Muslims in New York City Unite on Push to Add Holidays to School Calendar

The meeting opened with a pledge from the podium to try to end, God willing, by the hour of the evening prayer. Clusters of colorfully veiled women kept watch over jittery young children. Rows of men conversed in a jangle of languages.

They were Muslims from Bosnia and Montenegro, Egypt and Syria, Pakistan and Bangladesh — several hundred in all.

It was a gathering remarkable in its diversity from among New York City’s Muslims, a growing group whose members often find it difficult to work together politically because of differences in national origin, language, sect and class. But a single issue has managed to unify them: the push to close the city’s public schools for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, the most sacred Muslim holidays.

The issue might seem of modest importance alongside deeper concerns among many Muslims in the city, including the Police Department’s monitoring of their community since the Sept. 11 attacks. But the rally, held recently in a public school auditorium in Queens and organized in barely a week’s time, was a testament to how the city’s Muslim community is gaining a measure of political confidence.

Like all the major mayoral candidates in 2013, Bill de Blasio pledged to add the Muslim holidays to the school calendar. But since his election, he has declined to give specifics and has warned it will take time.

Rather than consider the battle won, a coalition of Muslim, interfaith and secular groups that has largely been dormant since 2009 has begun to agitate again, planning rallies in the city’s five boroughs and distributing postcards that remind Mr. de Blasio that including the Muslim school holidays is a matter of “recognition, inclusion and respect.”

“He’s going to sign only if he has too much headache — he cannot get away from it,” Ahmed Jamil, the president of the Muslim American Society Community Center in Astoria, Queens, told the cheering crowd at the rally last month at Public School 69 in Jackson Heights. “Our rights — we are going to fight until we get them.”

Estimates of the Muslim population in New York City range widely, from 600,000 to one million. A Columbia University study in 2008 found that about 10 percent of New York City public-school children are Muslim, and about 95 percent of Muslim children in the city attend public schools. But staging a successful broad-based advocacy campaign among the city’s Muslims had long been a challenge.

In fact, it was a secular group, the political organizing arm of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, which represents school cafeteria workers, bus drivers and maintenance workers, that in 2006 began coordinating the formal campaign to close the schools for the Muslim holidays, after the state incurred anger by scheduling a Regents exam on Eid al-Adha. Since then, the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays has brought together dozens of Muslim and non-Muslim clergy and community leaders and won the endorsement of the United Federation of Teachers and other labor and civil rights groups.

Organizers stress that granting the Muslim holidays equal status with Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur and Christian holidays like Christmas would send a powerful message to Muslim children — who often seek to blend in more than stand out — that they can be proud of their own culture.

Debbie Almontaser, who was forced out of her job as principal of the city’s first Arabic language school, in Brooklyn, in 2007 after The New York Post inaccurately portrayed her as sympathizing with Muslim extremists, now works at the Benjamin Banneker Academy, another public high school in Brooklyn. She sees many of her Muslim students grappling with how to express their identity.

“There is so much negativity out there, and including the Muslim holidays is simply a stamp of saying, We accept and embrace you, and this is your city as it is my city,” she said.

The coalition won its first big victory in 2009, when it got the City Council to overwhelmingly pass a resolution to grant the days off. But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg would not implement the idea, saying children needed more time in school, not less.

In the years since, the Muslim community has grown more organized politically. In 2013, for example, the Arab American Association of New York and the Islamic Center at New York University sponsored a debate among the mayoral candidates. In answer to a child’s question, all of the candidates present, including Mr. de Blasio, pledged to close the schools for the Muslim holidays; the Republican candidate, Joseph J. Lhota, later followed suit. The moment was freighted with emotion for many Muslims.

“It was like this breakthrough,” said Linda Sarsour, president of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, which was formed in 2013. Abdus Said, the president of the Bangladeshi American National Democratic Society, in the Bronx, remembered how 15 years ago, he could not get local politicians to return his calls. Now he considers support on the holiday issue a quid pro quo for the local politicians for whom he raises money and campaigns.

“This is the first big thing we have asked for,” he said. “Never have we done it before, but now we are at least 30,000 Bangladeshis in the Bronx alone. We are just very much stronger — and we are a growing community.”

The issue has become an entry point into politics for many previously noninvolved Muslims, who community organizers have found are reluctant to demonstrate on issues that they fear will attract the attention of the police, such as the Police Department’s decade-old intelligence effort to monitor mosques and businesses frequented by Muslims. Part of that program was recently shut down, but other aspects of it, such as the designation of mosques as terrorism enterprises for the purposes of investigating them, continue.

Kadijah Barco, who emigrated from Ghana in 1997, said that she went to her first political rally in the Bronx on March 6 for the holidays because it is such an important issue for her and the growing Muslim population in her South Bronx neighborhood. “We have to fight for them,” Ms. Barco said. She was also inspired, she said, because two of her children attend a public charter school that closed last year for Eid al-Adha.

Ms. Barco’s daughter, Fadilah, 15, a 10th grader at Harlem Village Academy, said last year was the first time she did not have to worry about missing tests or homework when the holiday fell on a school day. “It meant that they understood that our religion was important to us and that they cared about us,” she said.

Eid al-Fitr celebrates the end of Ramadan, the sacred month of fasting, and Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims traditionally observe these days by praying in the morning, then celebrating with family and friends, exchanging gifts and sharing a large meal. The campaign is asking for one day off for each holiday when it falls on a school day. But the request is complicated in part because other religious and ethnic groups in the city are pressing for their own days off, too.

The holiday issue is one that the city’s non-Muslim politicians have gravitated toward to win the community’s support, sometimes with an enthusiasm that Muslims themselves are not used to hearing in a post-9/11 context.

When City Councilman Daniel Dromm, for example, stood up at the recent Queens rally, he did not hold back. His district includes Jackson Heights, where many Muslims live. “Let’s hear it for Muslim power,” he shouted. He received some surprised looks and then growing applause. “It’s time to stand up,” he said.