Smearing the Accomplishments of a Muslim School Principal

Posted on August 29, 2007

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By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
New York Times

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. […]

For anyone who bothered to look for it, Ms. Almontaser left a clear, public record of interfaith activism and outreach across the boundaries of race, ethnicity and religion. Her efforts, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks, earned her honors, grants and fellowships. […]  Ms. Almontaser has twice been profiled on Voice of America as an accomplished Muslim American. Her son, Yousif, spent several months on rescue efforts at ground zero as a member of the Army National Guard. Four of her nephews and cousins have served in the United States military in Iraq. […]

“There’s zero correspondence between the caricature and the actual person,”
said Rabbi Andy Bachman of Beth Elohim, a Reform Jewish congregation in Park Slope, who was on the Gibran school’s advisory board. “The words that were used to describe her, the fears that were evoked, are absolutely unrelated to her and her life’s work. Not in any way, shape or form.” [More]

Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His e-mail is sgfreedman@nytimes.com.

Please click here to read the whole article from the New York Times.

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