14 August, 2007

Khalil Gibran Academy - "We Have Nothing to Fear, But Fear Itself"

UPDATE II: (AFP 9/5) New York's First Arabic School Opens Under Police Guard
Congratulations to the students and faculty of Khalil Gibran. May they have a safe and successful school year. - A.Q.

UPDATE: (NYT 08/21) Protesters Seek Leader's Return to Arabic School
(Haaretz 8/21) U.S. Rabbi Defends NY Arab School

The Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn is a madrassa. That’s the one thing its critics, fighting to keep the school from opening next month, are correct about. It is indeed a madrassa because in Arabic the word madrassa means school, religious or secular.

The battle against Khalil Gibran International Academy has been raging ever since the idea for a public charter school school focusing on Arabic language and culture was first proposed to the New York City Department of Education last fall. Its critics make wild claims that the school will be a training ground for extremist Muslims, an incubator for radical Islam, has ties to every extremist organization you can think of, and is simply the beginning of the end of this country and the new Caliphate. Kufi Girl posted a well-written piece about the controversy earlier this year.

The fight continued this week as Principal Deborah Almontaser stepped down in the face an overblown controversy following statements she made in an interview to the New York Post regarding use of the word intifada. Danielle Salzberg, was named interim principal. You can read more about Almontaser's resignation on Democracy Now!

Here is what Almontaser said to the New York Post in regards to the controversial "Intifada NYC" shirts being sold by Asian Women Active in Arts and Media: "The word [intifada] basically means 'shaking off,' " she said. While acknowledging its "negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas," she said she thought the shirt was not intended to spark violence but inspire girls to shake off "oppression."

She subsequently issued an apology: "By minimizing the word's historical associations I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence. That view is anathema to me and the very opposite of my life's work."

Almontaser received support from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch in today’s New York Times. “They were too quick to fire her though. I thought she apologized and gave what she thought was an adequate response and is believable.”

The Times claimed the good intentions behind the development of the school "ran straight into the treacherous ethnic and ideological political currents of New York and were overwhelmed by poor planning, inadequate support for the principal and relentless criticism from some quarters of the news media, primarily The New York Post and The New York Sun."

The school is due to open next month with a 6th grade class of 44 students, eventually expanding through the 12th grade. The school will join other New York City public schools that focus on specific languages and cultures, including Russian, French, Japanese, and Spanish. Yet, only Khalil Gibran has incited such controversy. One only has to look at who is doing the criticizing to understand the real issue - fear. Daniel Pipes, Michelle Malkin, and a group calling itself Stop the Madrassa are just some of those who have spoken out against the school and Almontaser, even before the Intifada Affair.

The first thing that needs to be understood: not all Arabs are Muslims and most Muslims are not Arab. Read it again, people, and let it sink in.

There are also Christians, Jews, Druze, Yazidi, Bahai, Mandaeans, and Alawis in the Arab world. And the majority of Muslims are Asian - 69% of them. Indonesia and Pakistan, for example, are not Arab countries. Only about 15% of Muslims are Arab or of Arab-descent. Arab does not always equal Muslim.

The Arabic language predates Islam and is in the same linguistic family as Aramaic and Hebrew. It has never been a solely Islamic language and, in fact, a majority of the world's Muslims cannot speak Arabic. The language is considered sacred to Muslims because the Quran, considered the direct word of God, was revealed to Muhammad in Arabic. There is a long literary history in Arabic from the pre-Islamic poet Antar to Abdelrahman Munif and Daisy al-Amir. Arab culture, too, has a rich history of arts and sciences and is not limited to one religion or the other.

However, the smear campaign against a language, culture, and school continues.

“The Islamist dimension worries me as well. An organization that lobbies for Arabic instruction, the Arabic Language Institute Foundation, claims knowledge of Islam's holy language can help the West recover from what its leader, Akhtar Emon, calls its "moral decay." In other words, Muslims tend to see non-Muslims learning Arabic as a step toward an eventual conversion to Islam, an expectation I encountered while studying Arabic in Cairo in the 1970s,” wrote Pipes in the New York Sun.

I am not sure whom Pipes studied with in Cairo that made him feel this way. When I travelled to Damascus to study Arabic, my decisions, as an American, to study the language and travel to the Middle East were lauded by the people I met as hopeful sign for building bridges between peoples. Most taxi drivers, upon finally guessing I was American, would insist with a smile and laugh, “You cannot be American! You speak Arabic!”

Also, Pipes should stick to those actually involved with the Khalil Gibran Academy, such as the board of directors. According to The Jewish Week, three rabbis serve on its board. The same article states that Joel Levy, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a group not known for being popular with violent extremists, has written letters in defense of Almontaser and the school. The ADL is also providing curriculum for Khalil Gibran dealing with discrimination.

The second thing that must be understood: this school falls under the auspices of the New York City Department of Education.

The Department said all teachers are certified and those hired so far represent a broad spectrum of backgrounds including "Irish, Greek, Jewish and West Indian", according to the Brooklyn Eagle, just like at the Department's 1,200 other schools.

According to Melody Meyer, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education, interviewed by the Eagle, "The school has chosen from curricula that has been approved and designated for New York City public schools…They’re using the same curriculum packages as other New York City public schools."

The Post and other critics have vilified Almontaser, a long-time educator and community activist well-known for her involvement in interfaith projects, and made her out to be some sort of Adam Gadahn. Their reporter, Chuck Bennett, describes his visit to the headquarters of Asian Women Active in Arts and Media thus: "At the time of the visit, more than a dozen young women were watching an Almontaser lecture on a DVD." No explanation of the subject of the lecture is given and readers are left to fill in that blank with their own imagination.

According to the New York Times, Salzberg has been “shocked” by the personal scrutiny she now finds herself under because of her new position. She has been involved in the process of developing the school, however, and is not a stranger. Some have gone so far as to raise her faith as an issue, as they did with Almontaser. To point out that Salzberg is Jewish and then claim that this makes her unfit to administer the school is outrageous. I wish she spoke Arabic, but my primary concern is that she be an effective leader.

What is to be made of the tasteless headlines related to the latest story, such as "Intif-Adios", “Hebrew-Ha-Ha”, “Taking a Jew Turn”, and “Jihad-ya Later”? I believe the help expose the real roots of this so-called controversy.

Arabic is a critical language in today’s world, just as Russian was during the Cold War. It is rich, beautiful, ancient language. Understanding Arab culture, or any other culture, is imperative to bring about positive change in the world and build ties between peoples. The voices in opposition to this school would prefer people remain ignorant and divided. Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein, and his department need to take a much firmer stand in support of this school and its staff.

The quote in my title comes from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, given in 1933 at the height of the Depression. The full quote, from the fifth sentence of his speech, is, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Once again, what this country should fear most today is that same kind of fear Roosevelt described over 70 years ago. People in the U.S. must fight against the simplistic thinking, divisiveness, fear-mongering, isolationism, anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia that are very much on the rise here and threatening the very ideals this country was founded on.


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