NEW YORK – The lunar calendar that Muslims follow for religious holidays is creating a potential for misunderstandings or worse in a year when American Muslims are already confronting a spike in assaults on their faith and protests against new mosques.
Eid al-Fitr, a joyous holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, this year falls around Sept. 11. Muslim leaders fear that their gatherings for prayer and festivities could be misinterpreted by those unfamiliar with Islam as a celebration of the 2001 terrorist strikes.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles, is contacting law enforcement and the Justice Department civil rights division to alert them to the overlap.
The Islamic Circle of North America, which organizes Muslim Family Days at the Six Flags amusement park in several cities around Eid al-Fitr, this year planned nothing for Saturday, Sept. 11, because of the anniversary. A founder of Muslim Family Day, Tariq Amanullah, worked at the World Trade Center and was killed in the attacks.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based civil rights group, is urging mosques to review the group's security guidelines, including clearing brush where people could hide and installing surveillance cameras.
"The issue I can sense brewing on hate sites on the Internet is, 'These Muslims are celebrating on September 11,'" said Ibrahim Hooper, national spokesman for CAIR. "It's getting really scary out there."
The exact date of Eid al-Fitr this year is not yet known. Muslims follow different authorities on moonsightings and astronomical calculations to decide when a holiday begins. In North America, the eid could fall on Thursday, Sept. 9, Friday, Sept. 10, or Saturday, Sept. 11.
It is one of the two biggest Muslim holidays of the year, often compared to Christmas in its significance and revelry. (The other major holiday is Eid al-Adha, at the end of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.)
Muslims who rarely attend congregational prayer fill mosques to overflowing on Eid al-Fitr. Mosque leaders often rent hotel ballrooms or convention centers to handle the crowds. Families wear their best clothes, exchange gifts, plan special meals with friends and relatives, sometimes decorate their homes inside and out, and organize carnivals for children.
In predominantly Muslim countries, the celebration can last for three days. But because of work and school obligations in the U.S., American Muslims generally attend congregational prayer on the day of the holiday, then continue the festivities over the next weekend or two.
Most mosques usually intensify security around Ramadan because of the attention the month brings. This year, leaders have grown especially concerned about safety. In recent months, mosques around the country have faced protests and vandalism. The debate over a proposed mosque and Islamic center near ground zero has become a national issue.
Yet well before these recent tensions, American Muslim leaders saw trouble ahead when they checked the calendar. Haroon Moghul, a New York Muslim leader who speaks regularly at mosques, said mosque leaders have been discussing Eid al-Fitr for months.
"When we realized that Ramadan would be ending around that time, a lot of people started sitting down together and saying, 'How do we handle this in a way that's appropriate?'" said Moghul, executive director of Maydan Institute, a communications consulting company.
Moghul said most New York Muslims likely won't celebrate the way they normally do, and noted that a significant number lost relatives when the World Trade Center was destroyed. Many imams in the city plan sermons on dealing with loss and grief.
"It's a very painful day for everyone," Moghul said.
However, he and other American Muslim leaders don't want to make so many changes that they appear to be giving in to those who reject any Muslim observance in the United States. Some critics have said Muslims should move the date of the eid.
"It's like being offended that 9/11 and Christmas fall on the same day," said Safaa Zarzour, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, an Indiana-based communal group with tens of thousands of members. "There is something unsettling about that."
Yvonne Maffei, 35, of Des Plaines, Ill., a Chicago suburb, said she and her husband plan to stick with their usual Eid al-Fitr plan. They will attend morning prayers at their local mosque, go out for brunch then visit friends during the day.
"I think most Americans understand the value and place of religious holidays in a person's life," said Maffei, editor of My Halal Kitchen, a blog with recipes that meet Islamic dietary laws. "For those who don't, I just hope they will take the time to try and understand not only why we are celebrating at this time, but also what we are celebrating, which is the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a blessed month of fasting and attaining closeness to Allah."
Rizwan Jaka, a board member of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, based in Sterling, Va., near Washington, D.C., said he hopes the attention to Muslim traditions during the month of Ramadan will help educate non-Muslims and decrease the likelihood of any problems.
He said the mosque will reach out to its interfaith partners and others ahead of the eid. The All Dulles Society is one of the largest mosques in the country and expects to host as many as 20,000 worshippers during the holiday at several locations.
Jaka said the board met a few weeks ago to discuss the overlapping dates and decided to include condemnations of terrorism and extremism in the holiday sermons. The mosque will also hold its annual interfaith, memorial and peace events tied to the anniversary.
"Could there be some misperceptions because of the anti-Muslim climate? Potentially," Jaka said. "We will make sure our neighbors and friends understand that we all stand firmly as Americans for peace and for creating an environment of respect."