SHOW: Talk of the Nation 8:00 PM EST
NEAL CONAN, Host
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. New York City's Khalil Gibran School provoked controversy even before it opened. Proponents declared it would be a public school for children of all backgrounds to learn Arabic and go on to college as ambassadors of peace and hope. Critics described it as a madrasa headed by a radical Islamist with plans to proselytize her students.
The principal resigned before the school year began, but the school, indeed, the idea of Arabic public schools continues to generate debate. Some argue that Arabic public schools would inevitably teach Islam as well, a constitutional issue. Others worry that such schools could have hidden agendas. Supporters insist that Arabic schools are no different than those that specialize in Spanish or Chinese and say at least some of the critics oppose any institution that would portray Arabs and Arabic culture in a positive light.
Later this hour, some schools in Texas keep track of serial truants with GPS monitors. But first, is there an Arabic public school in your town? What if one was to be proposed? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. We begin with Andrea Elliot, a reporter for the New York Times, has been covering this story for the New York Times who's been covering this story. She joins us from our bureau in New York and thanks very much for coming in.
Ms. ANDREA ELLIOT (Reporter, New York Times): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: This is not a simple story, and as you have described it in the Times, it has become incendiary. Ultimately, what do you think this controversy was about?
Ms. ELLIOT: I think the fight over the school really came to symbolize a much larger struggle that is playing out around the country. I would characterize it as a clash between Muslims who are trying to reclaim their image and place in American society in the years after 9/11 and critics who say that Muslims in the country are imposing their religious values in the public domain.
So right after 9/11, you really had a scenario where many Muslims felt under siege. They did not have a voice in politics or much of a voice in the social arena, and now, more than seven years later, America has its first Muslim congressman. There is greater activity on the part of Muslim organizations, a greater assertiveness over civil liberties issues.
The question of where Debbie Almontaser, who is the founding principal of this school, fits into this is important. It's, you know, first of all, it should be noted that she says she never intended to bring religious teachings into her school. She was leading the school as an educator and an Arab, is what she says, not as a Muslim. But she is a well-known Muslim advocate, and Daniel Pipes and others have placed her school in what they see as pattern of Muslims seeking special treatment in this country.
CONAN: We're going to talk with Daniel Pipes and with Debbie Almontaser a bit later, but explain to us exactly how she became really the lightening rod of this whole controversy.
Ms. ELLIOT: Well, first, let me start by saying this is not the city's first school focused on one foreign language and culture. There are 66 other programs in New York City with instruction in Chinese, in Spanish, in Haitian-Creole, and other languages. But it was the first of these schools to really spark what became a prolonged and very heated conflict.
I'd say that it began in earnest last spring with an opinion piece published in the New York Sun by Mr. Pipes, who runs a conservative think tank in Philadelphia, and called the school a madrasa, which implies, at least in the West, often, a school that teaches Islam. And in addition to writing in this piece that Arabic language instruction is laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage, he called Ms. Almontaser's views extremist. And soon after that, a local group of activists started what they called the Stop the Madrasa Coalition, with Mr. Pipes as an advisor.
CONAN: And you've written that, at various points, city officials said, wait a minute, this is all proceeding, this is perfectly normal and proceeding perfectly. They backed Debbie Almontaser until an incident happened involving some t-shirts.
Ms. ELLIOT: Well, I think, actually, some of the background is important. You know, members of this group, who include a retired school teacher who taught Spanish for many years, have told me that they don't object to the teaching of Arabic, rather they object to public schools that specialize in one language and culture, and they struggled to get detailed information about the school.
But they couldn't, so Mr. Pipes actually told me that they focused on Ms. Almontaser. And up until then, she really had a reputation in New York as a moderate Muslim. But soon after the school is announced, you know, she began seeing herself depicted in the media and blogs as a Jihadist and a 9/11-denier.
Well, to support their claims, basically, her critics pointed to several things, that she had accepted an award from a large Muslim organization that they claim is linked to terrorist groups, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The group denies this. They pointed to newspaper articles, in which she was quoted as being critical of American foreign policy and domestic counter-terrorism efforts.
And this story really has a lot of dramatic turns because, as she came under attack, and not only did some school officials speak out on her defense, but also some Jewish leaders. She had worked after 9/11 to befriend major Jewish organizations and rabbis and priests and had done a lot of interfaith work. And the New York head of the, actually, the Anti-Defamation League defended her, and this prompted an Arab-American newspaper to run a cover story sharply critical of her. And I've heard ties with what they call the Zionist organization. So what's notable here is that she was being labeled a radical by one group and a sell-out by some members of the Arab and Muslim communities. So that just gives you a sense of the kind of conflicting images that were emerging around her.
