As longtime faculty members in Philosophy, Global Studies and Arab Studies and co-advisers for the Muslim Student Association, we would like to begin a serious conversation about putting the annual Islamic holidays of Eid Al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as official holidays on our academic calendar. This would mean that on those two days, the college would be closed, or all classes canceled. There are many ways to do this in practice but, in general, this would promote academic success for Muslim students as well as equity and diversity for all students.
A high percentage of our students celebrate Eid in their communities and choose not to go to work or attend classes. Although the college does not collect data on religious identities, we speculate that between 10 to 20 percent of students are Muslims. Those who observe Eid often miss essential course material and assignments, which can curb academic success. This is true especially if a student misses multiple classes and for courses that meet less frequently. Making Eid an academic holiday would require administration to consider these days when scheduling classes and faculty to adjust their syllabuses accordingly. The result would be a small, but academically meaningful, institutional adjustment to ensure that students miss no essential coursework.
In addition to these academic benefits, this change would promote equity and diversity. Diversity does not just include race, gender, sexuality, body, class and culture; it includes religion as well, since religion is an essential part of many peoples’ identity. While the college makes important steps to institutionalize diversity, as it relates to religion, we often default to the benign language of “religious accommodation” so as not to penalize practicing students. Accommodation, however, does not often promote equity and diversity. When longstanding institutional practices are unequal and monolithic, accommodation only reproduces the same problems.
Currently, our calendar is structured around the Christian religion by holding few or no classes on weekends and closing on Sundays and all major Christian holidays. Most do not think about a calendar as reinforcing one religion, but that is how the epistemic violence of colonialism works. One particular group “universalizes” itself by concealing its particularities behind the garb of normality, rationality or civility; when this is done, all other groups become an accommodation, an abnormality, a problem. Our current calendar allows for Christian students to enter college without ever having to worry about a conflict with their religious days; however, students who practice a different religion must deal with this potential conflict every semester. This is not the result of malicious individuals but the continuation of American colonialism, which can sometimes make equity and diversity impossible. Yet in this case, our recommendation is fully within our power to change, and this would be a meaningful step toward decolonizing our calendar and promoting diversity.
Critics will likely respond in one of two ways. First, some will argue that this may, ironically, violate a principle of fairness and force us down a slippery slope.
“If we put Eid on the schedule, don’t we also have to put Diwali, Yom Kippur, Vesak and many other days as well?” “And if we want to be fair, wouldn’t we end up with almost every day canceled for some religious holiday?”
While principles of fairness and avoiding slippery slopes are important, in reality, they should be applied within the concrete reality of our students’ lives and educational needs. The college is not responsible to be fair to all religions qua religions, or avoid all theoretically possible slippery slopes or red herrings (no, we are not asking to change the date from 2018ce to 1439ah). We are responsible to be fair to our students in light of the real ways in which they practice religion as, yes, part of their academic success.
Christianity and Islam are two religions practiced by many of our students, and it is reasonable that since the current calendar favors Christian holidays, that a revised one should do so for Muslim students as well. If, over time, good arguments are made for other religious days, the college should certainly consider those as well. The theoretical impossibility of fairness for all should not prevent concrete efforts at real fairness for some, especially when the benefit is to those who are victims of racism, marginalization and colonialism.
A second response is that this would violate a principle of government neutrality, which is how some interpret the First Amendment “establishment” clause.
“Shouldn’t state institutions be neutral as it relates to religion?” “Wouldn’t observing Eid be, in effect, establishing one religion over others?”
In short, the answer is no. Canceling classes on Eid does not require people to practice Islam, any more than closing the college on Christmas does not require people to practice Christianity. There is, however, a broader issue at stake. Neutrality is a term often used to stifle attempts at equity, diversity and pluralism. In truth, the current calendar is not neutral at all but favors Christian students, so counterarguments that adding Eid would violate neutrality belies the calendar’s already biased character. It doesn’t matter that some do not recognize these days as religious and observe them only for civic, practical or economic reasons. The real effects of the calendar on minority religions is the same.
If our calendar was neutral, why not offer Sunday morning classes (which many Muslim students might prefer over Fridays)? Neutrality arguments are actually a fiction that stifles transformation and reinforces the status quo. It is like telling a fish to get better by staying still. What we are really after is pluralism, not neutrality, which promotes multiple ways of moving toward common goals. This is exactly why we have a mission, values and goals – to keep us moving in certain directions rather than others. Not to remain neutral. Since our goals and values include academic success, equity and diversity, the real issue is not neutrality but whether adding Eid to the calendar moves the college more in line with our values and goals or not. We believe that it does, and if you are interested in this discussion, go ahead and tell your faculty, staff and administration your own thoughts.