Muslims and their holidays in the US

Mohamed Elmenshawy
Saturday 25 Jul 2015

Various US academic and economic institutions call for the right of Muslims to celebrate their holidays and allow them to take time off. However, it is still on an unofficial level

Three months ago Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, one of the largest cities in the US, approved the addition of two official holidays on public school calendars in his city, namely Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha (Lesser and Greater Bairam). This means there will be no classes during the two feasts for all students, not only Muslims.

On the eve of the announcement, de Blasio said: “There are hundreds of thousands of Muslim families who will not have to choose between celebrating the holiest days in their religion and attending school.”

Over the past few years four school districts in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Michigan decided to close their public schools to celebrate the two feasts. The logic of officials in those districts is that it is a huge step in treating followers of different religions equally, the same as giving Christian and Jewish students days off during their religious holidays.

In fact, there is an extensive ongoing debate between officials in public schools and members of school boards about how to deal with the multiple religions in their states. These decisions reflect growing acceptance of Muslims who view themselves as part of American society, despite the repercussions of the political positions of consecutive US administrations on issues in the Muslim world.

Nonetheless, Muslim holidays such as Greater and Lesser Bairam are still not federal holidays. As US society learns more about Islam and Muslims, many academic and economic institutions, as well as businessmen and companies embrace the right of Muslims to celebrate their holidays and allow them to take time off unofficially. The administrations of universities and schools ask teachers not to schedule tests during these days or assign students difficult homework during these periods. However, some Muslims still do not enjoy these benefits when their numbers are few and further away from American Muslim communities.

At every Muslim holiday, President Barack Obama reiterates that his country is not at war with Islam or Muslims, and that the US campaign against what it views as terrorism has nothing to do with Islam or its values and principles. Like his predecessor President Bush, Obama always commends the conduct and successes of American Muslims in his messages during the occasions of Ramadan and the two feasts.

Celebrations by American Muslims during Islamic feasts and Ramadan are similar to rituals in Egypt. All mosques in the US hold taraweeh prayers (Ramadan night prayers) that are packed with worshippers of all nationalities. Mosques in the US are more than just houses of worship; many have expansive libraries, schools to teach Arabic and Quran, as well as halls for religious, social and entertainment events.

During the 1960s and '70s, mosques were small but in the last two decades, Muslims began building huge mosques as congregations grew larger, especially as the second generation of Muslim emigrants grew.

Celebration of Ramadan and the feast are conspicuous as seen in the crowds flocking to Arabic and Muslim shops to prepare for these events. Crowds peak during the last week of Ramadan especially at shops that sell meat slaughtered according to Islamic sharia law. These are easily found in areas with large Muslim communities, and sales double during Ramadan as people prepare to host friends and family.

The owner of an Arabic shop said that food sales during Ramadan amount to one third of sales for the entire year. Meanwhile, during daily taraweeh prayers until the grand Eid prayer, the police in the US are constantly present on the roads leading to mosques to ensure the safety of pedestrians, worshippers and mosques.

Worshippers confirm that the police do their duty which indicates a genuine sense of co-existence in US society, and respect by the institutions of this society of all ethnic and religious sects in society.

There is no exact figure for American Muslims because the official census in the US does not collect information on religion (faith) because it is viewed as a fundamental right of personal freedom which the government should not interfere in. Nonetheless, some independent surveys estimate there are nearly six million Muslims in the US and 2,500 mosques across the 50 states.

Despite Muslim harmony in the fabric of US society more than in any other Western country, such as better academic, professional and financial levels than the average American, this does not mean there aren’t deplorable acts against Muslims even before the 9/11 attacks and terrorist profiling. Many Muslims are profiled at airports, for example, and some security agencies have surveillance at many mosques where they suspect there are lessons or meetings taking place that may result in a future threat.

The call by President Obama at Cairo University in June 2009 for turning over a new leaf in relations between the US and the Muslim world had a positive impact, but this quickly dissipated during the Arab Spring of democracy and the emergence and expansion of ISIS. Especially since dozens and hundreds of American youth – some, but not all, of Muslim origin – are travelling to join ISIS. This compounds the dilemma of American Muslims and increases the challenges they have to confront.

The writer is a researcher focused on Egyptian politics.


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