And the critics of the school also were concerned about the school itself, and they talked about how the initial proposal for the school suggested that it might offer Halal food, and that the school's advisory council included three moms along with rabbis and priests - and this council has been disbanded - and also pointed to the fact that a number of community groups involved with the school had links to Islam. So that set off alarm bells.
And the controversy really reached its peak, I'd say, last summer, when a member of the Stop Madrasa Coalition photographed t-shirts that had the slogan Intifada NYC and were being distributed by a group that uses the office space of an organization affiliated with Ms. Almontaser. She sits on this organization's board.
And so the New York Post became interested in this story. And Ms. Almontaser, who says she (unintelligible) - she never - she had never heard of these t-shirts, told me that she was pressured to give them an interview by the city's department of education. And so that story really elevated this to a new level, this controversy.
The headline of the story was "City Principal Is Revolting Tied to Intifada NYC Shirts." And the article stated that she had downplayed the significance of the t-shirts and actually quoted her as saying that the girls distributing the shirts were quote, shaking off oppression, end quote. And so, for her part, she says she was misquoted, and that's an assertion that was recently backed up by federal judges in a ruling.
But this story set off a new round of attacks against her. Even from the, actually, from the head of the teacher's union. And so she told me that officials - and Ms. Almontaser said that officials from the department of education insisted that she issue an apology. She objected, and they, you know, they basically issued an apology in her name, she says, without her approval. And we've posted on the Times' website and email exchange that shows some of the back and forth over this. And a few days later, Ms. Almontaser said that she was forced to resign by the mayor's office.
CONAN: The school went ahead and opened, and again, there were some controversies. But well, it's almost the end of the school year. What's happened over this year?
Ms. ELLIOT: Well, the school itself, in terms of the status of the school, I was actually not given access to the school, but I did talk to a number of people who are eyewitnesses to what is happening there, including teachers, staff members, students. And it seems to be still quite a chaotic place.
Students actually, since it opened in the fall, students have been suspended for carrying weapons, They've gotten into fights. Repeatedly they've - I've had descriptions given to me of students running through the hallways unattended, flipping over tables, throwing things at teachers, throwing things at each other. I was told that several teachers have been assaulted. An Arabic teacher, actually, was called a terrorist by students there. So this was clearly not what Ms. Almontaser said she envisioned for the school, but the principal of the school says that things have gotten better.
CONAN: And at this point, the school plans to reopen next year?
Ms. ELLIOT: It does, in a new location.
CONAN: In a new location, with a big - better facility?
Ms. ELLIOT: With its own facility. Right now, it's sharing a facility with another school. So it, supposedly, will have a larger facility. But a number of parents have said that their children will not return to the school. It's not clear what that number is.
CONAN: Andrea, I know this is a complicated story. We appreciate it, your boiling it down for us. Thanks very much for your time today.
Ms. ELLIOT: Thank you.
CONAN: Andrea Elliot, a reporter for the New York Times, with us from our bureau in New York. Joining us now from the studios at Audio Post in Philadelphia is Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and a critic, as you heard, of the Khalil Gibran School. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Dr. DANIEL PIPES (Director, Middle East Forum): Thank you for the invitation to join you.
CONAN: And what's the objection?
Dr. PIPES: The objection, contrary to what Noah Feldman said at the top of the hour, has nothing to do with Arabic culture or language. I, indeed, from the very get go, said I love the idea. I think it's marvelous that there be intensive Arab instruction. Now, there are others who would disagree with me on this. But my position is, as someone who's studied Arabic starting at the age of 19, I sure would have loved to start at the age of 12. So I think it's a great idea.
My problem in the abstract was that I've seen over and over again that the instruction of Arabic implies either a political agenda or a religious agenda. I've documented this at various places, such as Middlebury College in Vermont or in Algeria or in a whole range of schools around the country. So great idea, but it has to be implemented properly. And then we begin to learn, not about the curriculum, not about the textbooks, not about the details, but we began to learn about Ms. Almontaser.
