08 May 2008

Muslim teacher in NY loses job because of hate campaign

Debbie Almontaser, a Yemeni-American teacher who led the drive to set up a new public school in New York called Khalil Gibran International Academy, was forced to resign her position as principal before the school opened its doors to new students. The reason was a campaign of Islamophobia unleashed by a group that called itself the "Stop the Madrassa Coalition". The group was, in some ways, orchestrated by the Islam basher Daniel Pipes.

The school's mission was to teach Arabic as a foreign language. Almontaser's plan was to have a student body that would be half Arab-American. In all other respects, the Gibran Academy was to be a regular New York public high school. Moreover, in its emphasis in Arabic, the school was similar to dozens of other schools in New York that stress a particular language, such as Spanish or Russian.

The campaign against the Gibran Academy (named after a Lebanese Christian poet) broke out when Pipes wrote an op-ed in the New York Sun, in which he argued that "Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with Pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage." He also called the planned school a "madrassa", which is simply the Arabic word for "school" but, as Pipes knows very well, means an "Islamic seminary" in English. More recently, Pipes has admitted that his use of the word "madrassa" was "a bit of a stretch" and a tool he used to "get attention".

Attention he did get: a group of people, including Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a trustee at City University of New York, gathered around Pipes, and formed the above-mentioned coalition. Having very little information about the planned school to go on, the Coalition to Stop the Madrassa dug into Almontaser's past and her personal activities, and used the information obtained to smear her online and in the media. What motivated them was a desire to stop what Wiesenfeld referred to as "soft jihad", that is, the promotion of "radical Islam", in Pipes's words, through "the school system, the media, the religious organizations, the government, businesses and the like". In other words, the mere teaching of Arabic was construed by the group as equivalent to the promotion of "radical Islam".

What helped the Coalition clinch its case was an interview with the New York Post, in which Almontaser explained that the word "intifada" meant "a shaking off". She was asked about the shirts because some teenaged members of an Arab-American women's group she belonged to had been seen selling T-shirts that said "Intifada NYC" on them. The Post misquoted Almontaser as saying that the girls selling the T-shirts had been "shaking off oppression".

That was too much for the city's Education Department to bear, and Almontaser was asked to resign by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who added that she had until 8:00 am the next day to resign, because Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to announce her resignation "on his radio show". Almontaser resigned, but filed a lawsuit to try to get her job back. A panel of federal judges has recently ruled that the New York Post has misreported the comments she had made to the paper.

The school did open under the direction of a different principal, Danielle Salzberg, who does not speak Arabic and soon made a name for herself with her authoritarian methods. Meanwhile, Almontaser has been assigned to a school inspection job, and has been allowed to keep her principal's pay of US $120,000 (Canadian $121,722) per year. The Coalition to Stop the Madrassa, for its part, continues to protest against the existence of the school (New York Times).

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