On Wednesday, March 4, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that starting this coming fall, New York City’s public schools will close in honour of two Muslim holidays – Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.
“We made a pledge to families that we would change our school calendar to reflect the strength and diversity of our city,” he said, referring to a campaign promise he made to Muslim New Yorkers in 2013. “Hundreds of thousands of Muslim families will no longer have to choose between honouring the most sacred days on their calendar or attending school.”
New York is not the first school district in the US to recognise Islamic holidays. The cities of Dearborn, Michigan; Paterson and South Brunswick, New Jersey; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Burlington, Vermont all honour Muslim observance – but New York is the largest school district in the country to include Muslim holidays on its academic calendar.
Growing political power
“The incorporation of Muslim school holidays is a testament to the growing political power of the American Muslim community,” said Linda Sarsour, a Brookyln-based activist and one of the key figures behind the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays. “People are fearful that if they organise around an issue, the more scrutiny they will get from law enforcement. But this victory is empowering – we will leverage this victory to continue our fight to end the racial profiling of our community by the NYPD, the FBI, the TSA, and the Customs and Border Patrol.”
The eid campaign began nine years ago – or depending on who you ask – over 20 years ago. Community elders note that City Hall first recognised Islamic holidays in 1992, when, in response to a grassroots campaign, Mayor David Dinkins signed a bill adding Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha to the Department of Transportation’s calendar for alternate side parking.
But what spurred the community to demand that the holidays be incorporated into the academic calendar was when in January 2006, a statewide exam was scheduled on Eid al-Adha. Various organisations mobilised, forming the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays, and in June of that year, introduced a bill to prevent the scheduling of mandatory statewide tests on any religious holiday. Three years later, the city council voted unanimously in favour of a (non-binding) resolution calling on the Department of Education to incorporate the Islamic holidays into the public school calendar.
But Mayor Michael Bloomberg refused, saying “If you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.”
On May 2013, both De Blasio and Joe Lhota, frontrunners for the mayorship promised to reverse Bloomberg’s decision. The former was sworn into office in January 2014 and made true to his promise last week.
Demands to have eids recognised as school holidays are not always successful in the US. When the Muslim community of Montgomery county, Maryland – a suburb outside of Washington DC – pushed for Muslim holidays to be included on the academic calendar, the school board responded by dropping mention of all religious affiliations for days off on its official calendar.
In New York, considerable groundwork was done to produce a coalition. In 2009, the activists secured the support from five borough presidents, the comptroller, the public advocate, the United Federation of Teachers, and the Principals Union. Community members also sent thousands of letters to the mayor’s office, and made hundreds of phone calls.
The addition of Islamic holidays onto the New York city public school calendar also comes at a difficult time. Americans were stunned by the Charlie Hebdo attacks of Paris, and the Muslim American community is still shaken by the spike in hate crimes.
“You don’t just ask for holidays and get them – these types of campaigns require a diverse coalition and strategic planning,” says Sarsour, “NYC should be a case study for organising in American Muslim communities – other cities should look at what we did.”
Last week’s achievement was reminiscent of another (symbolic) victory. In mid-October 2007, the Empire State Building’s tower was lit up in green for three days in honour of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan. Muslim New Yorkers were pleased by this gesture – the Empire State’s tower glows in colours during the Christmas holiday season and the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
But it came at a tense moment, on the heels of a now discredited report released by the New York Police Department that identified hookah bars, butcher shops and other sites of everyday Muslim life, as “extremist incubators”, lending support to the surveillance and monitoring policies of the last decade.
The addition of Islamic holidays to the New York city public school calendar also comes at a difficult time. Americans were stunned by the Charlie Hebdo attacks of Paris, and the Muslim American community is still shaken by the spike in hate crimes, and the murder of three students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in February.
Shortly after coming to office, De Blasio disbanded the NYPD unit that was spying on the Muslim community – and his support for the school holiday resolution was partly intended to help heal relations. But the tension and outrage continue.
In February 2014, a federal judge declared the surveillance of Muslims lawful. Judge William Martini of New Jersey threw out a lawsuit brought by eight Muslims against the New York Police Department, stating that: “The police could not have monitored New Jersey for Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself,” and reprimanded the Associated Press for publicising the police’s spying activities.
Yet, many Muslim New Yorkers are still celebrating.
“Are we still facing discrimination? Absolutely – but this decision is huge,” says Aman Ali, a Harlem-based stand-up comedian. “On Eid, after morning prayer, I always run out of the mosque onto the street and bust some dance moves – now as I dance, I can look up at the sky and see the Empire State Building, dressed in green, dancing with me.”
Hisham Aidi teaches at Columbia University. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture, a study of black internationalism and global youth culture.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.