How can a good idea turn bad? How can a good educational cause end up being labeled as “terrorist friendly”? O’er at the land of the free and the home of the brave, this can be possible.
The whole issue started when an announcement was made that a new school will be opened: a school that focuses on Middle Eastern studies and the Arabic language, with the sole objective of bridging the gaps between East and West, all from a cultural point of view and not a political one.
When the news spread, Arab Americans welcomed the idea and asserted that the school would make them feel more at home in the city of New York, but, unsurprisingly, even before it was opened, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, which is scheduled to open next September, has arched many eyebrows and was greeted with harsh criticism from people worrying about the “political bent of the school” and, of course, The New York Sun ran the largest condemnation campaign against this project.
Although a quick look at the names and designations of members of the Khalil Gibran International Academy’s Advisory Council should rid those cynics of their exaggerated concerns, Diane Ravitch, an education historian and one of those deeply concerned about the new educational initiative, says:
"It is not the job of the public schools to teach each ethnic group about its history. Certainly the large high schools should teach Arabic along with other languages, and they should teach the history of the Middle East as they teach global history. But it is an abdication of the basic principle behind public education to set up separate schools to teach uncritically one history and one culture."
Despite the fact that the schools has confirmed and reconfirmed that “the school will not be a vehicle for political ideology“, Daniel Pipes, a journalist, columnist and an active blogger, strongly opposes to the idea because “learning Arabic in and of itself promotes an Islamic outlook”, which is one of the most ridiculous quotes I’ve ever read for a journalist, but that’s not his silliest quote.
The same writer goes on to say: “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.”, again, a quote so feeble that, supposedly, shouldn’t even convince a five year old!
To support his ludicrous predictions, Pipes quotes James Coffman’s “breakthrough article” saying:
“Because Arabs draw so close a connection between classical Arabic and the faith of Islam, Arabization invariably leads to an identification with the (supranational) Islamic religious tradition. Even the most secular Arab nationalists (such as the Ba‘thist variants in Syria and Iraq) must appeal to Islamic symbolism to bolster sagging legitimacy and to mobilize the masses (as Saddam Hussein did in his wars against Iran and the U.S.-led coalition). Hence, Arab nationalism has, however inadvertently, contributed to the rise of Islamism. Indeed, today’s Islamist surge is the natural, perhaps inevitable consequence of the Arab nationalist policies of thirty years ago.”
So basically, what Pipes is trying to say is you either don’t speak Arabic, or if you have the audacity to do so, then it’s inevitable you’ll either become an extremist Islamist or a possible suicide bomber. So according to Pipes, those who speak Arabic, those millions, billions of Arabs and Muslims around the world are extremists by nature, or have a tendency to becoming so.
So the idea alone of setting up an Arab school was controversial enough for those opposing to the idea, which had lead the US Department of Education to clearly state that “it will be monitoring the funding and curriculum at the Arabic language and culture middle school”.
To further relieve some critics’ concerns, who some went as far as to label the school "terrorist-friendly", Joel Klein, Schools Chancellor at the Department of Education said: "If the school becomes a political school with a political agenda … then you’re absolutely right. I won’t tolerate that."
You’d think that’s so unfair but that’s all just a warm up for what’s about to come …
An article, published the New York Post by Chuck Bennett and Jana Winter, revealed a link between the selling of t-shirts that carried the words NYC and Intifada and Dhabah "Debbie" Almontaser, the proposed principal of the school, accusing her of "glorifying Palestinian terror". The keyword here is ’Intifada’.
So what was that mysterious link that those two razor-sharp investigative journalists managed to untie? According to the writers, the organization selling the shirts, Arab Women Active in Art and Media, shares office space on Brooklyn’s Third Avenue with the Saba Association of American Yemenis. Aha! And? Well Debbie is a board member and spokeswoman for Saba.
After that great discovery, Debbie Almontaser was accused of "downplaying the significance of the t-shirts" all because she had the audacity to say:
The word [intifada] basically means ’shaking off.’ That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic.
I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don’t believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City.
I think it’s pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society . . . and shaking off oppression.
That was exactly what her critics were waiting for her to say. A media uproar began and all hell broke loose. Journalists, columnists, bloggers all united to launch an anti-campaign against Debbie Almontaser.
Although she did not commit a grave mistake, yet Debbie, who emigrated from Yemen at age 3, had to resign and admit her regret just to keep the Academy alive, because she knew if she did otherwise, the whole project would be shut down and in her own words she says:
"This morning I tendered my resignation. I became convinced yesterday that this week’s headlines were endangering the viability of Khalil Gibran International Academy, even though I apologized."
But even her resignation did not guarantee the viability of the Academy. Increased calls have been made by activists and lawmakers to shut down the school, the school that did not see the light yet.
But what did all that chaos result in?
1- As of 10th of August, only 44 students registered, 6 out of whom are Arabic speakers only. Because, who would want to register his kids in this highly controversial school?
In her letter of resignation, obtained by The New York Sun, Ms. Almontaser said she was stepping down out of concern for Khalil Gibran’s students. Khalil Gibran critics’ "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."
2- A Jewish woman will be taking over Debbie’s role as principal. Isn’t it very fitting for a Jewish woman to run an Arabic school?
Khalil Gibran (1883 -1931) was a Lebanese American artist, poet and writer. He was born in Lebanon and spent much of his productive life in the United States.
Now, my dear reader, do you see why I thank God that Khalil Gibran is six feet under?