Daniel Pipes provides the background:
March 7, 2007
Sarah Garland reports in the New York Sun about Brooklyn’s soon-to-be-established Khalil Gibran International Academy:
A new public secondary school that is to include Middle Eastern studies in its curriculum will focus on culture, not the region’s political conflicts, Department of Education officials said yesterday. “The school will not be a vehicle for political ideology,” a Department of Education spokesman, David Cantor, said of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, due to open this September in Brooklyn.
As for the sorts of topics the school will cover, the CEO of the Office of New Schools, Garth Harries, gave as an example a math lesson plan that would mention that an Arabic mathematician invented the concept of zero. “It’s going to follow Department of Education regulations,” the director of the Arab-American Family Support Center, Lena Alhusseini, who helped design the school, said. “It’s going to be exactly like all the schools in the city, the same curriculum.”
My take on the school: In principle it is a great idea – the United States needs more Arabic-speakers. In practice, however, Arabic instruction is heavy with Islamist and Arabist overtones and demands. For one powerful first-hand example of this problem at the collegiate level, see “Middlebury’s Arabic Morass” by Franck Salameh. He explains:
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 another specific case, see Shukri B. Abed, Focus on Contemporary Arabic: Conversations with Native Speakers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007); YUP conveniently has posted the table of contents (if backwards), where one chapter deals with “The Question of Palestine.” The chapter contains eleven readings. To give an example of their flavor, the fifth of them states that the “Palestinian problem” is at base an issue of justice in which the Palestinians are the victims of a double standard.
For the heavy Islamic freight that Arabic instruction carries, see “Does Learning Arabic Prevent Moral Decay?” where one learns that some Muslims believe “Knowledge of Arabic can then help the Western countries recover from the present moral decay.” (This is not as surprising as it sounds, for Muslims commonly assume that a non-Muslim who learns Arabic is en route to conversion to Islam; I experienced this many times during my Cairo years.) Evidence from Algeria also points to the impact of Arabic instruction, as documented in James Coffman’s breakthrough 1995 article “Does the Arabic Language Encourage Radical Islam?” He compared Algerian students taught in French versus those taught in Arabic and found that
Arabized students show decidedly greater support for the Islamist movement and greater mistrust of the West. Arabized students tend to repeat the same simplistic stories and rumors that abound in the Arabic-language press, particularly Al-Munqidh, the newspaper of the Islamic Salvation Front. They tell about sightings of the word “Allah” written in the afternoon sky, the infiltration into Algeria of Israeli women spies infected with AIDS, the “disproving” of Christianity on a local religious program, and the mass conversion to Islam by millions of Americans. I was not the only one to notice this distinction. When asked if the new, Arabized students differed from the other students, many students and faculty answered an emphatic yes.
Coffman also find a similar trend in other Arabic-speaking countries:
because Arabs draw so close a connection between classical Arabic and the faith of Islam, Arabization invariably leads to an identification with the (supranational) Islamic religious tradition. Even the most secular Arab nationalits (such as the Ba‘thist variants in Syria and Iraq) must appeal to Islamic symbolism to bolster sagging legitimacy and to mobilize the masses (as Saddam Husayn did in his wars against Iran and the U.S.-led coalition). Hence, Arab nationalism has, however inadvertently, contributed to the rise of Islamism. Indeed, today’s Islamist surge is the natural, perhaps inevitable consequence of the Arab nationalist policies of thirty years ago.
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.” These sound like code words for indulging Arab grievances and worry me.
For all these reason, an Arabic-language school in New York needs to be held under special scrutiny.
But political correctness will make such scrutiny impossible. One can see the kernel of this denial in the statement by John Ali-Habib, vice chairman of Brooklyn’s Republican Party and a member of the school’s planning committee: “There’s an Asian school opening in Flushing. It’s the same thing.” But it’s precisely not the same thing.
Therefore, unless such controls are clearly put in place, I am opposed to the opening of this school. (March 7, 2007)
Dhabah ( “Debbie”) Almontaser, principal-designate of New York City’s Khalil Gibran International Academy.
Mar. 10, 2007 update: It turns out that my abstract concern has real substance to it. Beila Rabinowitz establishes that the school’s principal, Dhabah (or “Debbie”) Almontaser received an award from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and that the school was designed in part by the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC). Need one say more? CAIR is an Islamist group that is on the enemy’s side in the war on terror while ADC includes a motley collection of leftist and Islamist extremists. Their association with this school confirms my worries about it. I again call for it not to be opened.Mar. 16, 2007 update: (1) A number of readers have pointed out, correctly, that the above excerpt includes a mistake in it; contrary to Garith Harries, no “Arabic mathematician invented the concept of zero.” Zero was an Indian invention that the Arabs adopted. As a reader puts it, “Harries really let the cat out of the bag, revealing that the new school with be ethnic cheerleading at its worst.” Another reason not to establish this school. (2) John Abi-Habib has written me to indicate that the Sun misreported the spelling of his name.
