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Cambridge schools mark Islamic holiday

Muslims laud district, 1 of few to OK day off

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / November 7, 2011

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Public school students in Cambridge have the day off today in what officials believe is the first time a Massachusetts school district has scheduled a holiday to recognize an Islamic holy day.

The school holiday will recognize Eid al-Adha, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice. The day off to mark an Islamic holy day was approved by the Cambridge School Committee last year.

“We’re ecstatic about this,’’ said Atif Harden, interim executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. “This is the first year that it’s going to occur. This sort of recognition of our existence and the population we have, we feel very good about.’’

Cambridge public school officials said they approved the day off from school last year in an effort to make it easier for Muslim students to observe their highest holy days. Every year, city schools will close either for Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha, depending on which holiday falls within the school year. If both fall within the school calendar, the district will close for only one of those days.

Cambridge schools already close for some Christian and Jewish holidays, and School Superintendent Jeffrey Young said the district has a significant number of Muslim students.

“I think this shows that we live up to our values, and our values are of inclusion and of respect,’’ Young said.

State and federal law require schools to make reasonable accommodation for religious needs of students in observance of holy days, but the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education leaves decisions about how to do that up to individual school districts.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said that to his knowledge, Cambridge is the first school system in Massachusetts to close schools for a Muslim holiday.

Elsewhere, school systems including those in Dearborn, Mich., and Burlington, Vt., already close for at least one Muslim holiday each year.

Marc McGovern, a member of the Cambridge School Committee who pushed for the Muslim holiday, speculated that one reason other school districts in the state have not approved a day off for Islamic holy days may be because their Muslim student populations are not big enough for the holiday to make sense.

McGovern said officials may also be reluctant to stir up the type of controversy Cambridge did when it approved the day off. Cambridge announced the move last year as the national discussion about Islam was being fueled by a controversial proposal to build a mosque two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

McGovern said he received criticism and a couple of threats last year after the School Committee approved the Muslim holiday.

“It took us a long time to get here, and we’re a pretty progressive city,’’ he said. “It makes a statement that we’re not going to put all Muslims into the categories that some people put them in. They are not all enemies.’’

Harden said he believes the reason it has taken so long for a local school district to schedule a day off for a Muslim holiday is because the population of Muslims has not been large enough. But he said the population is growing, and he is not surprised that Cambridge would approve the day off.

“Cambridge has always been a leader in things like this,’’ he said.

Aicha Belabbes, 14, a freshman at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, said it means a lot to her and other Muslim students that the school district approved the day off from school.

In previous years, she said, students would have to skip school to spend time with their families on the holiday and then make up their assignments later.

When school resumes tomorrow, a group of about a dozen Muslim students at the high school plan to pass out candy and hold a party during lunch, when they will tell fellow students about their culture and the meaning of Eid al-Adha.

“Over the past 10 years since 9/11, Muslims have definitely been trying to combat the stereotypes about us,’’ Belabbes said. “This is one of the many efforts to create diversity and get rid of stereotypes.’’

Akhi Begum, a 15-year-old sophomore, said Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha as a remembrance of the prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. In the end, Abraham sacrificed a ram instead, and Muslims continue to sacrifice an animal for the holiday and give portions to the poor, Harden said.

Ramazan Nigdelioglu, a physics teacher at the high school who is Muslim, said both Muslim and non-Muslim teachers, students, and other school officials had worked toward establishing the districtwide holiday. He is looking forward to spending the day with his family.

“When it’s a holiday, you feel like you are home, like you are in your country,’’ he said.

Brock Peters can be reached at Brock.globe@gmail.com.