Unfortunately, the details of the schools have been kept from us. There's a kind of military security that was in place a year ago and is still there now. As you heard, Ms. Elliot was not allowed into the school. So we had to focus on what we knew about and much of that was the principal designate and the advisory board and the summery of plans, you know, bits and pieces. And what I saw disturbed me because, in fact, it confirmed my concern that it would have an Islamist agenda.
CONAN: Stay with us if you would, Daniel Pipes. We're going to take calls when we come back. 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com We'll also be speaking a bit later with Debbie Almontaser, the founder and founding principal of the Khalil Gibran School. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about the controversy over New York City's Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public school that specializes in Arab language, which has been met with threats and protests. We're talking with one of its critics, Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. A little later, we'll hear from the former principal and founder of the school.
How would you react if an Arabic language public school was proposed in your town? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can read what other listeners have to say on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And Daniel Pipes, I wanted you to expand on an idea or a phrase that I hear quoted from you in the New York Times article about this, lawful Islamists. What does that mean, and how does this affect this controversy?
Dr. PIPES: This little controversy is part of a much larger question. It has to do with the role of Islam, the role of Islamic law. 9/11 focused attention on terrorism, and that was very important. But terrorism is just one way of promoting the goals of radical Islam, radical Islam being defined as an effort to apply the Sharia in its fullness.
There are other ways, and, in particular I think the most significant way, is to work through the system, through the educational system, the political system, the religious hierarchy, social institutions, in a legitimate, political, nonviolent way. And I see the Khalil Gibran International Academy as one such example, and I think, in the long term, that has more potential than violence, criminality and terrorism.
CONAN: But you also just described it as both - as legitimate.
Dr. PIPES: It is legitimate. But it's legitimate to try and create an Islamist school, and it's legitimate for me to try and stop it. So it's a political argument. How do we want to see this country? Do we want to see this country give special dispensation to the Sharia, to Islamic law? Or even, indeed, have Sharia law applied, or do we not want it? And that's the political battle in which Ms. Almontaser's on one side, and I'm on the other. She wants that law. I don't want that law.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in the conversation. And we'll start with Jennifer, Jennifer calling us from Norman, Oklahoma.
JENNIFER (Caller): Hi. Two points about this witch hunt. One is that I think your listeners need to check out Daniel Pipes' record on his bigotry, his support for Japanese internment, censorship, opposition to Muslim voting, et cetera. I don't know why he's being considered a credible source on this issue.
Secondly, my husband is a professor of Arabic, and we have public institutions that teach Arabic. We have for over 40 years. They're called public universities. Some of the, you know, flagship universities that started teaching Arabic in this country were public universities, most notably the University of Michigan, UT Austin, University of Utah, and most of the people who are the high-level professors in the field of Arabic are actually not Muslim. There are a lot of people who are Christian Arabs, but there are also a lot of people who are just not Arab or Muslim at all. And they have been watching this, you know, story unfold and are very concerned about it.
You know, when Arabic is taught in the public universities, the text books have been used for 40 years, as well as the newer ones, they are secular. The curriculum is secular. Yes, there are mentions about what Islam is, or, for example, they may present, you know, a couple of chapters from the Koran for people to, you know, to practice reading because you cannot ultimately divide religion and culture. You have to teach the language, but you also have to teach people, these are some of the elements of the culture, which, of course, includes religion, that will help you understand what you're studying in the language. Does that mean that the students are made to pray and cover their heads? No, of course not.
And, you know, what people like Daniel Fife - Daniel Pipes, excuse me, define as Islamist politics is so broad as to be laughable were it not for the fact that they are hurting people with this definition. It's totally unfair to say that, well, if you teach Arabic, that's great but don't ever talk about Islam because, you know, then you would be teaching religion. So that's my comment.
CONAN: OK, let's give Daniel Pipes a chance to respond.
Dr. PIPES: I was under the impression that this was a responsible radio show, and that you'll not have insults hurled at me. Of course, I'm not going to answer someone who begins by insulting me. What kind of show is this, anyway?
CONAN: I apologize if you feel insulted, sir.
JENNIFER: You need to check his record. It's all I'm saying.
CONAN: Excuse me, Jennifer. Jennifer, you've had a chance to talk. We wanted to give Daniel Pipes a chance to talk, and I apologize if you feel you were insulted. But to the substance of what Jennifer had to say, about other institutions that have taught - well, do you feel - have a response to her charge that this was a witch hunt?
Dr. PIPES: Let me make it very clear what I was trying to do.
Dr. PIPES: Am trying to do.
