"We want to be provocative — but in the best possible way," said Brooklyn Historical Society President Deborah Schwartz as she introduced the latest entry in the organization's winter events: a roundtable discussion featuring Dr. Debbie Almontaser, founding principal of the Kahlil Gibran Academy in Brooklyn and author of the recently published "Learning While Muslim: The Experiences of Muslim Principals After 9/11."
"So much has changed since the September 11th attacks," Schwartz continued. "Especially for the Muslim community here and around the world. It's important that we come together as a community to relate our experiences."
Joining Almontaser onstage were Gary Anderson, professor of Educational Leadership at NYU; Zaheer Ali, oral historian at BHS; and Aymann Ismail, Slate columnist.
At the discussion's outset, Almontaser outlined the contents of her book, which includes case studies of individual Muslim principles that reflect distinct methods for adapting as a minority to a larger culture that often views them as adversaries.
As the panel began, Ali brought up a recent study that counted about 9,500 Muslim teachers across the New York City public schools, where the estimated Muslim student body makes up 10 percent of the whole. "All of this is significant," Ali said, "especially when you consider that it was only in 2016 that the New York City schools started recognizing Islamic holidays."
Ali compared the struggle of Muslim Americans with that of Roman Catholics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when many Protestants assumed their loyalty would be split between their country and the Roman pontiff. "So it often is for us today," Ali said.
"Yet religious identity is often a source of strength," Almontaser added. "In addition to stress or alienation from the larger society."
Born in Yemen, Almontaser came to the U.S. at an early age. Her son served in a National Guard unit that responded to the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. She played a key role in starting the Kahlil Gibran Academy, named after the famed Christian-Arab poet, but was compelled to step down shortly before its doors opened after an extended campaign against her leadership.
The "Stop the Madrassa" campaign, led by noted anti-Islamist commentator Daniel Pipes, stirred controversy to the point where Almontaser was forced to step down from the school she founded. Khalil Gibran Academy is one of the city's dual language schools, offering an Arab language program.
Almontaser partnered so often with Jewish organizations that, according to a New York Times article by Andrea Elliott, efforts on the part of the Anti-Defamation League to defend her backfired, leading her to be characterized as a "sell-out" by one Arab-language newspaper.
The final straw came when the New York Post ran articles linking Almontaser to t-shirts with "INTIFADA NYC" printed on them, falsely implying her support for violence in the furtherance of Islamic goals. A federal appeals court acknowledged that the Post had quoted her incorrectly.
"If there is anything I want people to remember," said Almontaser, "it's that I'm always grateful for the opportunities I've had here in the United States of America."
"[Almontaser's] book is filled with data, but also very accessible," Ali said. "It's a great resource for anyone to use in conversing with school officials, principals, administrators and the like."