Washington DC – Growing up in the US, Selaedin Maksut would skip school on Eid al-Fitr to go to the mosque to join his family in the festivities, one of the happiest days for Muslims around the world.
Although he said he never regretted the decision, he had to miss class.
Now, as director of the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NJ), Maksut has been helping a new generation of American Muslim students take time off.
“We are optimistic,” Maksut told Al Jazeera, stressing that the effort was aimed at “liberating” Muslim students from having to choose between academic success and celebrating the holiday.
In recent years, in New Jersey and across the United States, dozens of public schools have recognized Eid al-Fitr as an official holiday — a trend American Muslim advocates say is a product of their activism and a sign of the growing prominence of the Muslim community in the country.
“[Students] Want to be able to go to the mosque freely [mosque] Praying with their families, enjoying the day and then going back to school the next day knowing they didn’t miss any exams or any tests or any homework,” Maksut told Al Jazeera.
CAIR-NJ has created a toolkit to help parents, students and activists urge schools to make Eid a holiday, including a draft letter highlighting the dilemma Muslim students face between prioritizing school or their religious obligations.
“We will continue to keep our feet on the ground, working with members of our community to mobilize and empower them to make their voices heard and empower them to seek these amenities…to create a more inclusive and welcoming society for all.”
Islam has two major holidays, Eid al-Fitr – holiday or festival in Arabic.
Eid al-Fitr, to be celebrated on Friday, marks the end of Ramadan, during which Muslims must refrain from consuming food or liquids from sunrise to sunset. The second holiday, Eid al-Fitr, marks the end of the Hajj pilgrimage, usually around two months after Eid al-Fitr.
Islam follows the lunar calendar, so each year’s holidays do not fall on the same day on the school calendar.
But dozens of school districts across the U.S. — mostly those with large Muslim students — are working to make Eid al-Fitr, and sometimes both, a holiday celebrated during the school year.
Muslims make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population, but a handful of states, including New Jersey and Michigan, have higher concentrations of Muslim residents, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey.
Efforts to recognize Eid in schools have not faced backlash at the national level, Maksut said, underscoring fading efforts on the right to paint any government accommodation of Muslims as a conspiracy to impose Islamic rules on Americans.
“After 9/11, I remember the language of ‘Islamization’ and ‘Muslims are taking over’ and ‘Sharia Law’ [Islamic law] Infiltrating schools,” he told Al Jazeera.
“While we still see it occasionally — not as much — what we’re seeing now is more progress, we’re seeing more proactive efforts, we’re seeing Muslims being resettled in a lot of places.”
how it started
Several cities in New Jersey recently made Eid al-Fitr a holiday, starting this year or in 2024, as do areas in New York and Ohio.
New York City, which has the nation’s largest public school district, took the initiative in 2015. Another major city, Minneapolis, decided to make Eid a school holiday beginning in 2022, and Houston did the same this year.
In Southeast Michigan, where Arabs and Muslims are common on school boards, many areas, including Detroit, have observed Eid al-Fitr as a day of rest.
The Detroit suburb of Dearborn is believed to be the first school district in the United States to recognize Eid. Before Eid became a district-wide holiday in the early 2000s, some schools with large Muslim students began closing for the religious holiday in the 1990s, advocates say.
In addition to community efforts and the cooperation of local officials, vacationing in Dearborn is a practical matter.
So many students won’t be in class on Muslim holidays that some schools can’t achieve the attendance needed to secure state and federal funding that day.
Dearborn Public Schools official Lila Alcodray-Amen said it started to become apparent in the early 1990s that there was “no point” in keeping schools open during Eid and Eid al-Adha. “We are losing money,” she told Al Jazeera.
Alcodray-Amen, who was working with school leaders at the time to ensure the holiday was a break, said the Eid push was part of a wider campaign to accommodate growing numbers of Muslim students.
Some staff raised objections early on, but that objection quickly dissipated, she said. “It’s about money — and respect for the fact that people should take time off because it’s a holiday,” Alcodray-Amen said.
“We’re closed for Easter. We’re closed for Christmas. Why should our community be any different?”
Her daughter, Suehaila Amen, a community advocate and graduate of Dearborn Public Schools, remembers the first time she wasn’t at Eid when she was in elementary school. Attend class.
“I remember being ecstatic that instead of waking up during the holidays to go to school, I was able to go to the mosque,” Amen told Al Jazeera. “As a nerdy student, it didn’t affect my grades or attendance records. That was a big deal.”
Amen said the growing recognition of Eid is “proof of growth” in the United States.
“Unfortunately, when we see so much going on in the country on the other side, it’s time to look at the positive things that can and do happen — and that’s because there are people who are committed to creating change,” she said.
San Francisco strikes back
While Eid’s recognition in schools has largely been a success story for the American Muslim community, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. In San Francisco, the school district in January overturned a resolution approved months earlier to call for furloughs.
The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has been criticized by threats of lawsuits for improperly favoring one religion, according to local media reports.
Facing backpressure from Arab and Muslim students and activists, the school district decided to bring forward next year’s spring break to accommodate Eid al-Fitr. SFUSD did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
“As a student, taking time off was important to me because it made me feel recognized and heard in the community,” said Aisha Majdoub, a high school student in the area.
Majdoub, who has been attending school board meetings with other Muslim students, said she was deeply disappointed by the school district’s initial decision to cancel Eid al-Fitr as a statutory holiday.
“Honestly, it’s one of the worst things ever, because it’s like you’ve finally tasted the sweetness and then it’s taken back from you,” she told Al Jazeera.
Majdoub added that moving spring break forward to accommodate Eid was only a temporary solution; Eid is heading into the beginning of the year on the Gregorian calendar, so in a few years it will be celebrated in winter.
“So now, yeah, it’s a win,” Majdub said. “But we still need to go back and find a long-term solution. We need to really see Eid as a holiday.”
Wassim Hage, outreach coordinator for the Center for Arab Resources and Organizing, an advocacy group for Eid events in San Francisco, said taking time off for the Muslim holiday is “crucial” for students.
Recognition would also go a long way toward mitigating some of the bias that Arab and Muslim students have faced in their communities over the past few decades, while allowing other students to explore and appreciate their cultures, he said.
“Our community has been the victim of all kinds of state violence, media distortion and demonization,” Haag told Al Jazeera.
“It’s the ability to fight back and say: ‘We see Arab and Muslim students and their families as valued members of our community. Have a holiday.'”