The “Stop the Madrassa” Coalition and its campaign against the Khalil Gibran International Academy

April 29, 2008

When I first ran into the “Stop the Madrassa” Coalition’s blog last week, I was inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt that they may have had a valid church-state separation issue regarding the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA). I do think it’s important to uphold separation of church (mosque) and state.

However, the more I’ve looked into this matter, the more it seems to me that the “Stop the Madrassa” Coalition is crying wolf. Their one valid complaint is the Board of Education’s unwillingness to provide complete information about the curriculum to the general public. On this matter, their arch-scapegoat, the Khalil Gibran school’s founder and former principal Debbie Almontaser, agrees with them, as I learned last night. She too wishes that the Board of Education and the school’s current administration would be more transparent, to allay public fears.

Why I think there’s no substance to the attacks on the KCIA

The school is not Muslim-oriented. Khalil Gibran, after whom the school is named, was not Muslim. He was of Christian Arab background.

The school is not limited to Arab students, but welcomes students of all ethnic backgrounds. So it doesn’t ghettoize Arab students, a frequent criticism of “multicultural” education. The school seems to have a dual aim: (1) to provide a place where Arab students can feel more at home than at other schools, where they’ve been subject to a lot of taunts and other harassment since 9/11/2001, and (2) to teach non-Arab students about Arabic language and culture.

It does appear that the former principal, Debbie Almontaser, is a traditionalist-leaning Muslim and, as such, has ties to the more fundamentalist Muslim groups. However, ADL spokesperson Joel J. Levy has this to say about her:

The Anti-Defamation League has a long history of working with Ms. Almontaser through our anti-bias workshops.

Through joint coalition work in Brooklyn against hate crimes, she has demonstrated her support for the civil liberties of all people. She is deeply committed to creating an inclusive learning environment that embraces the unparalleled diversity in New York City.

To help support this goal, we are in discussion with Ms. Almontaser about implementing our A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute anti-bias training in KGIA.

The school’s Arabic language requirement, combined with conflict resolution and international diplomacy training, opens the possibility of creating a well informed generation of leaders.

That’s quite a vote of confidence, especially coming from the ADL, a pro-Israel organization which specializes in keeping an eye on anti-Jewish extremists. If indeed Debbie Almontaser truly had a radical Islamist agenda, I would expect the ADL to be in the forefront of exposing it.

Most of the attacks on the school, and on Debbie Almontaser, have revolved around guilt-by-association.

Possibly valid objections to other similar schools, and a more constructive approach for people worried about KCIA

Daniel Pipes has written what seem (at least at first glance) to be valid objections to some other taxpayer-funded Arabic-language schools in other parts of the country, in Teach Arabic or Recruit Extremists? by Daniel Pipes, New York Sun, September 5, 2007. However, none of these objections are applicable to the Khalil Gibran school.

Danial Pipes also said:

This troubling pattern points to the need for special scrutiny of publicly funded Arabic-language programs. That scrutiny should take the form of robust supervisory boards whose members are immersed in the threat of radical Islam and who have the power to shut down anything they might find objectionable.

I think he’s on the right track with this recommendation, except that I don’t think such a supervisory board should be limited to people who are “immersed in” (and likely to be a bit paranoid about) “the threat of radical Islam.” I agree that it would be a good idea to have a supervisory board on which such a perspective is represented by at least one or two people, in addition to other people who are concerned more with promoting religious tolerance and protecting the rights of people in the community whom the school serves.

And, in my opinion, it would have been much better for the people in the “Stop the Madrassa” Coalition to have called for such a supervisory board, rather than calling for the school to be shut down.

(P.S., 5/1/2008: As mentioned earlier, I think the “Stop the Madrassa” Coalition has a legitimate gripe about the Department of Education’s lack of openness about details of the curriculum, and is justified in pursuing that issue, as well as in calling for more ovesight of the school. But I think that the personal attacks on Almontaser was very misguided, as was the call for the school to be closed.)

Debbie Almontaser at a public forum last night

Yesterday, the following announcement was forwarded to me in email:

—–Forwarded Message—–
From: “Ronald B. McGuire”
Sent: Apr 27, 2008 10:50 PM
To: CUNY Community
Subject: Islamophobia and CUNY – Tonight Mon. 4/28 CUNY Grad Center 6 PM

Youngbloods, Elders and Friends:

CUNY Grad’s Middle East Students’ Association (MESO) will be sponsoring an important forum at the CUNY Graduate Center tonight Monday 4/28 at 6 PM in room 5414. The announcement below is forwarded from another list.

