Chicago Sun-Times: Holiday lights shouldn't have us seeing stars

I guess when you don’t have the guts to call someone a terrorist, anti-American grinch will do.

Elizabeth Zahdan might as well have been burning the flag or an effigy of President Bush when she hung up Ramadan lights at an Oak Lawn elementary school a few days back, prompting outrage from other parents and subsequently forcing Ridgeland School District 122 to consider a ban on Christmas and Halloween parties.

Offended parents felt the Muslim mother, Zahdan — who is also a PTA member — blurred the line between separation of church and state by hanging the sparkling stars and moons. Did they think their children would convert, hypnotized by the lights?

Apparently, Zahdan didn’t fear her three children would flee their Islamic faith when she hung Christmas decorations at the school the year before.

The angry lot came dressed in red, white and blue last week, blaming Muslim parents for pushing the school board into contemplating nixing Santa Claus decorations — a secular symbol they argued was part of their American heritage.

They must not have gotten the memo of the U.S. Congress passing a resolution recognizing Ramadan hours earlier that same day.

You have to wonder if there was just as an intense of an uproar when the district had to cut art, music and band programs recently. The school board ultimately decided to keep all holiday celebrations intact but also agreed to acknowledge Ramadan in the district’s five schools, where 30 percent of the student body is Muslim.

Smart move. School districts should either dump all religious holiday celebrations or be inclusive.

American Muslims, contrary to what some Oak Lawn parents believe, have a soft spot for Christmas and an assortment of other holidays they don’t necessarily observe. When I was a little girl, my Indian immigrant parents would pile us into the car to tour North Shore mansions bathed in holiday decorations every December. I repeatedly sang “Jingle Bells” and “Hava Nagila” — both tunes I learned in music class — and even made a Menorah in wood shop.

We were as excited as the kids who actually got to open gifts around a Christmas tree. But we Muslim Generation Xers also wished our friends and teachers expressed the same enthusiasm whenever Eid al-Fitr — the holiday marking end of Ramadan — came around.

Many Muslim parents today join their school boards and PTAs because they want to be part of the educational process. They don’t want to insulate their children. Nor do they want them to feel like freaky outsiders, repeating the childhood experience of many Muslims.

That was probably the intent of Zahdan and other Muslim parents, who first drew criticism when they asked that another dessert be added in the school cafeterias or replace the pork-based gelatin with one that is kosher to comply with the dietary restriction of Jews and Muslims.

District officials, perhaps too hastily, moved to eliminate the jello without much public comment. Unfair? Probably.

But it was also unfair for Zahdan to be attacked for putting up the lights and calling for Muslim children to be excused from sitting in the cafeteria during Ramadan. Segregation, some called it.

Not eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset is hard enough for an adult. Try doing it as a kid while your classmates wolf down Cheetos, chocolate cake and chicken tenders.

Zahdan has had enough of the spotlight. When I called her, she directed all questions to the local Council on American-Islamic Relations office, which is hoping to establish interfaith healing sessions in Oak Lawn.

How sad she didn’t feel comfortable participating in the great American tradition of spouting off.

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