NY: The Right-Wing's War on the Gibran Academy--Arabic as a Terrorist Language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sun Sep 2 13:10:25 UTC 2007

Gibran the Terrorist

A new Arabic language school by the name of the Gibran Academy in NYC
and its principal are being savagely attacked by the right wing
xenophobes. The malignant hate that is being propagated by the those
opposing the school that plays on the sheer ignorance and the fear of
the American public is mind boggling. This is from the same people
that are behind Bush's policy to bring freedom and democracy to the
Middle East!!!

Counterpuch, August 30, 2007
The Right-Wing's War on the Gibran Academy
Arabic as a Terrorist Language


A good friend and former Professor of mine always began his classes on
the developing world with an introduction to Islam. One of the first
points driven home in the class, semester after semester, was the
difference between Islam and Arabic. While the terms are obviously not
synonymous (one being a religion and the other a language), this basic
distinction is disregarded in recent fundamentalist efforts to
demonize not only Islam, but the Arabic language itself.

I wanted to believe that we'd come far enough in this country that
Muslim-Americans and non-citizens alike don't have to suffer under
irrational hatred, fanaticism, and repression. But for America's
small, but influential right-wing minority, this seems too much to
I am referring to the racist war that has been declared on the Kahlil
Gibran International Academy (in New York), and most specifically its
Principal, Debbie Almontaser. The Gibran Academy is the first public
institution in the U.S. committed specifically to learning the Arabic
language. But the way the school has been attacked in media diatribes,
one would think it was named after Osama bin Laden, rather than an
uncontroversial, but well known poet. The Lebanese-American poet
Kahlil Gibran is best known for his classic work, The Prophet, written
over 80 years ago and translated into over 20 languages. While
Gibran's works focused heavily on the corruption of Christian clergies
and churches of his day, his other common themes include love,
religion, life and death, and philosophy.

The Gibran Academy "controversy" comes at a time when Americans are
desperately in need of shedding their parochialism of foreign cultures
and languages. As the United States has become an international pariah
during its occupation of Iraq, attacks on diversity can do little but
strengthen American isolationism and ignorance. Americans are
consistently rated in world opinion polls along with Iran and North
Korea in terms of likeability, and incidents such as the Gibran
protest are unlikely to improve its image. The anti-Arabic campaign is
being spearheaded by notable reactionaries such as Daniel Pipes and
Alicia Colon, as well as newspapers in the Big Apple including the New
York Post and New York Sun.

But what, you might ask, are the specific crimes committed by
Almontaser and the academy, deemed so egregious as to warrant the
right-wing's wrath? Daniel Pipes lays out his case in a number of
editorials written in the NY Sun in the last few months. Pipes claims
as "fact" that "Islamic institutions [which Gibran Academy is not],
whether schools or mosques, have a pattern of extremism and even
violence." He argues that "learning Arabic in-and-of-itself promotes
an Islamic outlook," as "Arabic-language instruction is inevitably
laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage." Pipes feels that the
teaching of Arabic may lead to "moral decay," since "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." In another Op-Ed for the NY Sun, Alicia
Colon follows up on Pipe's statements, protesting that "This proposal
[for an Arabic language school] is utter madness, considering that
five years after September 11, ground zero is still a hole in the
ground and we're bending over backwards to appease those sympathetic
to individuals who would destroy us again." The editors at the NY Post
also deem the anxieties over the school as "right on target."

Pipe's and Colon's anger appear to be derived, in part, from Principal
Almontaser's alleged "support for terrorism." Almontaser was demonized
for initially refusing to condemn a t-shirt with the slogan "Intifada
NYC," which was being sold by the group "Arab Women Active in Art and
Media," which shares an office with another group that has ties to
Almontaser (a rather tenuous and tendentious "connection," I know).
Aside from the "crime" of having this connection with the group in
question, Almontaser has also committed the second crime of explaining
the meaning of the word Intifada: "it 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 societyand shaking off oppression."

