New York Arabic school: Critics ignored record of a Muslim principal

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Aug 29 13:26:36 UTC 2007

[image: The New York Times] <>

August 29, 2007
On Education
Critics Ignored Record of a Muslim Principal By SAMUEL G.

Last Feb. 12, you may recall, New York education officials announced plans
to open a minischool in September that would teach half its classes in
Arabic and include study of Arab culture. The principal was to be a veteran
teacher who was also a Muslim immigrant from Yemen, Debbie Almontaser.

The critical response began pouring in the very next day.

"I hope it burns to the ground just like the towers did with all the
students inside including school officials as well," wrote an unidentified
blogger on the Web site Modern Tribalist, a hub of anti-immigrant sentiment.
A contributor identified as Dave responded, "Now Muslims will be able to
learn how to become terrorists without leaving New York City."

Not to be outdone, the conservative Web site Political Dishonesty carried
this commentary on Feb. 14:

"Just think, instead of jocks, cheerleaders and nerds, there's going to be
the Taliban<>hanging
out on the history hall, Al
out by the gym, and
out in the science labs.
will be the prerequisite classes for an Iranian physics. Maybe in
gym they'll learn how to wire their bomb vests and they'll convert the
football field to a terrorist training camp."

Thus commenced the smear campaign against the Khalil Gibran International
Academy and, specifically, Debbie Almontaser. For the next six months, from
blogs to talk shows to cable networks to the right-wing press, the hysteria
and hatred never ceased. Regrettably, it worked.

Ms. Almontaser resigned as principal earlier this month. Nominally, she quit
to quell the controversy about her remarks to The New York Post
insufficiently denouncing the term "intifada" on a T-shirt made by a local
Arab-American organization. That episode, however, merely provided the
pretext for her ouster, for the triumph of a concerted exercise in character

After initially consenting to an interview for this column, Ms. Almontaser
backed out, saying she did not want to "do anything that would jeopardize
the school," which is still set to open next month in the Boerum Hill
section of Brooklyn. One of her longtime colleagues, however, spoke candidly
about her emotions.

"She feels that she's been violated, personally and professionally," said
Louis Cristillo, a research professor at Teachers College at Columbia
has studied the experiences of Muslim children in the New York public
schools. "To be painted as somebody who's un-American, questioning her
patriotism, is extremely hurtful for her. She's really shocked at how
devastatingly effective the defamation was."

For anyone who bothered to look for it, Ms. Almontaser left a clear, public
record of interfaith activism and outreach across the boundaries of race,
ethnicity and religion. Her efforts, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks,
earned her honors, grants and fellowships. She has collaborated so often
with Jewish organizations that an Arab-American newspaper, Aramica,
castigated her earlier this summer for being too close to a "Zionist
organization," meaning the Anti-Defamation

Ms. Almontaser has twice been profiled on Voice of
an accomplished Muslim American. Her son, Yousif, spent several months
rescue efforts at ground zero as a member of the Army National Guard. Four
of her nephews and cousins have served in the United States military in

None of these details were exactly hidden under a rock. But her critics
ignored them. In syndicated columns by Daniel Pipes, in articles and
editorials in The New York Post and The New York Sun, on such Web sites as
PipeLineNews and Militant Islam Monitor, both concerned with radical Islam,
the Gibran school was repeatedly characterized as a "madrassa," an Arabic
term plainly meant to evoke images of indoctrination into terrorism and holy

Bella Rabinowitz, writing on March 9 in PipeLineNews, called Gibran "an
Islamist public school whose curriculum shares the same ideology as the
Sept. 11 terrorists." Alicia Colon wrote in The Sun on May 1, "How delighted
Osama bin Laden<>and
Al Qaeda must have been to hear the news" that New York "is bowing
in homage to accommodate and perhaps groom future radicals."

Just as the school was caricatured, so was Ms. Almontaser. Although she has
used the first name Debbie since childhood, her critics relentlessly
identified her by her legal name Dhabah, the better to render her alien.
Some articles would add the phrase "a k a Debbie," treating her chosen name
as a sort of criminal alias.

What all the attacks lacked was a single solid example of Ms. Almontaser
having espoused Islamic extremism, much less jihad, during her 15 years as
an educator. They have described her as a "9/11 denier" on the basis of one
statement that "I don't recognize the people who committed the attacks as
either Arabs or Muslims."

Yet, as Larry Cohler-Esses noted in an incisive article in New York Jewish
Week, these foes conveniently overlooked what Ms. Almontaser went on to say
in the same interview: "Those people who did it have stolen my identity as
an Arab and stolen my religion."

What Ms. Almontaser has done — as a private citizen, not in her classroom —
is assail the Bush administration for its domestic surveillance and for its
Middle East policies. She has said that desperation and oppression
contribute to terrorism. You can disagree with her positions and still not
believe they should be the basis for destroying her career.

"There's zero correspondence between the caricature and the actual person,"
said Rabbi Andy Bachman of Beth Elohim, a Reform Jewish congregation in Park
Slope, who was on the Gibran school's advisory board. "The words that were
used to describe her, the fears that were evoked, are absolutely unrelated
to her and her life's work. Not in any way, shape or form."

Another rabbi who has worked with Ms. Almontaser on interfaith efforts,
Michael Feinberg of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, said:
"It's all about insinuation and innuendo and this formula of Arab equals
Muslim equals terrorist. The viciousness and the vileness of this case
surpass anything I've seen before."

That vileness also did no favors to the responsible critics of the Gibran
school, whether they were parents worried about school overcrowding or
scholars like Diane
Richard Kahlenberg, who believe that public schools should reinforce a
common American culture rather than promote ethnic identity. Their worthy
voices got lost in all the bile.

For now at least, Ms. Almontaser remains employed by the Department of
Education. What she requires, though, is something harder to obtain than
another job. As another victim of a different smear campaign put it once:
"Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?"

Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His
e-mail is sgfreedman at

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