(RNS) Seema Imam, a professor of education at National Louis University in Chicago, jokes that she wouldn’t mind if schools closed for the Islamic holidays of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.

“More days off from work? Sure,” said Imam, whose children grew up in the Chicago public school system.

(RNS) A young boy prays alongside Muslim men at an Eid al-Fitr observance at the U.S. Embassy to Indonesia in Jakarta. Photo courtesy U.S. Embassy to Indonesia.

(RNS) A young boy prays alongside Muslim men at an Eid al-Fitr observance at the U.S. Embassy to Indonesia in Jakarta. Photo courtesy U.S. Embassy to Indonesia.

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Still, she couldn’t bring herself to support a petition urging U.S. schools to close on the two Eid holidays. The online petition, started by a group of middle school students in Virginia, garnered fewer than 20,000 votes. A similar petition that expired in January amassed 65,000 signatures.

The latest petition was created through “We the People,” an online White House platform created by the Obama administration to allow citizens to petition their government for change. By law, if petitions reach 100,000 signatures, the administration is required to review the issue and provide a response.

“There’s not a national Jewish holiday,” said Imam. “So I’m not sure who started this and if they’re really thinking right, because I can’t imagine anybody recognizing a Muslim holiday for the whole country.”

Schools close for Islamic holidays in Dearborn, Mich.; Cambridge, Mass.; Burlington, Vt.; and parts of northern and central New Jersey.

Earlier this month, New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, said he would support closing schools on Islamic holidays — a position already supported by a majority of city council members but not the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

There have been efforts in Montgomery County, Md., and parts of Florida with significant Muslim populations to persuade school boards to close schools for Islamic holidays.

Still, the petition sparked spirited debate within the Muslim community. Opponents said it showed a lack of civic knowledge, since decisions about school holidays are not made by the executive branch of the federal government, but by local school boards. Others said the petition made Muslims seem unreasonable at a time when they are often accused of demanding special treatment.

“We have to consider what our contributions to this country have been. Essentially, we’ve been in this country for only 30 or 40 years,” said Rizwan Kadir, a business consultant in Chicago. “We haven’t done much for this country to demand something at the federal level.”

Activists Laila Alawa and Wardah Khalid, writing at the Muslim news blog AltMuslim.com, said: “While it is true that Muslims have been discriminated against in the past based on their faith, it does not mean that this is necessarily the reason why their holidays are being excluded from school calendars.”

Some Muslim parents also don’t want federal or local governments telling them when they should celebrate their holidays. The Muslim year and Muslim holidays are based on the lunar calendar. While many Muslims are comfortable relying on astronomical calculations to predict the moon’s movement years in advance, others believe the moon must be sighted by the human eye, making it impossible to schedule holidays in advance.

Nancy Khalil, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Harvard University, said the petition needed to be considered in the context of who wrote it, namely, a group of middle-school students learning about civil rights.

Muslims praying Eid al-Fitr services at the ISBCC. RNS photo by Omar Sacirbey

Muslims praying Eid al-Fitr services at the ISBCC in Boston. RNS photo by Omar Sacirbey

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“It speaks to their understanding of what religious rights are, and it shows they know they have to go out and work for them,” said Khalil. “To me, that seems like a constructive learning experience.”

She also noted that while the significant number of Muslims in Cambridge was the biggest factor in the decision to grant one Muslim holiday off for the year, the city’s school superintendent decided to propose the idea in part because he thought it would be a good way to do something positive for students who faced harassment.

Many Muslims say such decisions should be left up to local school boards who set minimum percentages of students necessary to have a religious holiday declared as a day off, while school districts where Muslims or students of other religions don’t have enough students to merit a day off should give those students excused absences.

“I grew up in a town of 1,100 people, and there weren’t any Muslim people there then, and there aren’t any there now,” said Imam, who likes the idea of a population threshold. “I don’t think the downstate farming communities are going to be able to all of a sudden handle an Eid holiday.”



  1. Recognizing a religious holiday on the federal level is always a matter of practicality, not endorsement of particular religions.

    Federal buildings were originally closed on Sunday because there was a time when workers wouldn’t show up because they had to go to church. Same for Christmas and Easter – why try to open the building if nobody is showing up for work anyway? It is impractical.

    Muslims make up less than 1% of the population and have not had the slightest practical impact on much of anything in the USA yet.

    This is an interesting topic to discuss, but it is likely to remain a non issue for at least 50 years.

    • Federal buildings weren’t the only ones closed on Sunday–for most of the weekend, for that matter–but are you old enough to remember to so-called blue laws against most business operations on Sundays?

      Also, business closings were not maintained so people could attend church. We began to observe weekend closings simply to give workers a break from their long labor–labor that eventually became reduced to the 40-hour week, thanks to the efforts of the labor unions.

