Political Education: Opponents of the Khalil Gibran International Academy Claim It Will Teach Terrorism
by Michelle Chen
- USA -
April 30, 2008 - Now that the media is again abuzz with debate over Debbie Almontaser, the Khalil Gibran International Academy and the surrounding political controversy, The WIP felt it was a good time to republish a story from October that explored the school’s long struggle.
The odds were against this school from its inception, as it confronted a constant stream of political smear, media scrutiny and political tensions, which continues to this day. Still, while foment around the school and its ties to Arab culture and language attest to the complexities of our time, its premise–building awareness through education–is resoundingly simple.
As the author of this article–back when the drama was still unfolding—I chose to end the piece with some prescient words from the student Adnane Rhoulam. In a narrative that centers on the use and distortion of language in the public sphere, a child’s voice can be a very powerful thing.
The recent New York Times article focused on key players in the political wrangling over the school. We believe the WIP’s coverage of this issue complements the Times’ investigation by highlighting the voices from the communities involved–students, grassroots groups pushing for multicultural education in the city, and the youth activists who, in an effort to bring visibility to Arab community issues, found themselves swept up in a political firestorm.
The challenges that the school and Ms. Almontaser have braved in recent months–from political fallout in the local community to contentious litigation–show that in many ways, New York City is perhaps not yet ready to embark on an education project that bridges the Arabic- and English-speaking worlds. Yet the Academy’s very survival through all this suggests that, even in the absence of its founder and principal, the spirit of the school’s namesake has persevered.
The Khalil Gibran International Academy grew out of the idea that education can dismantle cultural barriers and reveal our commonalities. And that message may yet prove more robust than the turbulence besieging our society today. – Michelle Chen
New York City schools threw open their doors this fall to the familiar din of bustling hallways and overstuffed classrooms. But in one corner of Brooklyn, a group of sixth-graders stepped into class surrounded by the clamor of a political battle resonating across the country.
The Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) is an ordinary public school with a mission that is proving more extraordinary by the day. It aspires to teach students to move fluently across one of the world’s most contentious cultural divides: between America and the Arab-speaking world.
That goal has triggered a debate that is igniting ethnic tensions in the city. Opponents suspect hidden ties to terrorism. Supporters say the controversy lays bare the very ignorance the Academy was designed to alleviate.
“People are so afraid of teaching Arabic culture, but why?” said Sara Said, a Yemeni-American college student whose younger brother attends the school. “We have to understand the people that live in our community.”
The tensions surrounding the Academy, which is one of dozens of dual-language programs in the city, have less to do with the education taking place within than with the fear that has challenged educational freedom in the post-9/11 era.
The Stop the Madrassa Coalition, an opposition group backed by conservative media and commentators, paints the school as a potential seedbed for violent extremist ideas. The Coalition – whose name uses the Arabic word for “school” and whose leadership is linked to the right-wing think-tank Middle East Forum – has yet to produce any actual evidence confirming its suspicions. But it insists this is because the city is refusing to release more information on the school and its background.
The Academy’s Arabic component, in fact, consists essentially of intensive language study and a range of courses taught in Arabic. The planned curriculum, which will eventually cover grades six through twelve, is secular and based on New York state’s official standards, with some co-curricular programs featuring a supplementary focus on Middle Eastern studies.
Najat Handou, whose son Adnane Rhoulam is part of KGIA’s first class of more than 50 students, recalled her excitement when she first learned of the school.
“I felt alive again, because since September 11, we’ve had a lot of sadness,” says Handou, who immigrated from Morocco in 1999. “Some people treat us so badly. So, when they got this public school, we felt like, ‘Okay. We are in our country again.'”
Handou’s first contact with KGIA was through founder and former principal Debbie Almontaser, a Yemeni-American teacher and activist known for her community-education work against ethnic bias.
As the school prepared to open last summer in a temporary space in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, Almontaser dared critics to investigate for themselves.
“I welcome anyone to visit the school in the fall,” she wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Daily News. “You won't find religious or political indoctrination or anti-Americanism. What you will see is a diverse group of several dozen sixth-graders beginning an educational journey during which they will become fluent in Arabic.”
But before she herself could preside over that vision, in August Almontaser’s tenure would come to an abrupt end. Her devotion to promoting the teaching of Arabic hit a fitting, if ironic, flashpoint – emerging from a single word – when the conservative New York Post linked her to a t-shirt bearing the slogan, “Intifada NYC.”
The connection had been marginal until then: the shirt was produced by Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (AWAAM), a small group of media trainers and organizers which sometimes uses the office space of a Yemeni-American association, Saba, where Almontaser is a board member.
Quizzed by a reporter, Almontaser gave a perhaps too-nuanced explanation of the term “intifada” – defining it accurately as “shaking off oppression.”
