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. inthemidwest

    Founded on Christian principles, that's why we celebrate Christmas, sorry go back to your camels. It's a shame a great president like FDR is not in office, after 9/11 he would have put them all in camps

    July 1, 2010 at 9:43 am |
  2. jim

    If you want your Muslim days off, go back home!!!!

    July 1, 2010 at 9:43 am |
    • Grant

      Apparently if you want tolerance you also shouldn't come to America.....

      July 1, 2010 at 9:44 am |
    • SueK

      So by that standard, Jim, go back to whichever Christian European country your forefathers came from, coz Native Americans certainly didn't celebrate Christmas.....

      July 1, 2010 at 11:02 am |
  3. EZ

    Our schools always got winter and spring break with observances for those holidays in the christian calendar. IE, Christmas and Easter. However, i can only remember maybe one or two kids that were NOT christian. They were jewish.

    Then there are those rediculous holidays that you found people take off now, like martin luthor king day. That does not warrant a day off just because you're black, but people make the excuse anyway. I'm sure down the line we're going to see a reverend sharpton day and a jesse jackson day as well. Just another cooked up bunch of holidays to get out of work.

    Its the same for the people that celebrate kwanzaa. Give me a break. I'd have a better time believing you were celebrating soemthing if you told me you were celebrating festivus. The latinos that clean our building dont show up on may 5th. Why? Cinco de mayo.

    People are going to find an excuse to take a day off no matter what.

    If the mulims want a day off, whatever. It'll prolly end up being an excused day for those muslim students the same as for those of other races and religions get their day.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:43 am |
    • Sam

      i m not black but i think martin luther king holiday is given bcoz he fought for the civil rights...he was the leader of civil rights...juss like we celebrate president day, we should also celebrate martin luther kings day.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:51 am |
    • Gregg

      I take cinco de mayo off every year and i'm irish, but thats probably because i tend to not remember it. afterall any excuse to get hammered is a good one.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:04 am |
  4. rick

    I say we take every religious holiday off. If we tried hard enough we could make everyday a religious holiday. Yeah why would kids need to be in school so much. We have the smartest kids on the planet in America. Yep they can use a few more days off. They are so far ahead of every other country in education.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:43 am |
  5. Matt

    This doesn't seem too unreasonable. Christmas already gets two weeks so what is just two extra days? It just seems that if you are going to include several Christian holidays it would be unfair to exclude other religious others (within reason).

    July 1, 2010 at 9:43 am |

    whats next sharia law? No way.
    go back to the middle east and develop it. Guess what, you cant do that . There is not one advanced islamic country..go figure

    July 1, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  7. Mike

    In schools where I have taught, school is in session on Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, and Good Friday. Teachers are explicitly discouraged from having major assessments on those days, which makes sense even for selfish reasons; I, as a teacher, don't want to have to schedule all that make-up work. (Nobody is penalized for make-up tests, besides the extra time they have to come in for it.) If I was a Christian student and school was in session on December 25, I would miss school that day, and then meet with my teachers to schedule make-up times and do the work as quickly as I could.

    If your faith matters to you, I don't see how this is too high of a price to pay. I don't think it's a good idea to communicate to our children that to be free to practice one's faith means that any inconveniences that come along with the practice of that faith is tantamount to persecution.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  8. Clinton

    Agree with those saying we should not be observing any religious holidays in school.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  9. Chris in Texas

    If schools are closed for X-tian holiday observances then they should be closed for Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wican, Flying Spaghetti Monster holiday observances too. Of course, doing such a thing would be idiocy and kids would never be in school.
    So, give them Thanksgiving (or Deer Season depending on what part of the country the school is located), Winter break, spring break and summer break. No religious holiday should be observed in a public school whatsoever as it shows favoritism to religion and violates the separation of church and state clause of the First Amendment.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:42 am |
    • Carl

      As soon as "winter break" doesn't happen to overlap with Christmas, you'll have a lot of very angry Christians insulted by the fact that their kids have to go to school on the twenty-fifth day of December.

      The irony is, many of these parents would have no problem forcing Muslim kids to attend school on a Muslim holiday.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:54 am |
  10. KC

    Schools don't need another holiday. While Christmas occurs during winter break, other holidays, like Easter occur on weekends. Not all school systems even recognize Good Friday. BTW...in middle eastern countries where there are Christians, Christmas is not observed as a holiday. When I was going to school (back in the stone age) teachers were asked to be aware of religious holiday and not schedule tests or teaching of important new concepts. I think the same should be true now.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  11. Carl

    I know your belief in this "god" feels really real and all, just like kids who are DEAD CERTAIN that the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus are real, but it's all just a fantasy.

    Ancient Greece was founded on the belief in many gods, the greatest of whom was Zeus. Does that make Zeus real?