Dr. PIPES: I believe in the instruction of Arabic. I myself learned Arabic at the university. I've spent years of my life learning Arabic. I think it's a great thing to do. I love the Arabic language. I love Middle Eastern culture. This has been a substantial part of my life for 40 years.
However, in the instruction of Arabic there's also implicit - often implicit, the notion that one should become a Muslim, that there is an Islamic agenda. I've seen this happen myself, and I give in my writings a number of documentations of this. It's not to say it's inevitable, but it is something that one should be concerned about.
There are plenty of instructors who do not do this. Indeed, my own instructor of Arabic in the late '60s was not doing this, either. But as we can see in case after case, for example, the Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy in the Minneapolis area, a school in San Diego, in Summerville, Massachusetts, in the Atlanta area, several in Ohio, case after case one finds that Arab instruction also implies a push towards Islam and, indeed, towards radical Islam. That's not a witch hunt. That's noting something, and it's criticizing it. And I wish my critics had the decency to respond to what I'm saying rather than to abuse me and call me names.
CONAN: And again, I apologize if you feel insulted, but it's clear this is an emotional and controversial issue, where emotional terms get thrown around quite a bit. Do you think it was fair, ultimately, for Debbie Almontaser to be branded as a Jihadist and an Islamic radical?
Dr. PIPES: I never called her a Jihadist, I never...
CONAN: I know you didn't.
Dr. PIPES: I never called her a terrorist. Well, I am not responsible for what others say. No, I don't think she's a Jihadist. I don't think she's a terrorist. I do think that - what I know of her record suggests that she is someone who supports radical Islam, that is to say, supports bringing in elements of the Sharia, of Islamic law, whether it be by bringing in Imams onto the advisory board or having lunch that is served according to Islamic regulations or receiving an award from, as Ms. Elliot noted earlier, the Council on Islamic Relations.
Let me just note one thing, that the long-time national spokesman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said back in 1993, that I don't want to create the impression that I wouldn't like the government of the United States to be Islamic sometime in the future, but I'm not going to do anything violent to promote that. I'm going to do it through education. So the long term plan, quote, unquote, the long-term plan of care in other institutions has been to work with education.
Let me also note that back in 2003, Ms. Almontaser took part in something called the Grand Display of Muslim Unity at Madison Square Garden, organized with Islamic Internet University, and the mission of that University is to establish and support, quote, the Islamic institutions, particularly Islamic educational institutions, in this land, unquote.
So I see from various points of view that Ms. Almontaser seems to have an agenda of creating Islamic institutions. She happens to have received public monies, taxpayer monies for this. I'm against that. She can create a private institution but not a public one.
CONAN: Daniel Pipes, thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate your time today. Daniel Pipes is the director of the Middle East Forum, and he joined us today from the studios of Audio Post in Philadelphia.
With us now from her office in New York is Debbie Almontaser. She's the founder and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn and thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. DEBBIE ALMONTASER (Founder and Former Principal, Khalil Gibran International Academy): Thank you. Thank you for having me on the show.
CONAN: And do you feel that you were the victim of a witch hunt?
Ms. ALMONTASER: Most definitely. I certainly feel that I was a victim of not only a witch hunt but a smear campaign. That is beyond the recognition in this day and age that someone could certainly go under such attack. And what is deeply disturbing is that this attack is fueled by anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiment in the post-9/11 world, where Arabs and Muslims have become now the prime target for individuals who don't see us as a part of the community, the U.S. community or the fabric of this country.
CONAN: What do you make to the charges we just heard from Daniel Pipes, that, indeed, you did have an agenda to promote Islam?
Ms. ALMONTASER: The agenda that I have and continue to have is educating children. This is about educating children and offering them a rare and an extraordinary opportunity to learn Arabic for the 21st century challenges, to develop as global citizens, to become a part of the work force in international affairs and diplomacy. It is an opportunity to give kids a competitive edge.
That is the agenda that I have, nothing less, nothing more. I've, you know, spent my life as an educator. I'm a veteran, a 17-year veteran. I've worked as a teacher. I've worked as an assistant teacher prior, a teacher trainer, conflict resolution trainer, administrator, and it's all about educating kids.
And for that to become a threat is quite disturbing because people who know me and know what I'm about are deeply disturbed by the attacks and the caricature that has been created that does not depict who I am and what I stand for as an educator, as, you know, a human being who looks for the best for all people, regardless of their faith, their culture, their tradition and to, you know, go under such attacks from outsiders who only, you know, seek to divide, not bring people together, is quite unfortunate because our country in this day and age needs to be united and needs to work together to make this a better place to live.
