WE’RE COUNTING ON CONTINUITY
By Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid
New York City, once referred to by former Mayor David Dinkins as a “beautiful mosaic” stands poised once again at yet another historic juncture in its 345th year of existence. Last week, in an unprecedented demonstration of unanimity the City Council of New York voted 50-1 in favor of adding the two major Muslim holy days of Eidul-Fitr and Eidul-Adha, to the Department of Education calendar for school closings. According to the Associated Press, when asked whether or not he would support the Council’s action, current Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed his concern. “When you have a city as diverse as New York, you simply can’t close the schools for every religious holiday”, he stated, “it depends upon the number of school children affected”. The fact of the matter though is that the city’s Muslim community numbering some 800,000 people, are both hopeful and prayerful that Mr. Bloomberg will make a decision consistent with the trend of the past few mayoral administrations, including his own.
When concrete approaches were made to the Dinkins administration to add 6 days to the Dept. of Transportation calendar ,identifying the same two Muslim holy days for suspension of alternate side parking, the city initially balked. While it was true that the calendar contained many such Christian and Jewish holidays, to add Muslim ones would decrease the number of days available for collection of garbage and cleaning the streets, city officials asserted.
Eventually after much grassroots organizing by Muslim religious leaders, thousands of signatures, and much lobbying, a bill was introduced with the support of Transportation Committee Chairman Noach Dear, and passed. Mayor Dinkins signed it into law ,and almost two decades later city streets are certainly cleaner than they were then. The council and mayoral actions were a first in New York, heralding a changing religious demographic in the city at the end of the 20th century.
Mayor Rudolph Guiliani didn’t have a mayoral liason to the Muslim community as did his predecessor, but he did enter into partnership with Harlem-based religious leader and businessman Imam Izak-El Pasha, whom the mayor appointed to the position of Muslim Chaplain for the NYPD, in the aftermath of the tragic killing of Amadou Diallo. It was yet another first. Further, the Mayor’s economic initiatives in partnership with Masjid Malcolm Shabazz in Harlem, resulted in the creation of the still bustling West 116th Street business corridor.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has for eight-years been characterized by outreach to the Muslim community during the post- September 11th years of the 21st century’s first decade. During that time the community has continued to grow. West African immigrants have entered the country and city in large numbers, moving into various parts of the city – most notably the Bronx, Harlem, and parts of Brooklyn. They have joined the already considerably sized ranks populated mostly by African American, Southern Asian, and Arab Muslims.
Under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg, a sensitive outreach to a beleaguered faith community occurred in many often unsung ways, even as the city continued to heal from its trauma. From police outreach to Muslim congregations seeking to protect themselves from vandalism and bias-crimes, to City-hall sponsored celebrations of Eidul-Fitr, to the Mayor’s personal outreach - backed by city services- to poor African Muslim victims of a tragic Bronx fire that claimed the lives of women and children, Muslims have been made to feel officially welcome alongside their other neighbors. We are relying upon a continuity of that same mayoral good will to follow the example set by the City Council Council.
We’ve done the math, and know the system because we’re part of it. When he was first appointed chancellor years ago, Joel Klein visited the famous Islamic Center located at 96th Street and 3rd avenue, and acknowledged that at least 100,000 (10-12 %) of the city’s public school children and youth were Muslims. Surely that qualifies for a significant number already affected by the lack of fair and just recognition of their faith’s sacred days. Perhaps other groups will one day gain such significant numbers in the educational system. Certainly it will be a long, long time before that happens.
Because of Islam’s rotating calendar, over the next several years at least one of the two Muslim holy-days will coincide with days already scheduled for school closing. Additionally, the number of days when schools close for administrative tasks is adjustable, and could be factored in while officials seek compliance with the mandatory number of days that school must be in session for public education.
Even more so, as noted by various members of the City Council both last week during the general vote, and the week before at a hearing of the council’s Education Committee, there is a large civic lesson to be taught and learned here for all New Yorkers. It is one of fairness, tolerance and equity.
Muslim children have the same rights as do those of the more predominant Christian and Jewish faiths. They shouldn’t be forced to choose between receiving an education and practicing their faith – missing instruction and exams because their religious and ethnic groups are more reflective of the city’s future than its past (indigenous Muslims are largely African Americans, and Muslim immigrants and their children are mostly of Third World origin) .
As more than one council member noted, it might well be that an evaluation of the entire system of holiday designation needs to take place. But the signing into law of a bill supported by people of different faiths and ethnicities, union workers (like 32BJ) and non-union laborers, native born Americans and immigrants, public and elected official alike, should not be delayed in the interim. We’re counting on our mayor to continue the continuity which has made New York City so unique.