The rise of Muslim political involvement earns them respect with Bill de Blasio’s promise to have school days off on major Muslim holidays and the community such as Astoria restores hope crashed by the Bloomberg administration.
The newly elected New York City mayor took a very different stand on the demands of religious and ethnic groups than his predecessor. Muslims can now expect Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, the celebration of sacrifice, to be officially added onto public school calendars in the foreseeable future. This was an effort made by the Muslim community that Bloomberg refused to recognize for as long as seven years.
“The first press conference came up seven years ago right here in front of the mosque and it was my daughter protesting,” said Ahmed Jamil, Muslim American Society (MAS) outreach director in Astoria, Queens. “How could you give a very important test on a religious holiday?”
That was the question that the Muslim community had for the New York City Department of Education in 2006 when a mandatory statewide test for third to fifth grades was scheduled during Eid al-Adha. Similar occasion happened when a specialized high school test was schedule right after the Muslim celebration. Many Muslim students, like Jamil’s daughter, chose not to attend the exam with the support of their parents and local organizations such as MAS.
“People have to choose between education and family, religion. It was very hard,” said Jamil. “So we started the campaign and had 83 organizations to protest against the Department of Education. We passed the resolution and Bloomberg promised us to sign the law, but he did not.”
That was during New York City’s mayoral election year of 2009 when the resolution passed the senate and was shot down by Bloomberg. He explained to ensure kids are getting more education not less, which would a result of having school days off for religious holidays in a diverse city like New York.
As one of the headquarters of MAS in Astoria, the Masjid Dar Al-Dawah responded by encouraging its members to be more politically active. They collaborate to speak out for Muslim kids that comprise 13% of the entire public school enrollment in New York City.
According to the NYC Department of Education 2013-2014 School Year Calendar, public schools are closed for two Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Passover; and two Christian holidays, Good Friday and Easter. Supporters in Astoria say adding Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha to the existing 13 holidays per school year is not likely to compromise the minimum of 180 school days that the State Education Department requires. They say the two Muslim holidays run according to the lunar calendar and are very likely to fall on weekends or existing school holidays.
According to MAS, the resolution that they submitted to senate in 2009 and the current campaign are not restricted to the Muslim community. Other communities have raised their voices for school days off on holidays such as the Chinese New Year and Dawali along with the Muslims in the 2013 mayoral election.
“Being part of the larger community doesn’t mean you lose your identity. That’s the bigger challenge for any minorities, any religious communities, it doesn’t matter,” added Jamil. “But we did specify the eid holidays in the city council resolution.”
According to Imam Abdulhalim at Masjid Dar Al-Dawah, leaders of the mosque communicated with mayoral candidates this year and received promises from both De Blasio and Lhota on recognizing Muslim holidays. MAS organized voter registration workshops and other events.
In the meantime, numbers of politically involved Muslims increased citywide featuring organizations such as New York Muslim Voter and Information Club and the newly found Muslim Democratic Club as of earlier this year. They gained the attention from both the politicians and the media in response with the coverage of Muslim rally and politicians opening supporting their demands.
“The community outreach was succeeded very much to have the largest registered Muslim voters for the mayor candidate in the history in New York City, this mayor candidate [De Blasio],” said Jamil.
The Muslim community slowly came to the realization that participation in the political process would help raising their voices and gaining attention for issues that they had in mind.
“We want to show that the community has effects on voting,” said Moustafa Rahman, owner of an Egyptian restaurant called Mombar in Astoria. “When we don’t vote, they won’t know we exist and they won’t care about us. And they don’t come to ask what the city can do for you.”
Members of MAS also aim to bridge between Muslims and the larger community to gain understanding and respect, especially for the kids.
“Some of them think this is something we shouldn’t talk about in the public school. We make them feel more confident with their Muslim identity,” said Sama Sobih, assistant principle of MAS youth program in Astoria. “No problem to be Americans but in the same time, to have a religion is not wrong. We try to let them see themselves as both.”
Public schools are being more aware of the Muslim holidays but existing policies show otherwise.
“They actually announced on the speaker right before the holiday that ‘tomorrow most of our Muslim kids are not going to be here because they are celebrating a holiday’”, said Farouk Rahman, the 11-year-old son of the Mombar restaurant owner. “But next day, they sent my dad an email saying I’m one day absent. They don’t mark me absent when I’m sick though.”
“To have this implemented, that’s our next step,” said Jamil. “Until it’s signed, it’s still a promise.”