism, so tomorrow should everyone following Hinduism demand holidays for their festival? Or for that matter should the Buddhist people get their holidays, or we should have the Chinese new years off and so on. Live in the reality dumbo! If you want Islamic holidays, please go back to middle east..

    July 1, 2010 at 9:31 am |
  8. Jim Young

    I was forced to remove a crucifix I wore around my neck while in the middle east. I didn't notice any kids out of school at Christmas. They didn't have an Easter celebration or a Thanksgiving holiday either. However, we held those on our own. I suggest Muslims do the same. At least you can kneel and pray here without being beheaded. Give thanks for that. Living in a civilized nation affords you protections Christians don't get in your world.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:31 am |
    • duke

      That is the Muslim DOUBLE STANDARD, they believe they can say and DO what they want, but when Christians or others do not meet their DOUBLE standard then they want to condem and turn to violence. When you move to ANY counrty in the world it is YOUR DUTY to Observe their laws and rules, Muslims want to be Settlers not intergrate. Those that do not want to follow the rules or comply can go home & NEVER return

      July 1, 2010 at 9:45 am |
    • some dood

      Really??? You expect Thanksgiving to be celebrated in the middle east? In regards to your more relevant points, The US is one to set an example, we shouldn't be waiting for other countries to set a precedent...

      July 2, 2010 at 2:41 am |
  9. McCluck

    your nutz. Your god is just as much a fantasy as pink unicorns and all the other fantasies that you speak of. The rest of your arguments do not follow.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:31 am |
    • Sharon

      I guess Mccluck does not have a logical brain.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:45 am |
    • Mohammed

      I take it that you are an Aethiest? I have been meaning to ask, if you do not beleive in the existance of God, how do you explain the creation of the universe?

      July 2, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  10. ANov

    I'm not sure about Saudi, bu in in Indonesia we have holidays for all the major religions.
    Christmas, Easter, Eid, and also Hindu and Buddhism holiday among others. Are you saying US should not be better than the Saudi? We have to wait for their example?

    July 1, 2010 at 9:30 am |
  11. evelyn

    While Christmas and Easter may fall within a school holiday...all school holidays are secular. It's a winter break and a spring break. For a public school to add a holiday for a specific religious festival (regardless of religion) would violate the the separation clause.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:30 am |
    • Catholic NYer

      Not true – in NYC, kids get off for yom kippur!

      July 1, 2010 at 9:33 am |
    • Scott

      Do you think that Christmas just 'happens' to fall on winter break? Do you think students don't go to school on Sunday by chance? When I was growing up it was christmas break. It changed to winter break to develop a masquerade of separation. If you don't think winter break is specifically built for christian religious holidays, then why don't we change the break to be a celebration of the New Year starting on Jan 1. Hiding behind the 'Winter Break' excuse is only valid if we are allowed to change winter break to a different time period.

      July 1, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
  12. ve

    I would never move to another country and expect them to change everything their forefathers had fought and died for to suit me. I would try to fit in with them. Period!

    July 1, 2010 at 9:30 am |
    • Sybaris

      But the forefathers faught for religious freedom, not religious exclusion. Recognize all or none, it's that simple.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:53 am |
    • Scott

      This is a muslim holiday question, not a Iranian holiday, or a Saudi holiday. These are americans (some of which may be 2nd or 3rd or more generation americans) who wish to express their religion. Over a number of recent CNN topics we continually hear about the christian majority wanting everything and deny everyone else. If they are so unconcerned about religious freedom, it is time we start reducing their religious freedom. If muslim americans have to go to school on their important holidays, then I suggest we start having kids at school on christmas. It seems to me that atheists have a better grip on the application of religious freedom than christians do.

      July 1, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
  13. NickinWI

    As an American-born revert to Islam, I can say I applaud this, not only in New York, but around the country. Whether my children would be raised in the Islamic faith or another tradition remains to be seen, but it's certainly important that these young people not be put in a position to choose between their education and their beliefs.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:30 am |
    • question

      I think there are already some compromises from religious parents to send their children to a public shool, a holiday is not essential. After all, public schools teach scientific courses which will keep this world developed. If you want your children go to a school complying to the religious doctrines, then choose a religious school in the first place.

      July 1, 2010 at 11:16 am |
  14. Chadwick Walenga

    Leave it up to the individual school districts. I get concerned when a topic like this is thrown out there, and it is responded to as if whatever the national 'tone' might be, that that is what the answer for everyone should be. If there is a school district with no religious group represented among their students, it should be up to them to decide.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:30 am |
  15. Rick McDaniel

    No. Period.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:29 am |
  16. Dave

    You know what, ask the kids and they would probably say yes, more days off!!

    July 1, 2010 at 9:29 am |
  17. Joesph

    Maybe LJ
    Has a point, Lets celebrate all the holidays and every day will be a day off, that way students will might learn something by avoiding public schools alltogether.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:29 am |
  18. Jina

    As a Christian who grew up in Kuwait, I had to go to school on Christmas (unless it fell on a Friday) and Easter and it was counted as 'unexcused absence'. So I say the Moslems students can live with the same rules in the Western World.... or leave, like I did, and live in Saudi or another Moslem country 🙂

    July 1, 2010 at 9:28 am |
    • BobWhoLikesBeef

      I don't know how you can ever compare the U.S. with Kuwait. Kuwait is a small country, smaller than AK with about a population of 2-3 million if i remember correctly. The United States, the 4th largest country in the world is considered our present day superpower with the largest economy and most advanced military force as well as being a democracy.

      When you look at the facts, there really isn't any comparison.

      July 1, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  19. Sybaris

    Until Festivus is recognized then no holiday for you!!

    July 1, 2010 at 9:28 am |
    • Curious

      Shall I bring my 6 foot aluminium pole? Who will start with the airing of grievances?

      rotflol – Thanks for making me laugh.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:50 am |
  20. Scott

    No religion should be acknowledged in public, as it kills hundreds, if not thousands, of people every day. Humanity must outgrow the need for ancient fairy tales if we are to survive as a species. Adherence to these silly, ancient beliefs is nothing to be proud of.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:28 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.