By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
“Only in America” may be an overused phrase, but a debate is percolating in New York these days that reflects a uniquely American confluence of religious pluralism, church/state tensions, the politics of identity, and fears unleashed by the war on terror.
At the eye of the storm is the new Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, the city’s first public school to offer instruction in Arabic, which is slated to open September 4. Promoted by a broad coalition of Muslim leaders in New York along with inter-faith supporters and civic leaders (including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg), the school has been denounced as a breeding ground for Islamic radicalism by its critics, who have organized a grassroots coalition called “Stop the Madrassa.” Though leadership is local, the movement to block the school has attracted the support of Daniel Pipes, an influential critic of Islam.
City officials say the charter school does not promote Islam, but rather understanding of Arabic language and culture. They point out the city already has charter schools offering a number of other specialties, from Chinese culture to social justice. Nonetheless, in a city where memories of 9/11 are still raw, critics argue the school could become an incubator for future terrorist cells.
There are enough ironies surrounding this story to keep a battalion of cultural critics busy. Consider:
•tThe school’s namesake, Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, was not a Muslim. He was baptized as a Maronite Catholic, and after his family immigrated to Boston in the 1890s and the young Gibran began to move in the city’s artistic circles, he declared: “I am no longer Catholic. I am a pagan.”
•tGibran was hardly an Islamic radical. In a 1908 collection of short stories called Spirits Rebellious, one of Gibran’s heroes is threatened with death by an Islamic sheikh for urging people to resist his authority.
•tThe principal of the academy is a New York Jew who grew up Orthodox, a veteran educator named Danielle Salzberg, who does not speak Arabic. (The first principal, a Yemeni Muslim, resigned amid controversies over her attitude toward use of the word “intifada” on a T-shirt.)
• Two of the most vocal backers of the school are a Jewish rabbi, Michael Feinberg, and an African-American Baptist pastor, Rev. Clinton Miller.
•tThough plans call for a middle school and high school, this fall the academy will serve no more than 60 sixth graders. So far 44 have enrolled, with only six Arabs. Most are African-Americans, whose parents say they’re attracted by the comparatively small teacher-student ratio and the cachet of their child learning a marketable foreign language.
•tAn advisor to the school, Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, has been denounced by radicals who hand out leaflets in Times Square as “a moderate Uncle Sam Muslim who wants the Muslim community to imitate the West,” as an “FBI mouthpiece, and as “the main ‘Muslim’ advocate of interfaith dialogue which Islam prohibits since there is no Deen accepted by Allah other than Islam.”
The crisis that brought down Debbie Almontaser, the Yemeni initially appointed principal, is a classic illustration of how an episode can take on a life of its own after being swept up into broader political currents, especially under the pressure of New York tabloids.
In early August, the “Stop the Madrassa” coalition revealed on its web site that Almontaser, who wears the hijab, the traditional Islamic head covering for women, had once shared office space with a group called Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media. It prints T-shirts with the slogan “Intifada NYC.” Asked about the shirts, which Almontaser did not produce and which have no connection with the school, she didn’t disown them.
“The word (intifada) basically means ‘shaking off,’” she told the New York Post. “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.” Almontaser said the shirts provided an “opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society ... and shaking off oppression.”
That response stirred a chorus of media criticism, including tabloid headlines such as “The Intifada Principal” and “What’s Arabic for ‘Shut it Down’?” In short order Almontaser submitted her resignation, citing security concerns for the school related to the hostile media climate, upon which the Post ran the banner headline, “Intif-addios!”
Aside from Almontaser’s comments, the case that the Khalil Gibran Academy is dangerous is based largely on its potential associations. Critics say the school will use materials prepared by the Council on Islamic Education, a Saudi-funded group accused of supporting jihadist ideology. The school is also located near the Masjid al-Farooq mosque, which had been attended by some of the figures involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Further, some oppose the academy on church/state grounds, arguing that public money should not be used to open a school that seems to favor a particular religion.
Pipes argues that in principle having more Americans learn Arabic is a great idea, but that in practice Arabic-language instruction is rarely neutral, usually nudging students towards pro-Palestinian stances and hostility towards the West and the United States. Without special scrutiny, Pipes has written, he opposes the school.
Education officials in New York say that the Khalil Gibran Academy is not a religious school, and that if there are any signs it is fostering political or religious ideology it would be closed. Critics, however, wonder if city officials would even know that’s happening until it’s too late, since some instruction will be in a language that the new principal doesn’t speak.
A number of Christian and Jewish clergy in New York have rallied to the school’s defense, while others have sided with the critics. To date, few Catholics have been prominent on either side.
At least one Catholic leader, however, comes down on the side of giving the school a chance. Kevin Seamus Hasson of the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm devoted to protecting religious freedom, says that since the academy does not establish Islam as the state religion, it passes Constitutional muster.
Further, Hasson argues, there are socially compelling reasons to foster such experiments that could encourage Muslims to reconcile their religious commitment with pluralism and democracy.
“Even taking a low-end estimate for the number of Muslims in America, we’re talking about maybe 3 million people,” he said. “The prospect of surrendering that many people to an ideology that wants to destroy us is stupid.”
City officials say the Khalil Gibran International Academy will open Sept. 4 as planned. The "Stop the Madrassa" web site can be found here: http://stopthemadrassa.wordpress.com/