Stop the NYC madrassa

The problem with the Arabic school would be its tendency to Islamist content and proselytizing.

Muslim women 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Muslim women 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
When Dhabah ("Debbie") Almontaser resigned on August 10 as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, her action culminated a remarkable grass-roots campaign in which concerned citizens successfully criticized the New York City establishment. But the fight continues. The next step is to get the academy itself canceled. The five-month effort to get Almontaser removed began in March with analyses (including one by this writer) pointing out the inherent political and religious problems in an Arabic-language school. By June, a concerned group of New York City residents coalesced with specialists (including my colleague, R. John Matthies) to create the "Stop the Madrassa Coalition" with the goal of preventing an avowed Islamist from heading a taxpayer-funded school. The coalition, made up of some 150 people, energetically did research, attended events, peppered public officials (notably Mayor Michael Bloomberg and School Chancellor Joel Klein) with letters, collared journalists, and spoke on radio shows and national television. The odds seemed impossibly long, especially as the city government and most of the city's media clearly supported the KGIA's opening and Almontaser as principal, while denouncing their critics. UNRELENTING efforts by the coalition eventually led to the development in early August that caused Almontaser to resign. Pamela Hall, one of its leaders, photographed T-shirts with "Intifada NYC" written on them that were sold by an organization, "Arab Women Active in Art and Media," that shares office space in Brooklyn with the "Saba Association of American Yemenis." Almontaser, it turns out, is both a board member and the spokeswoman for the Saba Association. This call for a Palestinian-style uprising in the five boroughs, admittedly, had only the most tenuous connection to Almontaser. She could have maintained her months-old silence, which was serving her well. But the KGIA principal also has a long history of speaking out about politics and she seemingly could not resist the opportunity to defend the T-shirts, telling the New York Post that the word intifada basically means "shaking off. That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic. I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don't believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City. I think it's pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society . . . and shaking off oppression." THIS GRATUITOUS little apology for suicide terrorism undid Almontaser's months of silence and years of work, prompting scathing editorials and denunciations by politicians. Perhaps most devastating was a harsh letter from Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, who had previously supported Almontaser. Almontaser submitted an angry resignation letter just four days after the publication of her statement apologizing for intifada. "I remain committed to the success of Khalil Gibran International Academy," Chancellor Klein insisted after Almontaser's resignation. Fine, but KGIA's prospects of opening on September 4, 2007, remain clouded. Count its problems: the school has only an interim, non-Arabic-speaking principal, it has only five teachers, and is 25 percent undersubscribed by students. Plus, it faces the outspoken opposition of politicians like Assemblyman Dov Hikind and is wildly unpopular; an unscientific America Online poll of 180,000 subscribers found over 4/5ths of the public unsympathetic to the school. Almontaser's departure, however welcome, does not change the rest of the problematic school's personnel, much less address the more basic problems implicit in an Arabic-language school - the tendency to Islamist and Arabist content and proselytizing. TO REITERATE my initial assessment in March, the KGIA is in principle a great idea, for the United States needs more Arabic-speakers. In practice, however, Arabic-language instruction needs special scrutiny. The city, in other words, could take steps to make the KGIA acceptable by dispensing with the existing set of goals, fundamentally rethinking its mission, appointing a new advisory board, hiring new staff, and imposing the necessary educational and political controls. Unfortunately, statements by the mayor and the school chancellor suggest that such steps are emphatically not underway. Until and unless the city leadership changes its approach to the KGIA, I shall continue to call for the school not to open until it is properly restructured and supervised. Readers who agree should write Chancellor Joel Klein at and inform him of your views. The writer is director of the Middle East Forum.