When Dhabah “Debbie” Almontaser resigned as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy on August 10, her action culminated a remarkable grassroots campaign in which concerned citizens successfully criticized the New York City establishment. But the fight goes on. 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 joined with specialists – among them 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 Bloomberg and the schools 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 press clearly supported the KGIA’s opening and Ms. Almontaser as principal, while denouncing their critics.
Unrelenting efforts by the coalition eventually led to the development in early August that caused Ms. Almontaser to resign. One of its leaders, Pamela Hall, photographed T-shirts bearing the words “Intifada NYC,” which 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. Ms. Almontaser, it turns out, is both a board member and the spokeswoman for the Saba Association.
The T-shirts’ call for a Palestinian Arab-style uprising in the five boroughs, admittedly, had only the most tenuous connection to Ms. 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 apparently she could not resist the opportunity to defend the 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 apology for suicide terrorism undid Ms. Almontaser’s months of silence and years of work, prompting scathing editorials and denunciations by politicians. Perhaps most devastating was a harsh letter from the president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, who previously had supported Ms. Almontaser. Ms. 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,” Mr. Klein insisted after Ms. Almontaser’s resignation. Fine, but KGIA’s prospects for opening on September 4 remain clouded. Count its problems: The school has only an interim, non-Arabic-speaking principal; it has only five teachers; and it is 25% undersubscribed by students. In addition, it faces the outspoken opposition of politicians such as Assemblyman Dov Hikind and is wildly unpopular; an unscientific America Online poll of 180,000 subscribers found that more than four-fifths of the public is unsympathetic to the school.
Ms. Almontaser’s departure, however welcome, does not change the rest of the 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, as America 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 schools chancellor suggest that such steps are emphatically not under way. 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.
Mr. Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is director of the Middle East Forum.