      Sundays were part of what came to be called the “weekend,” even though it was actually the last day of one week and the first day of the next. Sunday closings were as much a part of “rest” from labor as any respect for individual religious practices. There is social evolution as well as physical evolution.

      You do not have any numbers about those who practiced religion on Sundays–or on Saturdays for Jews–than you have numbers for those who did nothing religious. And numbers exist now that claim that the great majority of our population do not practice formal religion on weekends.

      It was accommodation for some, just as accommodating the religious practices of Muslims would be as deserving now as it was for some Christians and Jews in the distant past. It had and has nothing to do with “any slightest practical impact” on the overall society.

      Also, on what historical or sociological basis to you project the situation as a “non-issue for at least 50 years?” A study of history would be an immense improvement over guess-work.

      • I don’t think I’m contradicting what you said regarding why Federal buildings are closed on Sundays. I do remember the blue laws which held mostly for the Northeast. But you have to admit there was no reason to open a building on a day holy day back when they were religiously observed.

        I picked 50 years for historical reasons.
        It usually takes 2 generations for a new Immigrant group to begin to influence society. The Irish arrived in large numbers in 1880-1910 and they began to influence policy by the 1950s (Kennedys, Moynihans, Bulgers, etc.) Waves of Italians in the 1920’s – 30’s began to influence policy by 1960s and in more recent years we have seen Latin Americans who arrived in large numbers in 1970-80 make huge impacts on the national scene.

        Muslims are relatively new to the USA but unlike other immigrant groups the numbers are not growing quickly – though that will probably increase dramatically soon as the middle east civil wars morph into something much larger regionally.

        Muslims have made almost no impact yet on American life. But they will and we should welcome it. They will be the most liberal-minded Muslims in the world and will contribute greatly to a more secular-sensitive Islam.

        Muslims are .04% of the population according to PEW research.

    • Why not for Muslims when you would seemingly defend it for other religious observers? It appears you know as little about Islam as you do about Christianity. If you studied the history of Christianity, even many current practices of some Christians, you might begin to wonder about that persuasion.

  2. We need to rethink the whole concept of the purpose of education for kids, public education, and the school year. We are no longer an agricultural society when kids were abused for labor on family farms just as much as kids were abused in cotton and woolen mills in New England.

    The education of kids is not only for the good the the kids, it is also for the benefit of future society in this nation in which, we hope, they will promote and protect the idea and practice of what we claim is our democracy.

    There need be no “war on Christmas” or any other religious observance as extremists claim, but the religious practices of some must never be forced onto others. Everyone must be respected and free to practice religion as they wish or to make no observance of any religion. Freedom of religion is only genuine when it includes freedom from religion.

    The school year should be revamped for our culture in our time. Too much time is lost with unneeded school breaks. Too much learning time is lost for kids by their absence from learning so teachers can improve their professional skills or do work related to their teaching that should be done outside the learning time of kids.

    Children have been protected against abuse by child labor laws. Those laws and their employment need improvement. School buildings need improvement for year-round use. Routine and reasonable breaks between learning sessions can accommodate family vacations.

    This will cost more, but our so-called democracy that is being destroyed by plutocrats demands we take urgent steps to revamp the education of the young so they can preserve and promote genuine democracy for later generations.

    We must demand that the wealthy pay more in taxes for the cost of educational and labor improvement in return for the slave labor they have extracted at slave wages from those who have done the real work for centuries that has enabled them to become so wealthy.

    There is no need for all of society to close down for the religious observances of segments of that society.

  3. I find these arguments quite silly…not because religious liberty is important, but because we don’t make the arguments based on fact.

    The fact is existing “christian” holidays on the school schedule are for pagan holidays that nearly all religions celebrate. The rest are natural breaks (isn’t it winter break right now? At “Easter” we will take time off to celbrate the Equinox. “Christmas” is the solstice..etc….all with varying names throughout history, but all based on the earth’s tilt and rotation around the sun.

    It is the only way it can work….otherwise we should have no religious holidays due to the first ammendment. I think having society respect old pagan holidays is wonderful passive aggressiveness towards the idiotic war on christmas whimps.

    Oh, and I do remember the blue laws. Here in Massachusetts it is a very recent memory, stores only a handful of years ago had to get a permit to open on Sun-Day. We still struggle with liquor sales. I kid you not…Sunday sales ok if you operate a store near the state border.

  4. I don’t think schools should close for Muslim holidays. Most of the Muslims in NYC who demanded that schools close for Islamic holy days were from Pakistan, and Bangladesh. I ask you this… If I were to move to Pakistan or Bangladesh, would I demand that they close their schools for my holidays? No, I would not! It’s ridiculous both ways. Muslims account for less than 1% of our population; if they want to celebrate their holidays, go for it, but don’t close down our schools. Better yet, keep religion out of it. In my district, we have “winter” break and “spring” break, not Christmas vacation and Easter.

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