New York's Muslims Push For Public Schools To Close For Eid Holidays

President of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York Linda Sarsour discusses why she wants the city's public schools to close on holidays like Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Now we turn to a campaign to recognize Muslim religious holidays in the New York public school system. Roughly 10 percent of New York City's public school children are Muslims. And their parents are asking that schools close for the most sacred Muslim holidays. They argue that Christian and Jewish students get their most important holidays off already. Current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed the idea during his campaign. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN)

DE BLASIO: We have to respect people of Muslim faith by providing the Eid school holidays for children in our school system.

(APPLAUSE)

HEADLEE: Here to talk to us is Linda Sarsour. She's the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. Welcome, Linda.

LINDA SARSOUR: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: So why this particular push? I mean, I understand - we read the guidelines in New York City public schools, and if a Muslim family asks for the day off for the holiday, they are supposed to be allowed it. So why should the whole school have the day off?

SARSOUR: So this campaign, which is being coordinated by the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays, is actually an eight-year campaign. This is not a new push. And you said 10 percent, actually 1 out of every 8 students in the New York City public school system is Muslim. And we believe that no child should have to choose between their faith and their education. And those guidelines that you're talking about changed after 2006 when we found out that the state had scheduled statewide exams on the day of a High Holy holiday for the Muslim community. We believe that incorporating Muslim school holidays is an educational opportunity in a post-9/11 New York City where Muslim kids across the city are being bullied. They feel misunderstood. They're grappling with their identity.

And I think that because it's afforded to the Jewish community and the Christian community as two of the three Abrahamic faiths, we think it's about time that students in the Muslim community have the same opportunity. It's about inclusion, and it's about New York City and pluralism and being able to have a child say - a non-Muslim student say, I'm home today because I'm - you know, because it's a Muslim holiday, and being able to understand what that means and recognizing their fellow classmates. And there are districts in New York City like mine in South Brooklyn where almost 50 percent of the whole school is Muslim. So on Eid, 50 percent of the students are not there, and the principals have supported us. And in 2009, 50 of 51 city councilmembers also supported our call.

HEADLEE: There are two Eids, and those are the two that you guys are asking for off system-wide, correct? And have there been instances, since those guidelines changed that you've talked about, have there been instances of a student not coming to school on a Muslim holiday and being penalized for it, either through an exam or through their school work?

SARSOUR: We haven't heard, specifically, cases where kids have been penalized. But the idea again is that you're choosing to stay home, and you're missing out on some sort of educational opportunity, whether that be a lesson plan or feeling like, you know, that you're different than every other student in that school. And we think it's very important that we don't allow - we don't put young children and families in the situation where they have to choose whether or not they send their kids to school.

And also, looking at the way that our calendar is, the Muslim calendar, it has very minimal impact on the school calendar. Most often, many of our holidays fall on Jewish holidays. And right now, Ramadan, for example, is in the summer. Eventually, of course we will be asking for days off as it moves in closer to the school year. But for now, at least in the next 10 years, it's very minimal impact. So we think it's a gesture from New York City to say, we embrace and recognize the American-Muslim community here in New York City. And we allow these young Muslims who are, you know - many cases that we've worked on of school bullying across the city where we think that this will really help young Muslim kids be proud of who they are as American-Muslims, especially in a very tense, hostile environment that we're living in right now in post-9/11 United States.

HEADLEE: We only have about a minute left, but taking those two days off, in some cases, would that mean having to add two days to the school year?

SARSOUR: I don't believe, as Mayor de Blasio has said in other forums, there's plenty of space on the school calendar for these two days. We will not have to extend the school year. We've already talked to the United Federation of Teachers. This is a very easy implementation plan, and we are in implementation process right now. So kids shouldn't worry. They're not going to stay in school longer. And the teachers support us. We have the union supporting us. And I think it's something that's going to happen hopefully within the next school year.

HEADLEE: That's Linda Sarsour, president of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York and executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. She joined me here in our Washington studios. Thank you so much.

SARSOUR: Thank you.

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