Arabic Language School Struggles to Open

By Rinku Sen Sep 05, 2007

Yesterday, the Kahlil Gibran International Academy, a middle school centered on Arabic language instruction opened peacefully with 60 sixth graders enrolled. The school follows in a long tradition of dual language schools in New York City, but has become the target of an extremist and racist attack by a supposedly grassroots group, Citizens for American Values in Public Education, an ally of right wing extremists, The Catholic League. They were further fueled by the coverage and editorials in the New York Sun and New York Post . Syndicated columnist Daniel Pipes has made this into a national issue for the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim crowd that manages to malign Arabs and Muslims without consequence, repeatedly referring to the school as a “madrassa” and attacking its former principal as an Islamist. Most coverage of this case has overlooked the significant number of Black Americans from Brooklyn neighborhoods that attend the public academy. This group thought they had found the perfect target in Debbie Almontaser, a teacher and peacemaking community leader who has been involved since the start of planning the school. In the New York Times last week, Sam Freedman called their attack on Debbie the most irresponsible trashing of a community leader New York has seen in years. Her opponents regularly refer to her by her Arabic name (taking a page from Fox News’ frequently referrals to Barack Hussein Obama), which she hasn’t used since toddlerhood. I know Debbie personally, having spent nine months with her in the Revson Fellowship for the City of New York and having edited her essay “Finding My Religion,” for ColorLines in 2005. She is a spiritually committed, bridge-building activist who eschews any kind of radicalism. Her family has contributed more than one son to the U.S. military, and she has a long history of bringing Jews, Muslims and Christians together; even more so after September 11. Hoping to spare the school from further attack, Debbie resigned as principal a month ago. When the district then appointed Danielle Salzberg, who is Jewish, as interim principal, the New York Post referred to her as a “Hebrew Haha.” The anti-Muslim lobby has been allowed to carry on for so long without a word of censure from Mayor Bloomberg or Chancellor Klein, and it isn’t finished. They could not prevent the school’s opening thanks to an outpouring of support from New Yorkers of all sorts, but they have filed Freedom of Information requests demanding the school’s texts and curriculum, which they say will be full of “anti-American and anti-Zionist” writing. There will be more news on this front, if not in Brooklyn, then on the next target that Daniel Pipes and friends decide to pick up.