Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An Awakening: School Holidays + Political Power

Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it’s important.

-- Sen. Eugene McCarthy, 1967

Last week, the New York Times and the Boston Globe wrote about the hot-button issue of religious equality in school holidays. In Massachusetts, the last state in the Union to dismantle its State-sponsored church (in 1833!), the controversy is over the decision of 17 school districts to open on Good Friday. In New York City, the debate is over whether to add the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha to the calendar of the nation’s largest school system.

In the Bay State, districts are responding to demographic shifts, seeking to find a consistent balance in an increasingly secular world.

In New York, the situation is far more interesting. In 2009, the City Council (with only one dissenter) approved a resolution calling on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to add the two holidays to the school calendar. The dissenter, Councilmember and former Attorney General G. Oliver Koppell (D-Bronx), worried about the potential for a proliferation of holidays, inquired, “Where are we going to end with this?” The answer, as it turns out, is based in no small part on how well different communities are able to organize.

Five years later, with a Mayor in office who campaigned to add the holidays to the calendar, what we’ve witnessed is the culmination of efforts to mobilize an entire population to wield political power—call it a “secular awakening” of sorts. As the Times wrote, the vigor and organization of the effort is “a testament to how the city’s Muslim community is gaining a measure of political confidence.”

The renewed campaign to get holy days on the school calendar comes on the heels of the launch of the City’s first Muslim-American Democratic Club, the aptly named Muslim Democratic Club of New York (MDCNY) in 2013—a club that understands that its mission is to simultaneously inspire and deliver.

As MDCNY states, its mission is to, “mobilize and empower the American Muslim community in NYC by nurturing a culture of civic participation.” That lofty and important aspiration is grounded in a real politik concern as well. “Our goal in establishing a democratic club is to increase the number of American Muslim triple prime Democratic voters” (that is, voters who cast ballots consistently in primary, general, and special elections).

Other organizations, from the Arab-American Family Support Center (founded in 1994), to the Arab American Association of New York (launched in 2001), which worked with NYU to produce a groundbreaking survey of Arab Americans in NYC in 2012, community groups serving NYC’s Arab American community are thriving as the population in the Metro area continues to climb (hard data is notoriously difficult to come by, but the general direction is clear).

It goes without saying, of course, that even within these groups, there is immense diversity. Arab American groups are made up of members of many of the world’s great faiths and the membership of Muslim groups is a cross-section of the City in that it is a mixture of American and foreign-born advocates. In 2009, the Times noted that this very diversity could be an obstacle to effective political organizing and that the community had, at times, “seen its social and political ambitions hamstrung by schisms among competing groups.”

That lesson—of learning to compromise internally in order to project a unified, forceful position externally—is part of how a community learns to transform its economic and demographic clout into political power.

The next step—after celebrating what we hope will be a great victory on school holidays—is to bring that same political energy and passion to bear on issues that affect people beyond the community. Indeed, by the 2017 election, my hope as a New Yorker is that the MDCNY and others are getting calls from candidates and elected officials not only about issues of particular salience to the Muslim community—like school holidays and surveillance—but on a whole host issues, from landmarking and tax policy to economic development and transportation.

It will be at that moment when the awakening of a community will have become cemented into the political fabric of the City, never again to be overlooked and forever more to be valued as a key contributor throughout the five boroughs.

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