CONAN: If that was the agenda and the curriculum, why wasn't all that information made available when people who were concerned about this first asked about it last spring?
Ms. ALMONTASER: Well, that is a very good question, and I would really defer that now to the Department of Education. One of the things that I'd like to point out is, during my tenure, in all of the interviews that I did with reporters and what have you, my last line was let the school open, and you're welcome to come and visit. We have nothing to hide.
The curriculum, you know, was created over the summer with the teachers. It was submitted to the department of education for approval, and it's really in their hands now. And the question really is, you know, up to them to share that information.
CONAN: So it was up to the board of education, not to the school. And also, in retrospect, was it wise, the suggestion of halal food and having imams, as well as rabbis and ministers, on the board
Ms. ALMONTASER: Well, I'd be happy to respond to that. In terms of the halal kitchen, during the procedure of creating the proposal, there is an activity called create the most ideal school that would be inclusive to every child that walks through your doors. And in this activity, we created a halal kitchen because we thought maybe we may have most likely, you know, Muslim students. However, in the real world, there is no such thing as a halal kitchen or a kosher kitchen in the department of education public schools, so it was merely an activity to show the creativity of educators of being inclusive, nothing less, nothing more.
In terms of the advisory council that was mentioned, it was a group of leaders who were, you know, from all different faith traditions, who I've had a relationship with, who know my work, and who supported the work, and they were just simply lending their name and their reputation in the broader public to allay people's fears and concerns that this school may be a radical Islam school. And what their duty was going to be was to help us recruit students from their congregations and allow us to just have that kind of relationship but nothing more, nothing less.
And the important thing here to keep in mind is that this is a department of education public school. It follows all of the mandates that the department of education expects of every school in the school system. It follows the same curriculas. The only thing that is different is that it's teaching Arabic as a second language, and the curriculum that was being used under my leadership was going to be developed in conjunction with Michigan State University's Star Talk program, and we were going to be using Scholastics' "My Arabic" library. There was absolutely nothing being used that was coming from overseas.
CONAN: We're talking about the controversy in New York City and around the country over an Arabic language school. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get John on the line, John's calling us from Harpursville, New York.
JOHN (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi there.
JOHN: Yes, I live in upstate New York, in a large town around here, it's called Binghamton, and we have a Jewish schools, Polish schools, Slovak schools, Greek schools, but they're all private schools.
CONAN: And I guess the implication...
JOHN: None of those are supported by the state.
CONAN: So Debbie Almontaser, why was it important to you to have this be a public school, as opposed to starting a private school? I'm sure there are other Arabic schools, private schools that teach Arabic, anyway.
Ms. ALMONTASER: There are private Islamic schools in New York City that teach Arabic as a foreign language, and that was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to create a school that would allow every student from all different faiths and cultural traditions to come and have this rare opportunity to learn Arabic as a second language and learn about this culture to develop a better understanding and to give them a competitive edge for, you know, the 21st century workforce.
You know, if that was the case, I would have certainly decided to open a private Islamic school, but I wanted to attract all students who wanted a better opportunity. And, you know, we are just teaching Arabic, nothing less, nothing more. And if any - there is no political or ideological agenda here, as many proponents have put out there.
JOHN: I understand that. But why on earth should the state support you?
Ms. ALMONTASER: Well, the school is among 66 dual-language programs in New York City. Dual-language programs have become widely respected for the fact that they provide students with the opportunity to learn another language equally and effectively. And students who are in a dual language program far exceed students who are in a monolingual program. And there is federal funding, you know, from the State Department to teach Arabic, and we felt that this was going to be a wonderful opportunity to have that.
And you know, the important thing, also, to remember is that I wish that I could take full credit for the development and creation of the school, but I was sought out for it. The Department of Education, through New Visions, asked me to start this school. So this was an idea that came from New Visions. It was not my brain child. And they identified me because of my stellar record as an educator and based on my networks within the city and being well known throughout the city in many communities.
CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: And Debbie Almontaser, thank you very much for your time today.
Ms. ALMONTASER: You're very welcome.
CONAN: Debbie Almontaser is the founder and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, with us today from her office in New York.
When we come back, we're going to talk about a school in Dallas using a new weapon in the fight against truancy, GPS monitors. We'll explain coming up. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.