Fears of Arab school in New York unjustified

Anisa Mehdi

Posted Sep 9, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Fears of Arab school in New York unjustified

Education and Indictrination: There is a difference

By Anisa Mehdi

— School opened this/last week. In most communities nationwide alarm clocks sounded earlier than they had in July and August; parents (celebrating) urged sleepy children out of bed; would-be-students at first resisting then donning their backpacks and dashing off to catch up with friends they hadn’t seen for months. In Brooklyn, New York, a new school opened amidst controversy. The Khalil Gibran International Academy. This first-of-its-kind bi-lingual public school will teach Arabic and English. Standard curricula includes all the “R”’s plus sciences, physical education, the arts and more. Concomitant with language study comes Arab culture study: the Alhambra (Granada, Spain), the House of Wisdom (Baghdad’s great library and learning center destroyed by the Mongols in 1258), the development of algebra, astronomy, and medical sciences.

In Hollywood, Florida, the Ben Gamla Charter School opened. There, Hebrew language and Jewish culture will be emphasized: for example, about Maimonides, the great 12th century philosopher who flourished in Cairo as chief rabbi and physician to the sultan, and author of The Guide to the Perplexed.

I don’t fear these lessons taught to public or charter school students. But others do.

As the 55-sixth grade students filed into their Brooklyn facility on September 4, cheered on by 70 or so supporters, another two dozen people gathered at City Hall, protesting the coming of what they call a “madrassa” to our shores. Madrassa does mean “school” in Arabic, but here it is used as a pejorative term — as in those schools teaching the Qur’an, Islam’s sacred book, which have received much negative reporting principally from Pakistan. It is alleged those madrassas are training grounds for terrorists.

Is that really what the protestors fear? That terrorist petri dishes will clone themselves across America? Nonsense.

Is it simple racism? Bias? Possibly.

But I ask, too, do they really fear an educated generation? A generation of Americans not only able but perhaps willing to communicate with those whom we now deem “the enemy”?

Where have they been? The FBI is already calling for more and more Arabic speakers to help with national security matters. And who know what business and exchange opportunities may arise in the next decades as Arabic-speaking nations laboriously pull themselves toward democracy.

Critics also claim to fear the teaching of religion, which may necessarily come along with learning Arabic or Hebrew. They wave the First Amendment.

Here consider two possibilities:

First, in language class when they learn, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” they can also be taught the negative: “Thou shalt NOT love the Lord thy God.” (Please do not accuse me of blasphemy in this example. I DO love.)

Second — and this is most important — there is a place for the study of religion in our public schools. Education is not the same as indoctrination. When we study art history we see works from churches and mosques. When we study music history we hear great masses and requiems. When we study literature we need to know Bible and Qur’anic stories as well as other mythologies in order to understand themes and references. The study of religion is essential for a well-rounded and well-grounded civilization.

Every autumn since 2003 I have been privileged to discuss my National Geographic documentary film, “Inside Mecca,” with seventh grade classes in my local New Jersey school district. The curriculum includes world religions. Students screen my film about the Muslim pilgrimage and prepare questions for me to answer. It’s a chance for 12 year-olds (and their teachers) to learn more about Islam, how it connects to Judaism and Christianity through prophets and teachings, and to learn about filmmaking, leadership, and writing.

Teaching about other beliefs is not the same as telling a student to believe. We cannot escape the profound impact of religion on history and society worldwide. If we are to be educated human beings we need to know one another’s mythology, rituals, holidays and treasures. If we are to nurture our civilization we must respect what others revere. Only then can we engage in intelligent inquiry about our differences.

Many of the students sitting at their desks this week at the Khalil Gibran academy, puzzling over a written language that flows left to right, are not of Arab heritage. They and their parents are simply interested in excellent, future-looking education.

Seventy NYC public schools provide dual language programs. City students can also specialize in Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Creole and, newly, French and Arabic. This makes a lot of sense in our ever more diverse and multi-confessional society.

I, for one, am willing to trust that the vast majority of public school teachers not only know the difference but also are committed to demonstrating the distinction between education and indoctrination. It is time to ask their critics to do the same.

(Anisa Mehdi is an Emmy award winning producer and columnist.  Copyright Arab Writers Group Syndicate http://www.arabwritersgroup.com )