Ronald B. McGuire

Academic Freedom & The Attack on Diversity at CUNY — An Urgent Conversation

Debbie Almontaser
Professor Susan O Malley
Mona Eldahry, AWAAM
Adem Carroll, CISKGIA
_______________

Monday 04/28/2008; 6:00 – 8:00 pm
Room: Social Lounge (5414)
CUNY Grad School 365 Fifth Avenue (34 St) [directions added at bottom –t.]

Around the country, Islamophobic and Anti-Arab attacks on professors have increased, most notably at Columbia and Barnard. This movement to attack and discredit dissent has been called “the New McCarthyism” –shutting down reasoned debate on important issues. Unfortunately this hurtful trend is also significantly represented at CUNY at its Trustee level, in the person of Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld, who is also head of the Stop the Madrassa Coalition.
(pictured) [scary pic avail on request –t.]

With no factual basis, Weisenfeld’s STM coalition has been waging a relentless attack on Brooklyn’s Khalil Gibran International Academy, a dual language public school, depicting it as an “Islamist vocational school…with an Arab supremacist mindset in the mold of KGIA’S principal Dhabah Almontaser.” Forced out of her job by right wing tabloids & with no push back from the Bloomberg Administration, Founding Principal Debbie Almontaser has been fighting for her rights. She has been defended by educators, community groups and parents in coordination with Communities in Support for the Khalil Gibran International Academy: see http://www.kgia.wordpress.com.

Ms. Almontaser will appear on this panel along with CUNY Professor Susan O’ Malley and others working to expose the attack on academic freedom across the nation:

PLEASE JOIN US: There is some urgency here as these attacks are one tip of a vast ideological iceberg that is also threatening to impact the current election campaign.

What does this mean for CUNY students and faculty?

Co-sponsored by MESO
Middle East Students Org:

CISKGIA:
(Communities in Support of the Khalil Gibran International Academy)

For more info contact www.kgia.wordpress.com

Zeeshan Suhail
Weblog: http://ZeeshanSuhail.blogspot.com/

I attended the forum.and got to meet and hear Debbie Almontaser, among others.

Someone in the audience suggested that Adem Carroll, the organizer of the forum, try to arrange a future event at which they could hold a public debate with members of the “Stop the Madressa” coalition. The panelists all agreed that this would be a good idea, provided the “Stop the Madressa” coalition members would be willing to keep it civil.

One man in the audience was very concerned about the presence of a few Muslim imams on an advisory board connected with the school. Debbie Almontaser explained that the imams, along with Christian and Jewish clergy too, were on the board mainly for the sake of outreach to the community.

Yesterday’s New York Times article

Before I went to the forum, I did some online research. Among other things, I ran into a New York Times article, Battle in Brooklyn: A Principal’s Rise and Fall: Critics Cost Muslim Educator Her Dream School by Andrea Elliott, April 28, 2008, which contains a detailed history of the school. (Another copy of this article can be found here, on the Common Dreams site.)

Among many other very interesting things, the New York Times article says, on page 2:

In April 2005, Debbie Almontaser got a telephone call that would change her life. The man on the line, Adam Rubin, worked for a nonprofit organization, New Visions for Public Schools. He was exploring whether to help the city create a public school that would teach Arabic. The group already had seed money — a $400,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — but needed the right person to help lead the venture.

For years, Ms. Almontaser had hoped to become a principal. But soon after joining hands with New Visions, she faced her first challenge. To administer the Gates grant, the school needed a community partner. Two groups wanted the job: a secular Arab-American social services agency and a Muslim-led organization that runs Al-Noor School, a private Islamic establishment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Ms. Almontaser said she tried to remain neutral as discord erupted between the two groups. Quietly, though, she worried that if an organization linked to a private Islamic school took the lead, the city would never approve the project, despite the group’s pledge to keep religion out of the curriculum.

Ultimately, a steering committee led by Ms. Almontaser voted in favor of the social services agency. Leaders of the Muslim group walked away feeling disrespected and distrustful of her, several of the group’s members said in interviews. It was a rupture that would come back to haunt Ms. Almontaser.

