Khalil Gibran School Principal, Debbie Almontaser, Was a Casualty of Fear

Khalil Gibran School Principal, Debbie Almontaser, Was a Casualty of Fear

Arab principal was a casualty of fear

By MONA ELTAHAWY

What’s Arabic for “witch hunt”?

In any language, a witch hunt is what led Debbie Almontaser to step down as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Due to open in Brooklyn this fall, it will be New York City’s first Arabic-themed public school.

The city was right to approve the school in the first place, but dead wrong not to offer it and Almontaser a robust, unapologetic defense in the face of fearmongering. Instead, a tempest in a teapot forced a qualified candidate out of her job - and what we got from Chancellor Joel Klein, Mayor Bloomberg and others was just damage control.

Moreover, the naming of Danielle Salzberg, a non-Arabic speaker, as Almontaser’s interim replacement was a serious mistake. Salzberg may be a fine educator, but an Arabic-themed school deserves a principal familiar with the language and culture it will teach.

The least the city can do now is name an Arab-American educator to lead Gibran Academy in time for the start of the new school year. And we must ask why we let such a shameful smear campaign - one that now continues, with plans to claim the school itself as a casualty - go unchecked.

Officially, Almontaser resigned this month in the wake of a furor over the fact that she didn’t condemn the word “intifadeh” on a T-shirt. But Almontaser didn’t defend Palestinian violence against Israelis, as her critics claim. She simply tried to offer a wider context for a word most Americans associate only with terrorist violence.

That’s called education; but because she is an Arab and a Muslim, her statements were subject to greater scrutiny and suspicion.

Critics had targeted Almontaser for months - maliciously calling the school a “madrassah,” and combing through her past for signs of transgressions. You can be sure that if it hadn’t been the T-shirts - which had nothing to do with Almontaser or her school - it would have been something else.

But if Almontaser was the radical Islamist her critics claim, why would she lead a school named after the famed Lebanese-American Christian poet who promoted peace, Khalil Gibran?

As an Egyptian whose first language is Arabic and who has always felt at home here, the hounding of Almontaser has shaken my faith in this great city.

I have met Almontaser twice at conferences that brought together American and European Muslims. At those events, it was clear to me that we Muslims in the United States were better integrated into our society. But next time we meet, I will have to tell European Muslims that New York is not as free of hate and racism as I once thought.

It is time to stop making lazy connections tying Arabic culture and the Muslim faith to terrorism. I have spoken out consistently against terrorism - but I’m also here to remind you that not every conversation in Arabic is a plot to blow you up.

The rabid critics, emboldened by Almontaser’s resignation, are now trying to stop the school from opening. Bloomberg and Klein must not let them succeed. Cowardice in the face of prejudice is not the New York - or American - way.

Eltahawy is a New York-based writer.  Visit her site at http://www.monaeltahawy.com  Originally published at http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2007/08/20/2007-08-20_they_scapegoated_her.html


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