Debbie Almontaser dreamed of starting a public school like no other in New York City. Children of Arab descent would join students of other ethnicities, learning Arabic together. By graduation, they would be fluent in the language and groomed for the country’s elite colleges. They would be ready, in Ms. Almontaser’s words, to become “ambassadors of peace and hope.”
Things have not gone according to plan. Only one-fifth of the 60 students at the Khalil Gibran International Academy are Arab-American. Since the school opened in Brooklyn last fall, children have been suspended for carrying weapons, repeatedly gotten into fights and taunted an Arabic teacher by calling her a “terrorist,” staff members and students said in interviews.
The academy’s troubles reach well beyond its cramped corridors in Boerum Hill. The school’s creation provoked a controversy so incendiary that Ms. Almontaser stepped down as the founding principal just weeks before classes began last September. Ms. Almontaser, a teacher by training and an activist who had carefully built ties with Christians and Jews, said she was forced to resign by the mayor’s office following a campaign that pitted her against a chorus of critics who claimed she had a militant Islamic agenda.
In newspaper articles and Internet postings, on television and talk radio, Ms. Almontaser was branded a “radical,” a “jihadist” and a “9/11 denier.” She stood accused of harboring unpatriotic leanings and of secretly planning to proselytize her students. Despite Ms. Almontaser’s longstanding reputation as a Muslim moderate, her critics quickly succeeded in recasting her image.
The conflict tapped into a well of post-9/11 anxieties. But Ms. Almontaser’s downfall was not merely the result of a spontaneous outcry by concerned parents and neighborhood activists. It was also the work of a growing and organized movement to stop Muslim citizens who are seeking an expanded role in American public life. The fight against the school, participants in the effort say, was only an early skirmish in a broader, national struggle.
“It’s a battle that’s really just begun,” said Daniel Pipes, who directs a conservative research group, the Middle East Forum, and helped lead the charge against Ms. Almontaser and the school. (MORE)