Some anti-“Madrassa” responses to the New York Times article

Looking around at what some opponents of the school have to say about the New York Times article, I’ve found no substantive objections so far. The opponents seem to be reduced to incoherent ranting and cheap rhetorical devices such as guilt by association.

For example, yesterday on “Atlas Shrugs,” the following comment is quoted:

KGIA is an insulated environment in which those who are dedicated to Islamist doctrine can be free to inculcate our children with anti-Western ideology. Stop the Madrassa is not opposed to teaching Arabic (as the ubiquitous Ms. Eldahry would have us believe). Stop the Madrassa is in favor of teaching Arabic, but in an open, public environment, as an elective along with Spanish, Chinese, Russian, etc. KGIA is too insulated to trust to anyone.

How is KGIA “insulated”? There are plenty of specialized schools in the NYC public school system. Are they all “insulated” too? If so, how?

Look at its avowed supporters: cop-killer, Mumiya Abu Jamal, terrorist William Ayers, etc.

Guilt by association. Argument from reverse authority: Bill Ayers says the sky is blue, therefore the sky must be orange.

The KGIA has plenty of other, more respectable supporters too, including even the ADL, a pro-Israel organization, as well as some pro-Palestinian organizations.

Today on “Atlas Shrugs”, Sara Springer of the Stop the Madrassa Coaliition is quoted as saying:

We have been extraordinarily careful in documenting every statement linking Almontaser to radical Islamist groups such as CAIR, American Muslim Lawyers Association (AMLA), Muslim Consultive Network, Muslim American Society, Adalah, and Al Awda.

More guilt-by-association. Debbie Almontaser had to reach out to a lot of different community groups to build support for the school and recruit students.

If indeed she had especially close ties to the more controversial groups, that’s not, in itself, a reason to disqualify her as principal. Many people who know her have attested to her work for mutual understanding and dialog between different religious groups. At most, a close association with controversial groups might be a reason to watch her carefully, but it’s not a valid reason to fire her (or pressure her to resign) unless she actually did something seriously inappropriate. She should be judged by what she herself has done, not by mere association. And, as far as I can tell so far, her detractors are unable to point to anything seriously inappropriate that she actually did, as principal.

Anyhow, the above-quoted statement “linking Almontaser to radical Islamist groups,” is Sara Springer’s way of replying to the New York Times reference to the Stop the Madressa Coalition as part of “a growing and organized movement to stop Muslim citizens who are seeking an expanded role in American public life.” Sara Springer calls that an “outragious assertion” and says:

This statement is prejudicial to the extent that it infers we are opposed to Muslims participating in American life. We have absolutely no issue with this. Our concern is with the “soft jihad” that is infiltrating our schools with the intent of bringing Shari’s law into our society by indoctrinating our children. Ibrihim Hooper spokesman for CAIR told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in a 1993 interview “I wouldn’t want to create the impression that I wouldn’t like the government of the United States to be Islamic sometime in the future. But I’m not going to do anything violent to promote that. I’m going to do it through education.”

Hello? Evangelical Christians seek to dominate the world though nonviolent “education” too. Does this mean that anyone who has ever had any “links” to evangelical Christian organizations should be barred from being a public school teacher or principal, even if the person does not preach one’s religion in the classroom?

If Christians should not be judged merely by their association with proselytizing, but nonviolent, religious organizations, then neither should Muslims.

In response to the New York Times statement that “Muslim leaders, academics and others see the drive against the school as the latest in a series of discriminatory attacks intended to distort the truth and play on American’s fear of terrorism. They say the campaign is also part of a wider effort to silence critics of Washington’s policy on Israel and the Middle East,” Sara Springer says:

Our concern is based on the people and organizations that Almontaser has hand-picked to work with the school and students.

including the Christians and Jews she has worked with? Again, as Debbie Almontaser, establishing a new school involves reaching out to many different people and organizations in the community.

Of course her association with Muslim and Arab groups is likely to be much closer. But so what? Even if some of these groups hold controversial views, the important question is how, if at all, these associations influenced her own actual behavior. To that question, I have not yet seen any truly incriminating answers.

So it seems that Sara Springer’s main gripe against Debbie Almontaser, and against the school, is simply guilt by association. Another of her gripes is:

According to KGIA’s Executive summary the plan and intent was to offer Halal food in the school cafeteria. The school does not offer halal food because the DOE refused the request.

