Armstrong: Recognize Muslim holidays too

Rutgers-Camden students attend a forum sponsored by the Muslim Student Association about rising Islamaphobia. Daily News columnist Jenice Armstrong says enough already and that schools should also begin recognizing Islamic holidays.

MOST OF US look forward to being off on Christmas Day.

But what if instead of having the whole day free to attend church and spend time with friends and family, you were expected to be in class or work a normal schedule? That's what a lot of Muslims are faced with on their important religious holidays.

A group calling itself the Philly Eid Coalition wants to change that by getting two additional holidays added to the city's municipal calendar and to the Philadelphia School District's academic year to accommodate two important Muslim religious days. They are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

Haven't heard of them? Neither had I, until I happened across a recent Twitter post about Saturday's planned rally at Sister Clara Muhammad School, on Wyalusing Avenue near 47th Street in the Mill Creek section of West Philadelphia.

Now I know that Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting. The other holiday, Eid al-Adha, acknowledges the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son at God's command and coincides with the annual pilgrimmage to Mecca in Saudia Arabia.

Eid Coalition members want both holidays treated the same as, say, Easter or Yom Kippur.

I won't pretend. At first, I balked at adding two religious holidays to the academic calendar. Our students need more time in classrooms - not less.

But as I listened to local Muslim politicians and others talk about how their children often feel alienated because of their religious beliefs, I softened to the idea. Philadelphia has more than 50 mosques and, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, 200,000 Muslims. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States.

"This city was founded on religious tolerance by William Penn. We recognize everyone's holiday," said Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., a coalition member. "It's important that 80,000 households in Philadelphia not be marginalized."

Jones, who attended Mount Carmel Baptist Church at 57th and Race streets before converting to Islam 15 years ago, plans to introduce a resolution in Council in early 2016 to jump-start things.

Good luck with that.

Given all the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the wake of the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack that killed 14 people, and the popularity of Republican presidential wannabe Donald Trump's proposed ban on Muslim immigration, this seems a really bad time to look for supporters.

Islamophobia is real. And although Philadelphia isn't exactly a hotbed of it, we did have a recent incident in which a severed pig's head was thrown at the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society in North Philly. Just last week, I was chatting with a friend at the gym who casually blurted out: "Muslims are taking over." That's what she really believes.

In June, Rep. Jason Dawkins, D-Phila., introduced a resolution in the House to get Ramadan officially recognized.

"The resolution couldn't even get a committee hearing," he told me last week. "It still sits on our calendar."

But Dawkins vows to push forward in his quest to get Islamic holidays recognized.

"Now that the conversation around the election is solely around Islam and Muslims, it's the perfect time," said Dawkins, 31, who was introduced to Islam by his aunt's family. "I just feel like this conversation is long overdue."

Earlier this year, New York City became the first major city to agree to close schools in recognition of the Eid holidays.

School districts that have taken similar steps include Cambridge, Mass.; Burlington, Vt.; Dearborn, Mich.; and Paterson and South Brunswick, N.J.

In Montgomery County, Md., school officials came up with a novel way to skirt the issue by opting to avoid any mention of religious days.

I hope it doesn't come to that in Philly. Melting pots such as ours need citizens who are culturally diverse and at least aware of other religious traditions and practices.

No student should have to choose between being marked absent and spending time with families on holy days.

"The kids, they either can't go, don't go or if they do go, they are marked absent," said Michael Rashid, a member of the Eid Coalition. "It's patently unfair. We don't want to take away anyone else's holiday. We just want to be included like everyone else."

That concept is as American as apple pie - and bean pie.

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen