Debbie Almontaser was forced to step down in August 2007 as the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran School, New York City’s first public school dedicated to the study of Arabic language and culture.
Her resignation followed a rightwing campaign that painted her as an educator with a militant Islamic agenda. In a Democracy Now! exclusive, Debbie Almontaser joins us in her first national broadcast interview since stepping down and suing the city. [includes rush transcript]
Excerpt of transcript: [Click here for full rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We begin with a broadcast exclusive. Last August, just weeks before fall classes were set to begin, Debbie Almontaser was forced out as the founding principal of New York City’s first public Arabic-language school. At issue were Almontaser’s comments in the New York Post when she explained the use of the word “intifada,” or “uprising.” The Post had questioned Almontaser, because the word “intifada” appeared on a T-shirt of a women’s organization that sometimes used the offices of a community group where she was a board member. The T-shirt had nothing to do with her school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, but Almontaser came under rightwing criticism for not denouncing the use of the word “intifada” on the T-shirt. She stepped down days later. On his radio program, Live from City Hall with Mayor Mike and John Gambling, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg welcomed Almontaser’s departure.
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DANIEL PIPES: One learned about the application for a halal dining room. One learned about the adviser board, which is exclusively made up of religious figures. One learned about the illustrations on the expectations of the school and its promoting Islamic culture, all of which left me feeling queasy. Then one later learned about the personnel, their connections to radical Islam. When I look at some of the proponents of the school, like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, like the Council on Islamic Education, I see the standard Wahhabi lobby members promoting radical Islam in, now, a public school. And I say no.
AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Pipes, being interviewed by the New York Times reporter who did the major piece on Sunday, Andrea Elliott. Debbie Almontaser, your response? “Madrassa”?
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Well, “madrassa” is simply “school.” It is the translated word in Arabic, and it’s unfortunate that it’s developed a negative connotation in this day and age based on the fact that there are madrassas in Afghanistan and Pakistan and what have you that, you know, teach a certain ideology. And certainly the Khalil Gibran International Academy was not going to teach any ideology. It was a school that was going to be teaching young people to become global citizens, teaching them tolerance and cultural diversity, and helping them to develop for the twenty-first century work force, where there will be plenty of opportunities on an international level for them to compete for the most competitive jobs.
AMY GOODMAN: And the other allegations of Daniel Pipes?
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Well, there are many that he was able to put together by distorting quotes that I was quoted in multiple newspapers; the award, you know, from CAIR; the allegation that I’m connected, you know, to a terrorist organization such as CAIR. And quite frankly, these are all allegations that are moot and really have no basis whatsoever.
CAIR New York is one of the most prominent civil rights organizations in New York City, as well as across the country. The president of CAIR sits on the Human Rights Commission of New York City. He was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg. So if Mayor Bloomberg has no issues with working closely with CAIR, I don’t see why anyone should have any issues. CAIR, unfortunately, has been targeted, because it is fighting for the civil rights of Arabs and Muslims. And, you know, this organization, as well as other organizations fighting for civil rights of Arabs and Muslims, is very much needed. There is a national growing trend of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiment that is targeting, you know, Arabs and Muslims across the country. If I can be a target—you know, someone who has developed many relationships across the city, across the country—anybody could be a target. (MORE)