This statement, while seemingly innocent enough, is deemed irrefutable
proof of Almontaser's "gratuitous apology for suicide terrorism," in
Pipe's own words, and as evidence of "warmongering," in the eyes of
the NY Post editors. Normally whenever I read such fanatical claims
amongst American right-wingers, I don't bother to respond. Pipes and
Colon's claims may be too stupid to merit a rebuttal, but the
effectiveness of such attacks is truly disturbing for anyone committed
to multiculturalism and democracy. Racist rhetoric has been allowed to
dominate media discourse for too long, and has often been successful
in setting the terms of debate ­ as erroneous as those terms may be.
Consider, for example, an August 26 report from the Chicago Tribune on
the disputed school. The story claims that "at the core of the debate
[over the school] is a linguistic disconnect." This may be what
apologists for Pipes want the public to believe, but the claim has no
bearing on reality whatsoever. For one thing, there has been no
"debate" going on here, only racist bullying. American media
commentary has been hijacked by pundits who have zero commitment to
intellectual debate of the issues, and even less commitment to
understanding the nuances that come along with learning about foreign
cultures and languages. That the claims of Pipes and others could even
be taken seriously by New York political leaders and media reporters
is a sign of just how far our intellectual culture has deteriorated.

Consider a few of the following facts that are either ignored or
twisted in the current media-political "debate" over the school.

1. While the Kahlil Gibran academy has been attacked for indirectly
teaching Islam in a public institution, Gibran himself was not even
Muslim, he was Christian Arab. Why the administrators of the school
would have consciously chosen Gibran as an inspiration for an "Islamic
school" is never explained in media debate (and why would devout
Muslims enroll in a school named after a Christian poet expecting to
get an Islamic education anyway?). One would hardly know about the
school's non-Muslim roots, however, after reading Pipe's tirades.

2. The official language of the most populous Muslim country in the
world (Indonesia) is not even an Arabic, but Bahasa Indonesia. One
wouldn't know this either by reading the NY Sun or NY Post editorials.
That there's nothing inherently linking Islam with Arabic is a lesson
Americans should be taught as children, although it is not included in
most civics discourses in this country.

3. Contrary to the claims of Colon and Pipes, Almontaser was indeed
correct that the word "Intifada" means "uprising" or "shaking off."
The word is not inherently tied to military attacks on civilians. I
used to make this same point when I taught Middle East politics,
although I would also presumably be denigrated as a terrorist
sympathizer for my failure to declare war on the Arabic language.

4. The nation for which Pipes reserves most of his anger is Palestine
­ as he attacks Palestinian suicide bombers who target Israeli
civilians. While predominantly Arabic speaking, Palestine retains a
sizable non-Muslim minority, another inconvenient fact ignored by
Pipes. Twenty-five percent of West Bank residents are Christian and
Jewish speaking Arabs. Such a reality would be deemed little more than
a paradox, however, by ignorant minds vilifying the Arabic language as
Muslim in orientation. Claiming that the Arabic language is inherently
Muslim makes about as much sense as claiming that English is
inherently Christian. But this doesn't mean that such efforts to
confuse the public are ineffective. As of late August (and in light of
a five month campaign by the "Stop Madrassa Coalition," of which Pipes
is a part) Almontaser has been pressured to step down as Principal of
the Gibran Academy. Furthermore, Pipes and other members of his
coalition have vowed not to end their campaign until the academy is
permanently closed. The New York Times reports that, in light of the
protests, "the chancellor of schools, Joel Klein, is considering other
locations for the school [currently in Brooklyn], or even postponing
the opening for a year." The attacks, and many others of their kind,
have also left a terrible psychic scar on many Arab-Americans forced
to endure unbridled American racism. Sadly, U.S. "multiculturalism"
seems to make room only those with enough political and social capital
to effectively fight back against media and public prejudice and
xenophobia. Even Arab-American citizens are deemed as "outsiders" or
"foreigners" within such a twisted value system.

It remains to be seen whether the racist views of Pipes and his ilk
are representative of the American public as a whole. How Americans
react to anti-Arab/anti-Muslim political-cultural campaigns will do
much in determining the status of Arab Americans in the future, and
the vigor of our democracy. One thing seems clear though: as long as a
loud minority of reactionaries is allowed to hijack public dialogue
and debate, not much is going to change.

Anthony DiMaggio has taught Middle East Politics and American
Government at Illinois State University. He is the author of the
forthcoming book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News
in the "War on Terror" (forthcoming December 2007).


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