Apr. 13, 2007 update: In “Khalil Gibran School – A Jihad Grows in Brooklyn,” Beila Rabinowitz and William A. Mayer provide extensive information on “the players within the Arabic community who are KGIA’s primary advocates and who will be intimately involved in designing and running it.” Specifically, they look in detail at four individuals – Dhabah ( “Debbie”) Almontaser, Emira Habiby-Browne, Ahmad Jaber, Assad Jebara – and two organizations (the Arab American Family Support Center and Alwan for the Arts). The authors term the KGIA a “program built on a series of lies, whose only function will be to divide” and predict that it will be a “government-funded madrassah.”
Apr. 14, 2007 update: Almontaser replies to my critique that in practice, “Arabic instruction is heavy with Islamist and Arabist overtones and demands” in an Associated Press article, “Plans for NYC Arabic school draw protests, ‘jihad’ labels“:
“Being that we are a public school, we certainly are not going to be teaching religion,” said Almontaser, 39. “Islam does not have a culture. Islam is a religion.” How will the school teach about sensitive topics such as colonialism and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis? “Teachers are going to be expected to provide students with multiple perspectives on whatever the issue is,” Almontaser said. “Students will, through the critical-thinking skills that they will develop, make informed decisions on the perspective that they want to believe. It’s going to be quite difficult to do, but that is a priority.”
Apr. 16, 2007 update: A later version of the same AP story, now titled “Proposed NYC Public School Causes Stir,” provides some key differences. (1) Almontaser now asserts that the school will teach the Arab-Israeli conflict, confirming my concern above:
“Being that we are a public school, we certainly are not going to be teaching religion,” said Almontaser, 39. “Islam does not have a culture. Islam is a religion.” She said the school won’t shy away from sensitive topics such as colonialism and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. “Teachers are going to be expected to provide students with multiple perspectives on whatever the issue is,” Almontaser said. “Students will, through the critical-thinking skills that they will develop, make informed decisions on the perspective that they want to believe.”
(2) The reporter, Nahal Toosi, adds that the school “would be one of a few nationwide that incorporate the Arabic language and Islamic culture.” Note the quiet insertion of Islamic culture, however, just as I predicted.
Also today, William A. Mayer and Beila Rabinowitz provide three important new pieces of information about principal-designate Dhabah Almontaser.
First, during the trial of Shahawar Matin Siraj for attempting to blow up the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan, a case that relied on informants, New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly met with a group of 150 Muslims to hear their “concerns about issues of public safety.” According to a New York Times report on the meeting: “Debbie Almontaser, a board member of a Muslim women’s organization [Women In Islam, Inc.], told Mr. Kelly that she was saddened that the police had resorted to ‘F.B.I. tactics,’ and that she thought this was polarizing the Muslim community. Applause swept the room.” As Mayer and Rabinowitz note, “In Almontaser’s insular world, preventing a crime that could have killed hundreds is viewed as ‘polarizing.'”
Principal-designate Dhabah Almontaser before her makeover.
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.”Third, Almontaser likened the American response to 9/11 to that of a totalitarian regime: “Right here in this community …we stated to see people literally disappearing. … The police came and took them in the middle of the night and we were, like, ‘What is going on?'”
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.
Comment: Making Almontaser the principal of KGIA virtually guarantees troubles ahead.
Apr. 24, 2007 update: I have written a column on this subject, “A Madrasa Grows in Brooklyn.”
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?
May 4, 2007 update: Almontaser claims not to be upset by objections to the KGIA: “Quite frankly, I don’t let it bother me. I don’t lose sleep over it. My main objective is the opening of the school.” This quote comes in a puff piece by Julie Bosman in the New York Times, “Plan for Arabic School in Brooklyn Spurs Protests,” where the debate over KGIA is deemed “a test of tolerance — and its limits — in post-9/11, multiethnic New York.” As for Almontaser, Bosman describes her as someone who “who organized peace rallies and urged tolerance after the attacks of Sept. 11” and “known as a moderate active in interfaith groups,” then provides many quotes in her favor. The criticism of her is called “preposterous,” “heartbreaking,” and” outrageous.”
