A decision by Paterson (CA) school district officials to recognize the two major Islamic holidays is the first of its kind in the country, community leaders say, and reflects the growing influence of Muslims in America.
Paterson's schools will close next year for the two most important Muslim holidays -- Eid al-Fitr on Jan. 7, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha on March 17, which commemorates the Prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael at God's command.
"We have a growing Muslim presence in Paterson, and this was a way to recognize that," said school board President William McKoy. "It's important in celebrating our diversity that we also have an understanding of holidays."
"On the district level, that is the first time in the United States," said Shabbir Mansuri, founding director of the Council on Islamic Education, based in Fountain Valley, Calif. "This is welcome news to the 6 [million] to 8 million Muslims in the United States. It also sends a signal to the rest of the United States."
Paterson's Muslim groups also praised the decision, saying it was "long overdue." "We have a large number of Muslims in the school system and we should be entitled to our holidays as well as others' holidays," said Riad Mustafa, president of the Islamic Center of Passaic County (California). "It shows how great we are in this country that we can accommodate everyone's religious beliefs."
McKoy said the Paterson district also will begin to incorporate the meaning of holidays in its curriculum so that "students can celebrate with more purpose rather than just having a day off."
The district recognizes Jewish and Christian religious holidays as well as Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. District officials said Eid al-Fitr was included as a holiday this school year, but the holiday fell on Jan. 18, which was also the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
The second Muslim holiday was added last week after the board was approached by parents, students, and members of the Arab and Muslim communities.
New Jersey law allows students to be excused from school during religious holidays recognized by the state. Eid al-Fitr is one of those holidays, so students are allowed to take the day off in other districts.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that has been a struggle in other states. "Our main goal in this area has been to have Muslim students allowed to go to Eid without being marked absent," he said.
Paterson's decision is the latest in a series of steps toward recognizing the rights of Muslims in schools and workplaces, something the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has worked hard for. "I think that Muslims are finally coming on people's radar screens, both the general public and officials, and these kinds of things are beginning to be addressed," Hooper said.
Hooper said the council has received thousands of requests for its educators' guide to Islamic practices, which was released in late 1997, and has sent out 20,000 copies of a similar guide for employers.
Opportunity Commission is handling many more complaints from Muslims, and an increasing number of disputes are being resolved in their favor.
Most recently, seven Dulles International Airport workers won the right to wear head scarves to work in conformance with Muslim tradition, and in March a federal appeals court ruled that two Newark police officers had the right to wear beards for religious reasons.
Slipped inside a strip mall across from Exposition Park where the smell of incense mingles with Arabic swirls on the wall, Muhammad Gomez absorbs the message of Allah. Sitting beside him in this storefront Islamic center, Domy Garcia raises her hand and asks why she and other Muslim women are obliged to cover their heads with the hijab. Mariam Montalvo takes diligent notes at the Sunday afternoon Islamic lesson with the holy Qur'an by her side.
Here at the ILM Foundation, a new Islamic movement is being born. Yet it lies far from Mecca, where the faith was founded more than 1,400 years ago. And the language of choice for this group of Islamic followers is not Arabic. These Muslims worship Allah in Spanish.
Montalvo, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico in 1996, left the Catholic faith three months ago, frustrated by what she called contradictions within church teachings and preoccupation with the saints. After research and contemplation, she took the Shahada, the simple declaration of faith by which one becomes a Muslim. "I had a lot of problems with the church. One Bible says one thing, and another Bible says something different. Then there are people who call themselves Catholics and drink and smoke," said Montalvo, 21. "With Islam, it was so pure. I found there were no intermediaries. Everything goes straight to God."
Last month, 30 Southern California converts founded the Latino-Muslim Movement with the intent of educating Spanish-speaking Muslims and spreading Islam to other Latinos. After meeting for the past seven years, the group appointed officers and elected to meet at the ILM Foundation once a week.
Scores of Latinos throughout the country--specifically in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and Miami--have fled the church of their birth and embraced Islam as their newfound faith.