The resulting New York Post article presented her statements as a defense of “terror,” emphasizing that “intifada” is also used to refer to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Amid political outcry and intense media scrutiny, Almontaser soon resigned.Some activists blasted the city’s handling of the ordeal as a cave-in to racist media sensationalism. Though in public comments Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the school and Almontaser’s character, the Department of Education ultimately supported her resignation, leading to her replacement with interim principal Danielle Salzberg, who has no Arabic background.
Communities in Support of KGIA, a coalition of families and community groups, is demanding an official investigation into the circumstances leading to Almontaser’s resignation and calling for her reinstatement. The city has not publicly heeded those requests.
Youth activists with AWAAM are helping coordinate the support campaign. Co-founder Mona Eldahry says that the corporate press assault gives fresh urgency to AWAAM’s efforts to promote independent media by women of color.
“The whole idea of the t-shirt was a call for empowerment,” she says. “Our mission is to empower young women to be producers of media, rather than the objects of it. How can we then use our voices if we’re also under serious attack?”
Priscilla Gonzalez, an organizer with the advocacy group Center for Immigrant Families, says the political fallout reveals systemic inequalities in New York City schools. “This entire situation is inextricably tied to racial justice and immigrants' rights in the public-education system,” she says.
Inadequate resources for schools in communities of color, and for dual-language and other multicultural programs, are “tied together to the struggle and battle for the dignity and respect of the Khalil Gibran school,” she says. “It's a prime example of how much disregard there is for children of color.”
While political warfare may be raging outside the school’s doors, it has not distracted the kids inside. They are busy wrapping their minds around the novel sounds and intricate cursive of Arabic.
“It's a great language,” says twelve-year-old Adnane, who is just beginning to learn how to read and write the language of his parents. Since he knows the Moroccan dialect from home, he also prides himself on being able to help his classmates, most of whom have no Arabic background.
It’s a world away from his elementary school, he says, where he remembers other students “calling me names just ’cause I come from Africa.” If they had the education he is getting now, he adds, “they would know that they shouldn’t make fun of other cultures just ’cause of how they speak and what they do.”
Adnane’s experience suggests that despite outside challenges, the Academy’s founders are managing to create an educational space centered on cultural inclusiveness.
“Six years after 9/11, it's a wonderful opportunity for this school to really educate students and families about Arabic and the Arab world, and really break down those barriers to understanding each other,” says School Coordinator Danielle Jefferis.
Jefferis works with the community organization Arab American Family Support Center to provide social services and language assistance for students’ families. But she stressed that the school will serve both Arab and non-Arab communities. The vast majority of students are of other ethnicities – something the school regards as an asset, since one of its goals is to graduate diverse students who can use Arabic in international or public-service careers.
The school’s name frames its philosophy. Gibran was a multilingual, Christian Lebanese-American writer, whose 1923 book The Prophet has won international acclaim and been translated into more than twenty languages.
Various groups have collaborated with education officials in planning the school, including the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, which develops anti-bias educational programs, and New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit that has launched other progressive schools throughout the city.
Despite this broad institutional backing, opponents are still convinced the school will serve as a religious propaganda machine.
The Stop the Madrassa Coalition’s website quotes past political statements by Almontaser, including a comment in an Amnesty International publication: “President Bush is trying to destroy the United States that I love and of which I am a result.”
The Coalition has also targeted two groups that have spoken out in support of the school – the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Harlem-based Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood – as proponents of what it calls “radical” religious ideologies. The Coalition cites alleged ties between CAIR and Hamas supporters as well as text on the Islamic Brotherhood’s website espousing religious beliefs and criticizing white imperialism and US race relations.
Meanwhile, Stop the Madrassa is awaiting responses to several petitions it has filed for full disclosure of documents about the school’s program, alleging there has been a suspicious “lack of transparency” among city officials.
Stop the Madrassa Coalition member and local schoolteacher Sara Springer worries students will be taught “extremist” and fundamentalist ideas that vilify America. “They're going to get a whole different ideological slant,” she argues, “because the founding person for this school has those thoughts.”
But in Sara Said’s view, the political attack on the Academy underscores the school’s necessity. “One of the most important things education should do is just really teach a student how to question things,” she says. “The students need to question society and not accept society as it is, because if we continue accepting it, this is what is going to happen, like letting a newspaper or a few individuals run our country.”
For Adnane, the start of the school year is a chance to apply a basic civics lesson.
“People shouldn't say bad stuff about this school,” he says, “because this school could change the world and how they look at other cultures.”
About the Author
Michelle Chen works and plays in New York City. Formerly on staff at the independent, now-defunct, news publication,The NewStandard, her other recent occupations include living in Shanghai as a Fulbright research fellow, freelance writing and dish-washing. Her work has also appeared in Extra!, Legal Affairs, City Limits and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain.