Martin Sheen is getting plenty of recognition for his human rights work: He will receive Pax Christi Metro New York's 2008 Peacemaker award on Palm Sunday, March 16. So will Debbie Almontaser. And therein lies the story.
Almontaser, a Muslim who migrated to New York from Yemen at the age of 3, was the victim of what New York Times education columnist Sam Freedman called "a concerted exercise in character assassination" after city school authorities appointed her to be principal of the new Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn. The Arab-themed public school quickly became controversial, denounced by opponents as a "madrassa." Rather than engage in legitimate debate about whether the school is a good idea, certain opponents - echoed in two newspapers, The New York Sun and New York Post - smeared Almontaser as un-American. (For some of the ugly details, see Freedman's article published last Aug. 29.) In the face of nasty press, Almontaser says, city school officials forced her to resign from the post.
It was stunning, since Almontaser is well known among community leaders in Brooklyn for the work she does to encourage ethnic tolerance. She is, for example, one of the stars of a Voice of America documentary that aims to show the rest of the world how Muslims and Orthodox Jews, among others, live side by side in relative peace and tolerance in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Those who smeared Almontaser or caved in to the attacks have transmitted the opposite impression of their country.
And so it is good to know that Debbie Almontaser will join Martin Sheen (and Ruth and Betty Cypser) on Palm Sunday in being honored as a peacemaker. The award itself is a gesture of peace.