In New York, a group of Puerto Rican Muslims opened an Islamic center in the heart of East Harlem called Alianza Islamica, where hundreds of Latinos have converted since 1992. The center, the first of its kind, includes a small mosque where the Friday sermon is heard in Arabic, English, and Spanish. Islam has adherents throughout Latin America and the Caribbean as well, with especially strong followings in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Panama.
Reymundo Nur, a Panamanian who became Muslim at the age of 12 and studied Islam in Saudi Arabia, helped organize the Los Angeles group. Two years ago, Nur co-founded a national nonprofit organization called Asociacion Latina de Musulmanes en las Americas, which focuses on translating Islamic books and literature into Spanish. He said one of his group's main projects is translating the Qur'an into contemporary, conversational Spanish. At least two Spanish translations of the Qur'an exist, but Nur said they use a more formal, Castilian Spanish. "There have always been Latino Muslims. It's only now that they're coming to the forefront," said Nur, vice president of the Latino-Muslim Movement in Los Angeles. "We have a strong Islamic legacy, and people are rediscovering that part of their heritage. Many learn about it and say, 'Hey, I have more of this in me than I ever realized.' "Islamic ties to Hispanic culture date back to 711, when the Muslim general Tariq ibn Zayid conquered Spain, and the Christian Visigothic domination of Roderick came to an end. Under Moorish rule, Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted in Spain. Conversion was encouraged but never forced. Because the Arabs did not bring women with them, they took Spanish wives, and within a few generations the Muslim population was more Spanish than Arab. For the next 700 years, Al-Andalus, as the Muslims refer to Spain, enjoyed an era of political and cultural splendor, becoming one of the most intellectually advanced countries in medieval Europe. Islamic influence penetrated almost every facet of Spanish life, especially music, architecture, and literature.
But, gradually, Christian armies advanced. After the fall of the last Moorish stronghold in Granada in 1492, the cross replaced the crescent on Spain's minarets and Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity or be exiled. Many Latino Muslims in Los Angeles see their conversion as a return to their Moorish roots. Today, Southern California has the third-largest concentration of Muslims in the country, including 58 mosques and Islamic centers in Los Angeles County.
"In Catholicism, there are just so many ways to go. Why am I going to pray to the saints?" she added. "When we find Islam, we don't have to waste energy. It's like if I call the operator to get a number, I waste energy. But with Islam, I have the number. I get connected directly to God."
Along with the formation of more Latino Muslim organizations, conversion stories have begun burning up the Internet. Ali Al-Mexicano, a 25-year-old Pomona computer technician, created his own World Wide Web page account of how he became Muslim that includes the first time he read the Qur'an. "It was so clear and written in a simple, understanding way," he said. "It just hit me. This has to be the truth." Though Al-Mexicano family accepted his conversion, several other young Latinos who have begun searching outside the traditional confines of Catholicism have found conversion to be a heart-wrenching affair, often tearing families apart.
"We have a strong Islamic legacy...people are rediscovering that part of their heritage." Islam penetrated almost every facet of Spanish life...music, architecture, literature.
Domy Garcia said her family in Mexico was confused and upset by her decision to leave the church. The Buena Park mother converted to Islam two years ago after rejecting the religion she said was forced on her Mexican ancestors. Undeterred by her family's reaction, Garcia said her main concern now is raising her children as Muslims and introducing more Latinos to Islam. "My family just would not accept it. They said, 'What happened? You've changed so much,'" she recalled. "But it's all right, because on Judgment Day, my family won't be able to help. It will be God."
The Latino-Muslim Movement meets every Sunday afternoon for discussions at the ILM Foundation, a community center managed by Saadiq Saafir, a prominent African American prayer leader, or imam. About 2 p.m., Elizabeth Chawki, a Native American who is fluent in Spanish, usually begins the sessions, which have focused on women, preparation of food, marriage and Islamic divorce. Despite the perception that all Muslims are Arab, Chawki said, converts see the distinction between religion and ethnicity. "This is about pure religion, not culture. We still eat our tamales and frijoles," said Chawki, referring to some Latino dishes served after the discussions.
