Islamist Front or Instrument of the State?


[Khalil Gibran, 1883-1931]

I was not planning on writing about the Islamist madrassa Khalil Gibran International Academy opening in Brooklyn this fall but it seems like I can’t open the morning newspaper or turn on the radio without hearing about it so here is my two cents. When news spread among conservative activists that the New York Department of Education was opening a small school in Brooklyn centered on Arabic language and cultural studies, they got on the phone and the Internet, contacted allies on talk radio and Blogs, and did an excellent job of getting their message out.

What is their message?

First, the school is a front for Islamists whose main purpose is indoctrinating students with a radical anti-American ideology. Activists from the Stop the Madrassa Coalition claimed Khalil Gibran ‘s principal, Dhabah “Debbie” Almontaser, was not a moderate and called for officials to investigate the school’s possible ties to terrorist organizations. Second, the school is a conflict of Church and Mosque divisions. Never mind that Khalil Gibran was a Christian. Their main point is if individuals in the Arabic-speaking communities want to start a school with private money, that would be fine, but not with public funds.

Outside of the conservative milieu, reaction and perception of the school was mixed. Secular liberals in support of a rigid division between Church and State tended to be most critical. Others, in light of the existence of tens of similar small public schools focusing on everything from the arts, social justice and sports, had no problem with it. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) thought it was a good idea. Interestingly, the school received a boost of support from mainstream Jewish organizations including the Anti-Defamation League. But a large percentage of New Yorkers simply had not heard of the school.

That all changed after a group of students showed up at the school wearing t-shirts with the slogan “Intifada NYC.” After an initial lukewarm condemnation–coupled with her comment that the shirts provide “an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society”–Ms. Almontaser and the school came under increasing scrutiny. Almontaser subsequently claimed, “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.”

But it was too little, too late. Ms. Almontaser found her previous liberal support evaporating. UFT President Randi Weingarten issued a condemnation of Almontaser stating the intifada is “something that ought to be denounced, not explained away” and the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, said the “controversy” sparked by her remarks “threatened to destabilize the school.” With Department of Education and union support dwindling, mainstream Jewish organizations were the next to jump ship, noting that the term “intifada” has a very clear meaning and association with violence for most Jews. Almontaser ultimately resigned citing security concerns:

[The] intolerant and hateful tone has come to frighten some of the parents and incoming parents,” she wrote.”I have grown increasingly concerned that these few outsiders will disrupt the community of learning when the Academy opens its doors on September 4th. Therefore, I have decided to step aside to give the Academy and its dedicated staff the full opportunity to flourish without these unwarranted attacks.

The Stop the Madrassa Coalition welcomed her resignation. But their core concerns remain. While somewhat sympathetic to the claims of the conservative activists regarding the potential for radicalization at the school and in complete support with their calls for Almontaser’s ouster, I do not view public schools of this sort in a completely negative light. From a security perspective, it is preferable for the school to be public rather than private because the state has more control over the staff, curriculum and administration in a public system. Simply stated, public schools are instruments of the state. If this was a private school, the state would have much less control over what books the students were reading, the certification of teachers (or lack thereof) and all of the other matters that rightly concern conservatives. Second, a school that offers Arabic language and allows students to explore the complexities of that part of the world is a good thing. Aren’t conservatives constantly lamenting that our foreign service and intelligence services–not to mention our troops in Iraq–lack people with these basic skills?

In The New York Sun, Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn said:

[H]e is confident that Khalil Gibran will be an antidote to terrorism, not a perpetrator of it. “In the wake of both 9/11 and the perilous state of the world, with several wars moving all around us,” he said, “it’s I think a beautiful opportunity to bring students from a variety of backgrounds all together to learn about Arabic culture.” Rabbi Bachman also praised the opportunity for students of Arab origin to learn about American values in a public school.

Daniel Pipes also supports Arabic language schools, with certain stipulations:

America needs more Arabic speakers. In practice, however, Arabic-language instruction needs special scrutiny. The city, in other words, could take steps to make the KGIA acceptable by dispensing with the existing set of goals, fundamentally rethinking its mission, appointing a new advisory board, hiring new staff, and imposing the necessary educational and political controls.

I agree with Rabbi Bachman and Mr. Pipes. NYC has public schools that center on Chinese language and Asian culture and a new school emphasizing Spanish and Latin-American culture is opening soon. Given the diversity of this city a South Asian school in Jackson Heights, Queens is probably not far away. Is this the direction we are heading? A educational system that caters to a multitude of ethnic and national communities? And is that a great idea? My wife counters, “why not offer these languages and cultural studies options at the existing schools? It’s 2007, these kids don’t want to learn French and German.”

One response »

  1. Pingback: Ralph Seliger: Arab and Jewish Theme Schools « The New Centrist

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