    July 1, 2010 at 9:41 am |
  12. buccakenji

    Your experience with the woman recognizing your prayer time reveals the religious tolerance of the American people. However, we are a Christian nation since birth. You do not have to convert to Christianity to be accepted by the American people but we, in turn, should not have to recognize Muslim holidays to be accepted by Muslims.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:41 am |
    • Carl

      No, we're NOT a "Christian Nation". A nation is not Christian, a PERSON is a Christian.

      As someone who has grown up and recognizes that supernatural characters–Superman, the Easter Bunny, Jesus, Santa Claus, Mohammed, God, Zeus, etc–don't exist, I resent the idea that this country I love somehow belongs somebody else's supernatural fantasies (i.e. religions).

      We're a secular nation that explicitly forbids the government from respecting a particular religion.

      Christianity should be given no more bias than Islam in any public policy.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:52 am |
    • tcassa

      Well said. However, we will never be accepted unless we convert.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:02 am |
    • Paul

      Carl may not believe in God (or so he says), but the founders of the country most certainly believed in something when they wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable." That's Creator, with a capital "C". They may not have all been Christians by modern standards, but certainly the majority's beliefs were consistent with traditional Christian values or, rather, what those Christian values are supposed to be.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:20 am |
  13. Spike

    If Muslims are ever provided places to pray in schools, Christians should be provided chapels in which to worship on campus. I could be wrong, but I think a University recently provided places to pray and feet washing facillities for Muslims. Where did they put the chapel so Mass could be celebrated?

    July 1, 2010 at 9:41 am |
    • buccakenji

      A point so well made. See my post below.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  14. Charles

    Unfortunately I don't think there are enough days on the school calendar to celebrate every religious holiday. I don't remember getting off for Hanukkah when I was in school. No offense to your belief but it is going to be a struggle to get Americans to celebrate a holiday they associate with a terrorist faith.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:40 am |
  15. Saganhill

    God in NOT the cornerstone of this country. When will you cristians actually research history? OUr founding fathers were Deist, they had nothing but contempt for religious christians. Read some of Ben Franklins letters about religion, its funny.

    Your fantasy god and its hell that goes with it is a man made item meant to reap fear into the masses while the power mongers use it to keep you in your place. There is no more a god than you have cable hookup coming out your A**.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:40 am |
  16. v.j.o.

    This is ridiculous! Many private schools have school on holidays of every major religion and nobody complains there– if you need to skip school to attend religious services, that is usually acceptable, but to make it a city-wide ordinance is just ridiculous. I'm sure that most teachers and administrators of New York City public schools would be understanding if twelve percent of the student population missed two (yes, TWO) days of school out of 180.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:40 am |
  17. Christie

    I don't think that schools should close for religous holiday's like this. Unless we are going to close schools for all other worldwide holidays, jewish, asian, european... why is it that now we have a muslim president that it is being shoved down our throats? i agree with adam....

    July 1, 2010 at 9:39 am |
    • Carl

      Why is it that when somebody of another religion somewhere wants some policy that helps their family recognize their important holidays, the xenophobic Muslim-hating conservatives all call it "shoving it down our throats".

      I bet if a school scheduled class on Christmas, there'd be lots of upset Christians–but many of them have no problem forcing Muslim students to attend classes on their religious holidays.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:49 am |
  18. tcassa

    Absolutely not. This country, regardless of church and separation, was founded on Christian principles. It is our history and one we as a people should be proud of. If muslims want a holiday, then they should go to a country based on muslim principles. As bad as that may sound, this is our country's history. Let's not keeping changing it to be politically correct for a few.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:39 am |
    • Carl

      No, this country was certainly NOT founded on Christian principles. That's a myth that Christians love spreading. Democracy predates Christianity by thousands of years. Christianity, in its long history, has often not recognized or advocated for the individual rights that AMERICA stands for (Ephesians 6:5 supports slavery).

      We're a nation of laws that protect people from (for example) pedophile Christian priests and Christian terrorists who blow up abortion clinics.

      Not everyone believes in your fairy tales and mythological characters.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:46 am |
  19. Andrew

    My generation and my children's generation has had to make a choice about school on Jewish holidays (we don't live in a Jewish area). My child does not attend school on important holidays and will never have a chance to be recognized for perfect attendance. We got over it. Ideally the schools should have floating holidays and allow every child X number of excused absences. But Holidays are tightly ingrained with travel and family gatherings so the "winter break" will continue to fall around christmas to appease the majority.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:39 am |
  20. Carl

    Christianity is evil. Look at all the pedophile priests. Not to mention the Christian terrorists who blow up abortion clinics. And don't even get started on the crusades.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:39 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.