In September, New York City will open the nation’s first public school dedicated to teaching Arabic and Arab culture.

Named after the Christian Arab poet Khalil Gibran, it’s one of 65 specialty dual-language schools in New York. But it’s the only one that has sparked a public controversy.

Some conservative critics have warned it could breed home-grown extremists: “A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn,” read one provocative headline in The New York Sun. Others have attacked it for balkanizing public education, which has historically played a primary role in helping the nation’s many immigrants assimilate.

Supporters deny both claims and say the academy is designed to educate world citizens and bridge Eastern and Western cultures, something sorely needed in today’s increasingly global world.

Underlying the controversy, experts say, is a larger question of how the nation and its schools cope with the influx of Arab and Muslim immigrants during a time when the threat of Islamic terrorism sows distrust. It’s also a period in which ignorance about Arab culture and Islamic teaching runs high.

At the same time, however, US intelligence and law-enforcement agencies desperately need qualified Arab speakers to navigate the changed world.

“As a country, we still have a certain degree of fear in the aftermath of 9/11, and to a very great degree it exists because there are so many misconceptions still about what it means to be an Arab and what it means to be a Muslim,” says Nial Ibrahim, executive director of the Arab American Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “Arabs and Arab-Americans ultimately look for the same things for their children [as any American]: a chance to get a meaningful education, an ability to improve on what their parents accomplished, and the opportunity to live in peace with their neighbors.”


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