Debbie Almontaser is the founding and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, New York's first Arabic language school, opened in 2006. She left in 2007 over a controversy ignited by her defense of the world "intifada " on a T-shirt, later claiming to have been forced out by the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to The New York Times. CNN's Nicole Dow talked to Almontaser about a new New York controversy that contains echoes of the one that embroiled her three years ago: a proposal to build an Islamic Center near Ground Zero.
What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding the Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero?
I am saddened and perturbed that this hysteria is playing itself out again in New York City by the same interest groups that are out there basically spewing hate-filled propaganda about Muslims across New York City and America. America is bigger than that better than that. This country was built on the shoulders of giants who migrated from all over the world for the American dream.
Does it remind you of what you went through back in 2007 at the Khalil Gibran school?
Absolutely. The exact propaganda materials that were used against the school and me have basically been refurbished against Imam Feisal and Daisy Khan (two leaders of the Islamic center proposal) who are two incredible people in the U.S. and globally. They are doing amazing work to building bridges, to help people to understand Islam and Muslims globally. The fact that these two individuals have become the targets on this issue is just mind boggling, considering the reputation that they and their organization have nationally and globally.
It is important for Americans to know that this is a growing trend across the US, under the flagship of Islamophobia, targeting individuals and projects that are trying to build bridges of understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Sadly, such projects are being portrayed as a threat by these groups who seek to divide us as Americans.
Islam is not anything new to this land. Muslims have been in the Americas for hundreds of years. There are houses of worships that have existed for over 70 years. The oldest mosque in America was built in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1934, which is referenced by many as the Mother Mosque of America.
Can you remind us about what happened in your situation at the Khalil Gibran school?
The anti-Arab anti-Muslim propaganda by interest groups led the (New York) Department of Education to cave in. What most people don't know is in the aftermath of my forced resignation, there was a huge public outcry from people in the Jewish community, the Christian community, immigrant community, academic community and other communities that cared about social justice and equitable education. What developed after what happened to me was a coalescing of these community groups that led the charge to advocate for me and the school.
They formed a coalition called Communities in Support of Khalil Gibran International Academy. They organized rallies, educational forums, letter writing campaigns, etc. They made my issue the issue of all New Yorkers who believe in our constitutional freedoms.
And now the same is happening with the Cordoba Initiative. Interfaith groups and individuals who have worked closely with the Arab and Muslim communities nationally have come out in support of the Cordoba House project and are standing in solidarity with Imam Feisal and Daisy. People immediately saw through this propaganda and have risen to the occasion in supporting the project, and speaking out publicly against these attacks. I am also pleased to see that elected officials have publicly come out in support as well.
What did you learn from your experience?
That anyone, or any organization of a Muslim or Arab background choosing to create something that is unique and innovative, that may seem to challenge the status quo, may be seen as a threat by these individuals and groups who do not want to see American Muslims expanding their roles in the United States. The Khalil Gibran Academy, at the time, was an educational institution that was bridging the gap between cultures, where students were going to learn the Arabic language and culture to become Arab world experts. A school open to all students wanting to prepare for international careers and diplomacy.
The same stands for Cordoba House project, the first of its kind to not only serve the Muslim community, but the entire city, replicating the 92 Street Y in New York City. The fact that there are forces out there that are setting up roadblocks against such projects to flourish is based on fear and misconceptions that are constantly being replayed by these interest groups when institutions such as these are being presented to become a part of the American landscape. These interest groups are sadly playing on the fears of individuals who fear anything Arab or Muslim since the tragic events of 9/11.
What do you think needs to change regarding how American Muslims are perceived?
These interest groups have created this notion that Muslims are foreign and alien to American life, when they certainly are not. There are over six million Muslims living in the US, perhaps that number is even larger. Muslim individuals are very well integrated into American society. They are a vibrant part of American society, and really need to be recognized as an integral part of this country like other communities. There needs to be broader education on Muslims in America, who they are and how they contribute to this country, and for Americans to see them as an integral part of the society.
Do you think the situation will eventually improve?
I firmly believe that it will improve, because there are a lot of Americans who believe in the right to worship and freedom of expression under our constitutional rights, who will stand in solidarity with Muslims across this great land as they have for other communities who have been subjected to hateful bigotry fueled by a few misguided individuals over the course of this country's history. As Americans we have a responsibility to stand united against division, intimidation and hatred. We must stand for a society based on mutual respect and understanding and dignity for all our communities.