Last Feb. 12, you may recall, New York education officials announced plans to open a minischool in September that would teach half its classes in Arabic and include study of Arab culture. The principal was to be a veteran teacher who was also a Muslim immigrant from Yemen, Debbie Almontaser.
The critical response began pouring in the very next day.
“I hope it burns to the ground just like the towers did with all the students inside including school officials as well,” wrote an unidentified blogger on the Web site Modern Tribalist, a hub of anti-immigrant sentiment. A contributor identified as Dave responded, “Now Muslims will be able to learn how to become terrorists without leaving New York City.”
Not to be outdone, the conservative Web site Political Dishonesty carried this commentary on Feb. 14:
“Just think, instead of jocks, cheerleaders and nerds, there’s going to be the Taliban hanging out on the history hall, Al Qaeda hanging out by the gym, and Palestinians hanging out in the science labs. Hamas and Hezbollah studies will be the prerequisite classes for an Iranian physics. Maybe in gym they’ll learn how to wire their bomb vests and they’ll convert the football field to a terrorist training camp.”
Thus commenced the smear campaign against the Khalil Gibran International Academy and, specifically, Debbie Almontaser. For the next six months, from blogs to talk shows to cable networks to the right-wing press, the hysteria and hatred never ceased. Regrettably, it worked.
Ms. Almontaser resigned as principal earlier this month. Nominally, she quit to quell the controversy about her remarks to The New York Post insufficiently denouncing the term “intifada” on a T-shirt made by a local Arab-American organization. That episode, however, merely provided the pretext for her ouster, for the triumph of a concerted exercise in character assassination.
After initially consenting to an interview for this column, Ms. Almontaser backed out, saying she did not want to “do anything that would jeopardize the school,” which is still set to open next month in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. One of her longtime colleagues, however, spoke candidly about her emotions.
“She feels that she’s been violated, personally and professionally,” said Louis Cristillo, a research professor at Teachers College at Columbia University who has studied the experiences of Muslim children in the New York public schools. “To be painted as somebody who’s un-American, questioning her patriotism, is extremely hurtful for her. She’s really shocked at how devastatingly effective the defamation was.” (MORE)