Washington, DC – Growing up in the United States, Selaedin Maksut would skip school on Eid to go to the mosque, attend festivities with his family and celebrate one of the most joyous days for Muslims across the world.
While he said he never regretted the decision, he was burdened by having to miss classes.
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Now, as the director of the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NJ), Maksut has been helping a new generation of Muslim-American students have the day off school.
“We’re optimistic,” Maksut told Al Jazeera, stressing that the effort aims to “free” Muslim students from having to choose between academic success and observing the holiday.
In New Jersey and across the US, dozens of public schools have recognised Eid as an official holiday in recent years – a trend Muslim-American advocates said was the product of their activism, as well as a sign of the growing prominence of Muslim communities in the country.
“[Students] want to be able to freely go to the masjid [mosque] and pray, be with their family and enjoy the day, and then return to school the next day knowing that they did not miss any exams or any tests or any homework,” Maksut told Al Jazeera.
CAIR-NJ has created a toolkit to help parents, students and activists urge schools to adopt Eid as a holiday, including a draft letter highlighting the dilemma that Muslim students face between prioritising their school attendance or religious duties.
“We’re going to continue to have boots on the ground and work with community members to mobilise and help them find their voice and empower them to seek these accommodations … to create societies that are more inclusive and welcoming of everybody.”
Islam has two major holidays known as Eid – the Arabic word for holiday or festival.
Eid al-Fitr, which will be observed on Friday, marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims are required to refrain from consuming food or liquids from sunrise to sunset. The second holiday, Eid al-Adha, marks the end of the Hajj pilgrimage and typically falls about two months after Eid al-Fitr.
Islam follows a lunar calendar, so the holidays do not fall on the same date in the school calendar every year.
But dozens of school districts across the US – primarily those with large numbers of Muslim students – are making an effort to mark Eid al-Fitr, and sometimes both Eids, as days off when they are celebrated during the school year.
Muslims account for approximately 1 percent of the US population, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, but a few states, including New Jersey and Michigan, have a higher concentration of Muslim residents.
The push to recognise Eid in schools has not faced prominent opposition at the national level, highlighting a receding right-wing effort to portray any government accommodation of Muslims as a conspiracy to impose Islamic rules on Americans, Maksut said.
“While we occasionally still see that – although not as much – what we’re seeing now is much more progress, we’re seeing much more proactive efforts, and we’re seeing that Muslims are being accommodated in a lot of places.”
How it started
Recently, several cities in New Jersey added Eid al-Fitr as a holiday, starting either this year or in 2024, as did districts in New York and Ohio.
New York City, which has the largest public school district in the country, made the move in 2015. Minneapolis, another major city, decided to start recognising Eid as a school holiday in 2022, and Houston did the same this year.
In southeast Michigan, where it is common for Arabs and Muslims to serve on school boards, many districts – including Detroit – have designated Eid as a day off.
The Detroit suburb of Dearborn is believed to be the first US school district to recognise Eid. Advocates said some schools with large numbers of Muslim pupils started closing for the religious occasion in the 1990s, before Eid became a district-wide holiday in the early 2000s.
In addition to the community’s efforts and the cooperation of local officials, having the holiday off in Dearborn was also a practical matter.
So many students would not show up to class on the Muslim holiday that some schools would fail to reach the attendance level needed to secure state and federal funding for that day.
Lila Alcodray-Amen, a Dearborn Public Schools official, said it started to become apparent in the early 1990s that it “didn’t make any sense” to keep schools open during Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. “We were losing money,” she told Al Jazeera.
Alcodray-Amen, who worked with the school superintendent at that time to secure the holidays as days off, said the Eid push was part of a broader campaign to accommodate the growing Muslim student population.
She said there was an early pushback from some staff members, but the opposition quickly dissipated. “It was about the money – and the respect to the fact that people deserve their time off because it’s a holiday,” Alcodray-Amen said.
“We shut down for Easter. We shut down for Christmas. Why should we be any different in our community?”
Her daughter, Suehaila Amen, a community advocate and graduate of Dearborn Public Schools, also remembered the first time she did not have to go to class on Eid when she was in elementary school.
“I remember being ecstatic, not having to wake up and go to school on the holiday, and being able to go to the mosque,” Amen told Al Jazeera. “As a student who was a nerd, it wasn’t going to impact my grades or attendance record. That was a big deal.”
Amen said the growing recognition of Eid is a “testament to the growth” of the US.
“When, unfortunately, we see so much going on in the country on the opposite end, it’s time that we look at the positive things that can and do happen – and that’s because there are people who are committed to creating change,” she said.
Pushback in San Francisco
While Eid recognition at schools has largely been a success story for Muslim-American communities, it has not all been smooth sailing. In San Francisco, the school district in January reversed a resolution approved months earlier to have Eid off.
According to local media reports, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) had faced criticism over the move and threats of lawsuits accusing it of improperly favouring one religion over others.
Facing counter-pressure from Arab and Muslim students and activists, the district decided to move its spring break forward next year to accommodate Eid al-Fitr instead. SFUSD did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
“It’s important for me as a student to get those days off because it makes me feel like I’m recognised and I’m heard within my community,” said Aisha Majdoub, a high school student in the district.
Majdoub and other Muslim students have been attending school board meetings, and she said she was bitterly disappointed by the district’s initial decision to revoke Eid al-Fitr as an official holiday.
“It was, to be honest, one of the worst things ever because it was like you finally got a taste of sweetness, and then it was just taken back from you,” she told Al Jazeera.
Majdoub added that moving spring break forward to accommodate Eid is only a temporary fix; Eid al-Fitr is moving towards the start of the year on the Gregorian calendar, so in a few years, it will be celebrated in winter.
“So for now, yeah, it’s a win,” Majdoub said. “But we still need to go back and find a long-term solution. We need to really recognise Eid as a holiday.”
Wassim Hage, the outreach coordinator at the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, an advocacy group that has been part of the Eid campaign in San Francisco, said having time off on the Muslim holidays is “critical” for students.
He said recognition also would go a long way to relieve Arab and Muslim students of some of the bigotry their communities faced during the past decades, while allowing other students to explore and appreciate their culture.
“Our communities have been on the receiving end of different kinds of state violence and misrepresentation and demonisation in the media,” Hage told Al Jazeera.
“It’s this ability to counter that, to say: ‘We see Arabs and Muslim students and their families as valuable members of our community. They have this day to celebrate, and so will we celebrate with you all and take this day off.'”