The article does contain some news, specifically:
- The New York City school chancellor, Joel I. Klein, “is considering other locations for the school, or even postponing the opening for a year. … Since a location has not been confirmed yet, the Education Department has not been able to accept applications formally. At this point in the year, most fifth graders already know where they will be attending sixth grade in the fall.”
- The school is to enroll 81 students for the 2007-08 school year in the sixth grade only.
- “Almontaser said she planned a curriculum that was not religion-based, and that would include the history and contributions of the Arab people.” Comment: “include the history and contributions of the Arab people” suggests can be benign or not; again, this school requires special supervision.
And I am quoted in this article saying, “What you find is that the materials that are included in an Arabic curriculum have a natural tendency to promote Islam.”
May 5, 2007 update: The KGIA was supposed to share a building with a Brooklyn elementary school, PS 282 in Park Slope, but the parents there all along protested this intrusion on the grounds that younger children should not be mixed with older ones. News comes today that the parents got their way and the Department of Education has dropped plans for the shared building idea, conceding that “Siting the Khalil Gibran International Academy at the school would be detrimental to its core academic programs.” But the department insists this decision is just logistical and unrelated to the controversy over the school’s very existence, and that it remains committed to opening the school.
Almontaser was quoted saying that the parents’ concerns were “valid” and she was not disappointed by the decision. She also says religion is not part of the KGIA curriculum but the Arabs’ culture, history, and “contributions” are. “With any language that you learn you need to learn about the people and their customs and their history to develop effectively in that language, in order not to offend people when speaking the language.” She has to say this, for Joel Klein a few days earlier stated that “If any school became a religious school, as some people say Khalil Gibran would be, … I would shut it down. I promise you that.”
In response to Militant Islam Monitor’s noting of Almontaser’s fashion changes (see Apr. 16, 2007 update, above), Almontaser says, “I have to say that I’m really flattered. I’m flattered that there’s so much attention being paid to me, especially about how I dress.”
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”?
May 6, 2007 update: In a puff piece on the KGIA (complete with nasty asides about the New York Sun coverage of this issue), the International Herald Tribune paraphrases Melanie Meyer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education saying that the KGIA “will follow a college preparatory program, which involves a rather closely controlled course of study with required testing of results. So even if the new school has, say, the history of the Middle East taught in Arabic, it will most likely not play host to fanatics using the Koran to justify the cult of death.” In a quote, Meyer then reiterates Klein’s promise (see the May 5, 2007 update, above): “This school is not a tool for political or religious ideology, and we’ll close it if it shows any indication that that’s what it will become.”
Also curious is this understanding of KGIA’s purpose by the IHT article’s author, Richard Bernstein: “Most people who knew about it seemed to see it as a reasonable gesture to an Arab immigrant community that often feels estranged from the surrounding American society.” For that matter, Bosman in the New York Times (see the May 4, 2007 update, above) refers to KGIA as “conceived as a public embrace of New York City’s growing Arab population and of internationalism.” Foolish me – I thought the school was about Arabic-language instruction, when it seems really to be about a good-will gesture to Arabic-speakers.
May 7, 2007 update: Garth Harries, the chief executive of the “Office of New Schools” at New York City’s Department of Education, replied to one letter writer protesting the KGIA thus:
Subj: Khalil Gibran International Academy
Dear XX –
Thank you for writing Chancellor Klein regarding the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) and forwarding the message that you sent to Mayor Bloomberg. They have asked me to respond on their behalf.
KGIA is opening in partnership with New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit group that has helped create dozens of new small schools in recent years, and the Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSC), a Brooklyn secular social service agency. The Khalil Gibran International Academy will be located in Brooklyn, serving grades 6 to 12, and will offer a challenging multicultural curriculum through standard and project-based learning. The program integrates intensive Arabic language instruction and the study of Middle Eastern history and historical figures to enliven learning across all subject areas. The goal is to prepare students for college and successful careers, and to foster an understanding of different cultures, a love of learning, and desire for excellence in all of its students. Here are some key points about the school:
- KGIA is a non-religious New York City public school. It is not a vehicle for political or religious ideology and if the school is used this way, we will close it.
- KGIA will follow New York City standard, non-screened enrollment policy and will serve students from diverse backgrounds, Arab and non-Arab alike.
- KGIA will adhere to all State and City educational standards.
- KGIA is not the first public school to teach Arabic; Fort Hamilton High School and Stuyvesant High School also teach Arabic
- New York City offers many other public school programs with cultural themes, including Asian studies and Latin American studies. New York City also has over 60 dual language programs, focusing on languages including Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Chinese.
