SHAFAQNA – New York will become the first US major metropolis to close its public schools in observance of the two most sacred Muslim holy days, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday at a press conference.
Several municipalities across the country — including in Massachusetts, Michigan and New Jersey — have moved in recent years to include the holy days, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, in their school calendars. But New York City, with its 1.1 million schoolchildren, dwarfs the others in its size and symbolism.
Amid the rise of strong anti-Muslims sentiment such a public move towards social inclusion and tolerance was welcomes by the Muslim community and held by activists.
De Blasio, a Democrat who has pledged a more tolerant and inclusive city, described the policy that begins in the coming school year as a simple “matter of fairness.” But the announcement was all the more striking for its timing, as Muslim-Americans face fresh scrutiny in the wake of terrorist attacks in Europe and new violence in the Middle East.
For Muslim activists, who have spent years trying to raise their political profile, the mayor’s announcement was taken as a significant victory, and an indication that they had matured as a constituency with tangible influence on public policy.
“When these holidays are recognized, it’s a sign that Muslims have a role in the political and social fabric of America,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group.
At least six school districts nationally, including Cambridge, Mass.; Dearborn, Mich.; Burlington, Vt.; and Paterson and South Brunswick, N.J., have granted days off for the major Muslim holidays. Many more districts recognize the holidays in other ways, such as noting them on the school calendar or granting excused absences for observant students.
But there has also been pushback. In November, education officials in Montgomery County, Md., reacted to a local campaign to recognize the Muslim holidays by deciding to eliminate all mention of religious holidays on their 2015-16 school calendar, including Rosh Hashana and Christmas. Instead, those days would be simply marked as days off.
School board officials said the move was meant to ensure fairness, but the Muslim activists who had pushed for the change were stunned. “It felt like they were going to do anything they could to prevent adding the Eid holiday,” said Zainab Chaudry, who was a leader of the Equality for Eid coalition there.
In New York, a group of Muslims has spent nine years pressing for inclusion on the city’s school calendar, which already recognizes several Jewish and Christian holidays. Muslims make up about 10 percent of the student body in the city’s public schools, according to a 2008 study by Columbia University.
The administration of De Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, rejected the idea, saying schoolchildren needed more time in the classroom, not less; Mr. Bloomberg also expressed concern that parents of different faiths would need to arrange child care on days that school was not in session.
On Wednesday, the mayor said that the changes would take effect in the coming academic year.
Eid al-Adha, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim, or Abraham, to sacrifice his son to God. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the holy month of fasting for Ramadan, which is signaled by the sighting of the crescent moon.
The exact timing of the holy days changes year to year because they are based on a lunar calendar. In the coming school year, classes will start a day earlier in September to account for Eid al-Adha, which falls on Sept. 24, a Thursday; in 2016, Eid al-Fitr falls during the summer.
State Senator Daniel L. Squadron, a Democrat who represents Chinatown in Manhattan, said that while he was pleased with the new policy on Muslim holidays, “it’s critical that the Lunar New Year have the same result.” The mayor is also facing pressure from Indian-American groups that want schools to be closed for the Hindu festival of Diwali.
“People who will criticize it, I think, should go back and look at the Constitution of the United States,” De Blasio said. “We are a nation that was built to be multifaith, multicultural.”