Gomez, a native of Nicaragua with no prior religious affiliations, said it was after reading "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" that he began to explore Islam. Like several other converts, Gomez spoke with resentment about the Catholic Church's involvement in Latin America. "Viewing Jesus as a prophet and a political leader, and not a God, made more sense to me," he said.
The Latino-Muslim Movement also aims to bring together Muslims regardless of race. At a recent meeting, Saafir reflected on the emerging phenomenon of Latino conversions as similar to the time when African Americans began accepting Islam 50 years ago. In allowing the group to use the Islamic center, Saafir hopes to tear down the barriers that divide blacks and Latinos. "We all realize that we're Muslim first," Saafir said. "This religion is going to bring us together." Nur nodded. "Inshallah," he whispered.
SACRAMENTO - Every Muslim prisoner in California has the right to attend traditional prayer services, a federal judge ruled Friday. Freedom of religion doesn't end at the prison gate, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton made clear in a blistering 15-page order in which he held the state Department of Corrections in contempt. Karlton demanded that the agency ensure that every Muslim inmate in California - an estimated 10,000 to 11,000 - be permitted to attend Jumu'ah prayer services at midday Fridays.
He gave a 15-day deadline for submittal of a plan to permit inmate access to the congregational services that are part of the Five Pillars defining Muslim religious practice. Karlton's order comes in a 1995 case in which Ernest Fenelon, a California Medical Facility inmate, sued for the right to attend the Jumu'ah services, generally held between noon and 1 p.m. The services of no other religion were at issue.
Corrections officials contend that regulations preclude prisoners from leaving their jobs to attend "routine" weekly religious services. Making an exception for Jumu'ah services, they insist, would disrupt the work program, require a regulation change, "cause problems with security and prison operations" at prisons statewide. At Jumu'ah services, the "imam" - or leader - preaches a sermon before the praying begins. During prayer, the imam recites all the words and the worshipers silently follow him in his motions - for example, standing erect, bowing and pressing their foreheads on the ground.
Friday's action was the culmination of a series of rulings on the matter in favor of worship. In February, Karlton sided with Fenelon and issued a preliminary injunction, but his ruling was implemented only to permit such religious freedom to Fenelon - not to all Muslim inmates.
At a June hearing, Deputy Attorney General Bernice Louie Yew told Karlton this was because his injunction was "not clear with respect to other prisoners." "It is only my good sense that keeps me from putting you and your clients in jail and let you see what it feels like," Karlton fumed. "Your duty is not to cut the salami so thin that you can see through it."
In Friday's order, Karlton assured the Corrections Department it will face sanctions by the court if it fails to submit a plan accommodating all Muslim prisoners. Department spokeswoman Kati Corsaut said the agency "fully intends to comply with the order."
"We're talking about the most basic of human rights," said attorney Steven Burlingham, representing Fenelon. "They want to use their lunch hour to pray. Yet, we have been in court for four years. "It's ridiculous to spend taxpayers' money to fight this. There are lots better uses for the state's resources. We're not asking for television sets or a golf course. We want an hour to worship God." In his motion for contempt, Burlingham claimed that, after Karlton issued his preliminary injunction in February, prison officials "took steps to retaliate against (Fenelon)."
However, the judge found that three incidents cited in the motion do not prove retaliation. He adopted the recommendations of U.S. Magistrate Judge John Moulds. Quoting appellate case law, Moulds said the First Amendment requires that prisoners be afforded "a reasonable opportunity to worship in accordance with their conscience."
The U.S. Supreme Court found in 1987 that "Jumu'ah is commanded by the Koran and must be held every Friday after the sun reaches its zenith and before the 'Asr,' or afternoon prayer," Moulds pointed out. "There is no question that (Muslim prisoners') sincerely held religious beliefs compel attendance at Jumu'ah," the high court said.
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