I see nothing wrong with offering Halal food in the cafeteria of a school where a large portion of the students are Muslim, just as I see nothing wrong with offering kosher food in the cafeteria of a school where a large portion of the students are Jewish.

Exactly what is so horrible about halal food? That really does strike me as irrational Islamophobia.

Another complaint, further down on the page:

The Arabic-American Family Suport Center located in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn is another key partner working with KGIA. Their website links to the Council on Islamic Education’s lesson plans. Why are NYC public school students being taught the nuances of Jihad?

  • Define Jihad in its literal and applied meanings, as a principal and as an institution.
  • Describe legitimate conduct of war according to Islamic Law.
  • Differentiate between rebellion and terrorism according to Muslim jurists.

First, a link on the AAFSC website to the CIE’s website does not constitute evidence that the Council on Islamic Education’s lesson plans were used in the KG school.

Second, why shouldn’t public NYC public school students be taught about the “nuances of Jihad” as part of a social studies course, given its significance in today’s world? Of course, students should learn what a variety of different Islamic movements have had to say on this topic, rather than just one opinion.

Of course, students should be taught about other major world religions too, in a non-preferential way. As far as I can tell, opponents of the school have not proven that the topic of religion was actually dealt with inappropriately.

On the “Atlas Shrugs” and “Stop the Madressa” blogs, there are also a lot of complaints about discipline problems in the school after Debbie Almontaser resigned. But, surely, wouldn’t that be more the responsibility of the current administration than the former principal?

Anyhow, discipline problems are an entirely separate matter from the alleged “madrassa” issue.

The rest of the page is mostly just more guilt-by-association, for the most part.

My response to some statements by Danial Pipes

More commentary can be found on Daniel Pipes’s blog, in his post On New York’s “Khalil Gibran International Academy” by Daniel Pipes, Wed, 7 Mar 2007, updated Mon, 28 Apr 2008. Daniel Pipes is at least a better writer and better educated-sounding than most of these other folks, but he, too, relies almost exclusively on guilt by association.

In addition, he makes a few particularly stupid (in my opinion) objections. For example:

Second, Almontaser denies that Arab Muslims carried out the 9/11 atrocities, telling sixth-graders she taught: “I don’t recognize the people who committed the attacks as either Arabs or Muslims.”

I would consider this to be a statement of dis-association rather than denial.

If someone were to commit atrocitries in the name of Christianity, wouldn’t a lot of Christians say they don’t consider that person to be a true Christian? (And wouldn’t they say this even though, historically, many atrocities have indeed been committed in the name of Christianity, e.g. burning heretics at the stake?) Similarly, some people might say that the Bush administration’s use of torture is un-American.

The Sun article additionally indicates that the KGIA will serve as a place to make Arab students feel at home. “While Khalil Gibran’s organizers say the school’s main focus is academic, they also said the school could help to integrate Arab families into New York society by providing the school community with health services, counseling, youth leadership development, and English as a second language classes for parents.” The article quotes Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor at Brooklyn College and co-editor of The Edward Said Reader, saying that “It’s not uncommon for Arab students to feel isolated — I think it’s seen as a foothold.” That the school is in large part intended for native Arabic-speakers to learn English is supported by the “English Language Learner Grants” for which it is eligible. The school sounds like a place to indulge Arab grievances and support Arab immigrants. It worries me that the school’s purpose is not really to teach Arabic to non-Arabs.

Can’t a school have more than one purpose? How does the first purpose prove that the second purpose isn’t real? The two purposes complement each other, it seems to me.

In a separate posting, Beila Rabinowitz points out Almontaser’s fashion evolution of late, from frumpy cowl to chic headscarf with jewelry. Wonder why she’d do that.

There was much laughter about this objection at last night’s forum.

