New Yorkers campaign for Muslim school holidays

Interfaith rally held to pressure mayor to include Eid al Adha and Eid al Fitr in the education calendar.

Muslim devotees take part in a special morning prayer to start the Eid al-Fitr festival, which marks the end of Muslim's holy fasting month of Ramadan, on September 20, 2009 in Brooklyn, New York. US President Barack Obama marked the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan with his administration stressing the commonality between American culture and the values of Islam. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD

NEW YORK // More than 150 Muslim students, parents and supporters rallied outside New York's City Hall this week as part of their campaign to persuade the mayor to include the Eid al Adha and Eid al Fitr holidays in the public school calendar.

Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders along with city officials also attended Wednesday's rally at which children carried placards with slogans such as "Muslim school holidays - Recognition, Inclusion and Respect" and "I am not invisible". The major Christian and Jewish holidays are already recognised by the New York public school system. Michael Bloomberg, the New York City mayor, remains opposed to recognition of the holidays, saying the city's children need more days in school, not fewer. "This city will do everything it can to protect Muslims' rights to get together and practice their religion. We just cannot have any more school holidays," he said.

Campaigners point out that because the Muslim holidays are calculated according to the lunar year, public schoolchildren would only need five days off over the next 12 years because most of the Eid holidays fall on already existing holidays or weekends. At present, many Muslim parents are forced to choose either religion or education in deciding whether to keep their children in school if one of the Eids should fall on a school day.

Robert Jackson, a city council member, said there was "flagrant bias" against Muslim students. He pointed to a letter sent this week to all New York City public school parents about efforts to change the start date of the school year this September to just after Labour Day and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year holiday. "How is that you can consider retooling the school calendar for parental convenience or the Jewish holidays, but categorically refuse to accommodate the 12 per cent of the student body who are forced to choose between honouring the tenets of their faith or meeting their academic obligations?" he said in a letter to Mr Bloomberg.

Mr Jackson was the sponsor of a city council resolution, which was passed 50-1 a year ago, to include the Muslim holidays. Mr Bloomberg's consent is needed to implement the measure. Campaigners say there are about 100,000 Muslim children in the public school system. Community organisers said they are prepared for the long haul, recognising their struggle might take several years just as it did for the city's Jewish community to win full acceptance and recognition.

The Coalition for Muslim School Holidays got under way in 2006 and more than 80 civil rights, religious and labour groups are now members. "When Jews first came to New York in the 17th and 18th centuries, they did not experience full recognition of their way of life, even though their right to freedom of worship was unquestioned," said Talib Abdur Rashid, an imam and vice president of the Islamic Leadership Council of New York.

"A key factor in New York City life over the past three decades has been the dramatic increase in our Muslim residency due to the presence of the nation's largest African-American population, the steady conversion of both Spanish-speaking Americans and those of Anglo-American lineage, and waves of immigration bringing South Asian, Arab, European and African Muslims to live here," he said. Rabbi Michael Feinberg, the director of the Greater New York Labour-Religion Coalition, an economic justice group for all faiths, was also at the rally. He said Jewish holidays were first included in the public school calendar in the 1950s mostly to accommodate Jewish teachers, who then made up the majority in the United Federation of Schoolteachers, the largest teachers' union in New York City.

He said the Muslim holidays campaign was prepared to lobby the state government in Albany if necessary. "The city council vote doesn't have the force of law behind it so it has to be either the mayor or Albany who decides," he said. "To me, it's a question of fundamental fairness for all ethnic groups and recognition by the city and department of education on an equal basis."