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Come September, an Arabic-language public secondary school (grades 6-12) is slated to open its doors in Brooklyn. New York City's Department of Education explains that the Khalil Gibran International Academy will boast a "multicultural curriculum and intensive Arabic-language instruction."
This appears to be a marvelous idea, for New York and the country need native-born Arabic speakers. They have a role in the military, diplomacy, intelligence, the courts, the media, the academy and many other institutions - and teaching languages to the young is the ideal way to polyglotism. As someone who himself spent years learning Arabic, I am enthusiastic in principle about the idea of this school, one of the first of its kind in the United States.
In practice, however, I strongly oppose the KGIA and predict that its establishment will generate serious problems. I say this because Arabic language instruction is inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage. Some examples:
At the most prestigious American-language school, Middlebury College in Vermont, Franck Salameh taught Arabic and found that "even as students leave Middlebury with better Arabic, they also leave indoctrinated with a tendentious Arab nationalist reading of Middle Eastern history.
Permeating lectures and carefully-designed grammatical drills, Middlebury instructors push the idea that Arab identity trumps local identities and that respect for minority ethnic and sectarian communities betrays Arabism."
For an example of such grammatical drills, see the just-published book of Arabic instruction by Shukri B. Abed, Focus on Contemporary Arabic: Conversations with Native Speakers (Yale University Press), where one chapter is titled "The Question of Palestine." Its intensely politicized readings would be unimaginable in a book of French or Spanish conversations.
THE ISLAMIST dimension worries me also. A California-based organization that lobbies for Arabic instruction, the Arabic Language Institute Foundation, claims that knowledge of Islam's holy language can help the West recover from what its leader, Akhtar H. Emon, calls its "moral decay."
In other words, Muslims tend to see non-Muslims learning Arabic as a step toward an eventual conversion to Islam, an expectation I often encountered while studying Arabic in Cairo in the 1970s.
Also, learning Arabic in itself promotes an Islamic outlook, as James Coffman showed in 1995, looking at evidence from Algeria. Comparing students taught in French and in Arabic, he found that "Arabized students show decidedly greater support for the Islamist movement and greater mistrust of the West." Those Arabized students, Coffman notes, more readily believed in "the infiltration into Algeria of Israeli women spies infected with AIDSâ€¦ the mass conversion to Islam by millions of Americans," and other Islamist nonsense.
SPECIFICS about the KGIA confirm these apprehensions, including its roster of sponsors and enthusiasts. The school's key figure, principal-designate Dhabah ("Debbie") Almontaser, has a record of extremist views, as William A. Mayer and Beila Rabinowitz have shown at PipeLineNews.org.
Arabs or Muslims, Almontaser says, are innocent of the 9/11 atrocities: "I don't recognize the people who committed the attacks as either Arabs or Muslims." Instead, she blames 9/11 on Washington's foreign policies, saying they "can have been triggered by the way the USA breaks its promises with countries across the world, especially in the Middle East, and the fact that it has not been a fair mediator."
At a community meeting with the New York Police Department commissioner, she berated the NYPD for using "FBI tactics" when informants were used to prevent a subway station bombing, thereby polarizing the Muslim community. For Almontaser, it appears, preventing terrorism counts less than soothing Muslim sensibilities.
She calls George W. Bush a "nightmare" who is "trying to destroy the United States."
Rewarding these views, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a foreign-funded front organization, in 2005 bestowed an honor on Almontaser for her "numerous contributions" to the protection of civil liberties.
Her intentions for the KGIA should raise alarms. An Associated Press report paraphrases her saying that "the school won't shy away from sensitive topics such as colonialism and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis," and she notes that the school will "incorporate the Arabic language and Islamic culture."
Islamic culture? Not what was advertised - but imbuing pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism, proselytizing for Islam, and promoting Islamist sympathies will predictably make up the school's true curriculum.
To express your concerns about this planned Arabic school, please write the New York City chancellor, Joel Klein, at JKlein@schools.nyc.gov.
The writer is director of the Middle East Forum.