Apr. 28, 2007 update: In a comment on this article on the New York Sun site, one of the members of the KGIA Advisory Council, Daniel Meeter, helpfully provides a list of that council’s makeup:

  • Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter, Old First Reformed Church
  • Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, Abyssinian Baptist Church
  • Rev. Dr. Charles H. Straut Jr., The Riverside Church
  • Rev. Khader N. El-Yateem, Salem Arabic Lutheran Church
  • Rabbi Andy Backman, Congregation Beth Elohim
  • Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, Rabbis for Human Rights
  • Rabbi Micah Kelber, The Bay Ridge Jewish Center
  • Lisel Burns, Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture
  • Imam Talib Abdul-Rashid, Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, Harlem
  • Imam Shamsi Ali, 96th St. Mosque, Manhattan
  • Imam Khalid Latif, Chaplain, NYPD

Comment: If the KGIA has no religious content, then why is every one of its advisory council members a reverend, rabbi, or imam, plus one Ethical Culture representative? Is this not a blatant contradiction?

Any decent high school curriculum will include some information about the history and teachings of the major religions. The important question is not whether there is any “religious content,” but whether religion is discussed in an objective and nonpartisan way. Given that the possibility of religious bias has been a matter of public concern regarding this school, what better way would there to ensure neutrality than to have a bunch of advisors representing different religions (plus one representative of the organized atheist/humanist movement)? Surely a bunch of clergy advisors would be better for this purpose than a bunch of laypeople.

Such a religiously diverse advisory board could have made a great supervisory board, along the lines that Daniel Pipes himself has called for elsewhere. However, the KCIA advisory board’s purposes seem to have revolved around public relations, without any supervisory authority.

Further down on the page, Daniel Pipes writes:

Comment: How does Klein reconcile the completely religious nature of KGIA’s advisory council (see the Apr. 28, 2007 update above) with his assertion now that “If any school became a religious school, as some people say Khalil Gibran would be, … I would shut it down”?

A religious school is one that teaches a particular religion. The advisory board of a religious school would consist of clergy of just one religion, not a bunch of different religions plus an atheist/humanist leader.

Aug. 27, 2007 update: The Thomas More Law Center, a Christian public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, announced that it is representing New Yorkers opposed to the opening of the KGIA in just over a week. “This proposed public school is nothing more than an incubator for the radicalization that leads to terrorism,” says Richard Thompson, president of the center.

Sheesh!

Another thing: In various parts of the above-discussed article, Daniel Pipes exhibits a general prejudice against what he calls “coddling” the grievances of immigrants. I’m not sure what he means by this or what his problem with it is. To me it seems only reasonable to take steps to protect immigrant children from harassment by other students, for example. Anyhow, given his remarks about “coddling” the grievances of immigrants, it seems that Daniel Pipes’s concern isn’t solely with church-state separation issues or with preventing terrorism and extremism. He seems to have another agenda too, about which the above-discussed article isn’t clear. Perhaps he has discussed it in other writings of his and assumes his readers will know what he’s talking about? Or perhaps he’s just making an appeal to generic anti-immigrant prejudice? All I can tell from his remarks about immigrants in the the above-quoted article is that he seems to have a general tendency to dismiss the concerns of immigrants.

Whatever his reasons for that tendency, it’s a complicating factor. To say the least, it would make dialog on the other issues much more difficult.

P.S., 5/26/2008: The quote from this post on the FrontPage magazine site

My post, above, has been quoted on the FrontPage magazine site in an article titled Fantasizing “The New McCarthyism” by Phil Orenstein, FrontPageMagazine.com, Friday, May 23, 2008. Below is an excerpt from a comment I posted here:

To Phil Orenstein: Quote out of context, etc.

I’m quoted above as saying that Debbie Almontaser is “a traditionalist-leaning Muslim and as such, has ties to the more fundamentalist Muslim groups.” You left out a crucial first part of that statement of mine: “It does appear that ….” I don’t know her personally, and I’m certainly no expert on her actual religious orientation, or on what groups she has ties to or how close any given tie is. The blog entry you quoted was merely my preliminary attempt to piece the story together from what people on both sides of the controversy had to say. I’m surprised that you deemed me worthy of quoting on this particular matter at all; don’t you have any better sources?

By the way, if you were wondering what the campaign against Debbie Almontaser has in common with McCarthyism, it is precisely your obsession with guilt-by-association, even to the point of quoting not-very-knowledgeable sources (such as, in this case, me) about someone’s associations.

I*ll have more to say about Phil Orenstein’s article in a subsequent post. For now I just want to clarify that my impression of Debbie Almontaser’s religious orientation, and of the groups that she has the closest ties with, is only a preliminary impression, not something I know for sure. There is a possibility that I might be wrong about this.

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