In New York City, many public schools use themed-based approaches that help to inform and enrich curriculum across subject areas. KGIA resembles other second language intensive schools, like Shuang Wen Academy, which emphasize Chinese language and culture. KGIA is one such school with an Arabic language and Middle Eastern culture theme. KGIA may apply its theme by, for example, studying the ancient Arab approach to astronomy in science classes or studying the history of Arab instruments or tapestries in music and art classes.
Through its partnership with its lead partner, AAFSC, KGIA will offer students and their families a range of services including adult ESL, parenting classes, and leadership programs for youth. The school will also offer programs in conflict resolution, supported by Educators for Social Responsibility and the Tenanbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, two non-profit organizations specializing in this area.
Your letter suggested that the school should include teachers from other faiths. While teachers are still being hired for the school, the planning team for the school included people from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths and many cultural backgrounds, including Caribbean-, Hispanic-, Chinese-, Syrian-Jewish-, and Arab-Americans. As the school hires teachers, there can be no discrimination based on applicants’ race, ethnicity or religion. Indeed the school hopes to have a diverse staff, similar to the planning team.
The Arabic curriculum will be developed by the school’s multi-cultural staff and will be taught by staff from the Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSC), with a New York State certified teacher in the classroom. KGIA will rely on their partner for Arabic language teachers because of a shortage of state certified Arabic teachers. As the school grows to capacity, the principal hopes to add Hebrew instruction to the elective course offerings at the school.
In addition, the leader of the school has participated in the A World of Difference training with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Both the ADL and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) have worked with the school leader and expressed their support for her.
Your letter also raised concern about the AAFSC and their sources of funding. The AAFSC is a secular social service agency with a long track record of helping New Yorkers. According to their website, the AAFSC receives major funding from
- New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS)
- New York City Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD)
- New York State Office of Family and Children’s Services
- Daphne Foundation
- Independence Community Foundation
- Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services
- Marilyn M. Simpson Charitable Trust
- National Network of Arab-American Communities
- New York Community Trust
- New York Foundation
- South Brooklyn Legal Services
- Taproot Foundation
- William T. Grant Foundation
- Community Resource Exchange
Thank you again for writing to the Chancellor.
Office of New Schools
May 9, 2007 update: The city Department of Education announced that it has found a location for the KGIA for the next two years. It will open doors at 345 Dean Street, in the same building as two other schools, the Brooklyn High School of the Arts and the Math & Science Exploratory School, and that’s that: “This is not a tentative decision,” said David Cantor, department spokesman. “The school will open at this site in September.”
May 15, 2007 update: At a PTA meeting to discuss KGIA’s landing at 345 Dean Street, what are described as “a few outside agitators aiming to stir alarm about Khalil Gibran’s focus on Arabic culture” raised some good questions about the projected school, according to an account at InsideSchools.org:
“Will the school teach Sharia law?” one attendee asked, referring to Islamic law. A parent shouted out, “Will Israel be on the maps?” “It’s not about space, it’s about indoctrination,” shouted another.
Comment: The report implies that these “disrespectful” questions were brushed aside and not replied to.
May 16, 2007 update: Looking at “an optional application for all 5th grade students in Brooklyn who are interested in applying to a New Middle School” titled “The New York City Department of Education 2007-2008 Middle School Application for New Brooklyn Schools Accepting 6th Graders,” I note that today is the deadline for applying to the Khalil Gibran International Academy. One has to wonder how many parents of 5th graders have enrolled their children in a school whose location, the form indicates, is yet unknown (“Address To Be Announced”). An inquiry to “Enrollment Center – Region 8” about late applications indicates that maybe one a day late will be accepted.
May 19, 2007 update: In an interview, “Almontaser speaks! Gibran school principal stares down her critics,” the KGIA principal-designate is asked about me by the left-wing Brooklyn Paper and replies:
Q: What do you say to conservative critics like Daniel Pipes, who called Arabic language instruction “inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage?”
A: He studied the Arabic language as a Middle Eastern historian and he seems to have done really well at still maintaining his roots and his identity. And I’m confident that we will be able to teach students Arabic as a second language and make sure they maintain their identity as he has.
Comment: Clever reply but, as I noted in 2000 on my website, “Wilson Bishai and Annemarie Schimmel were my Arabic teachers.” Neither of them were pan-Arabists or Islamists.
May 22, 2007 update: I published today a second column on the Khalil Gibran International Academy, “The Travails of Brooklyn’s Arabic Academy.”