Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech - Dhabah "Debbie" Almontaser

Debbie Almontaser is an Arab American and a veteran of the New York City school system. In 2007 Debbie was slated to be the principal of an Arabic-English dual language school in Brooklyn called the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA).

The academy was one of a series of dual language schools in New York City. Most of them paired Spanish with English but there were also French, Chinese and Korean versions.

Nevertheless the Arabic academy was controversial right from the start and having Almontaser slated to be principal didn’t appear to help any. The school and Almontaser were accused of everything from intending to teach Sharia law to setting up a radical anti-American Madrassa right in New York City.

The whole thing was a volatile mix of anti-Arab sentiment and Christian vs. Muslim bickering in the city that suffered the major brunt of 9/11.

The primary opposition appears to have come from an Islam-phobic group called “Stop the Madrassa.” One wacko in the film is shown bemoaning the fact that he can’t get a crèche set up in his kid’s classroom but the Muslims get a whole school just like that. I checked their blog based website and they seem to have been pretty much inactive since July of 2008.

No matter how many times the Department of Education pointed that this was to be a public school that would tolerate no religious education whatsoever, opponents continued to brand the academy as an Islamic indoctrination center complete with prayers to Mecca and the teaching of revisionist Arab centric history.

The opposition also appeared to have it in for Debbie Almontaser. They considered her a Muslim extremist and didn’t trust her one bit. They called her a 9/11 denier despite the fact that her son was called up to his National Guard unit as a result of 9/11.

Almontaser’s personal life activities probably didn’t help much. She was active in Arab-American politics and a board member of the Saba Association of American Yemenis. Saba happened to share building space with a group called Arab Women Active in Art and Media (AWAAM) on Third Avenue in Brooklyn.

Saba and AWAAM both participated in Arab-American cultural events around the city. Events which were apparently stalked by opponents of KGIA searching for ammunition and eventually they found it.

At one event the AWAAM group was selling T-shirts labeled “Intifada NYC.” Well that caused big trouble. The word “Intifada” has come to be associated with the Gaza uprisings against Israel and is widely recognized as referring to a violent Arab uprising or rebellion.

Personally I interpret the T-shirts as expressing the solidarity of NYC Arabs with the struggles of the Palestinian people. Since we’re talking about Free Speech here, I’d like to point out that they are entitled to express that solidarity. But you have to admit that using the term “Intifada NYC” was a highly questionable idea. It implies a call for violence rather than peaceful support. You can peaceably assemble but you cannot advocate blowing stuff up.

Now, Almontaser had nothing to do with the T-shirts but even the tenuous association of the mutual participation in an Arab cultural event led the New York Post to request an interview with Almontaser on the matter. The NYC Department of Education (DOE) ordered her to comply with the request.

The interview was a complete disaster. Almontaser, rather than simply disavowing the T-shirts and explaining that she knew nothing about them, went into an explanation about the root meaning of the Arabic word “Intifada” being “shrugging off” or “throwing off” and speculating that the AWAAM girls were simply expressing their inclusion in NYC society.

Yeah, that explanation went over big. Her answers made her sound evasive and made her look like she was trying to hide something. To make matters worse it turned out that the founders of AWAAM were also supposedly active in the more militant al-Awda which the B’nai B’rith Anti-defamation League claims actively supports Hamas and Hezbollah.

Needless to say the Post absolutely crucified poor Debbie. The New York Post is a rag, and has been since it was bought out by Rupert Murdoch, but it knows when it has a blockbuster story and Almontaser gave them one on a silver platter.

I’ve read the Post article and it is a masterpiece of ripping someone completely to shreds while staying well within the rules of the libel laws. It sticks to the facts but the implications left to the imagination of the reader are devastating.

After the interview, and the Post article, Almontaser became a liability. The NYC DOE demanded her resignation as principal of KGIA and promised her an assistant principal position somewhere in the NYC school system. Uh-huh. Can you say “relegated to the outer Siberian banks real quickly?”

The school did open and appears to be currently active so the opposition seems to have only won a partial victory. I guess with the opening of the school the ludicrous fears which fueled the rhetoric of “Stop the Madrassa” dissipated in the light of reality.

Of course that didn’t do Almontaser any good. She’s suing the NYC DOE for violating her 1st Amendment rights and she’s suing them in Federal Court claiming they discriminated against her on the basis of race, religion, and national origin.

She may get a settlement but personally I don’t think she has a snowball’s chance in hell in either suit.

As a matter of fact, I don’t even see this as a Freedom of Speech issue. You might claim that the Post misused the Freedom of the Press but that would be a stretch. What they reported was 100% factual. The yellow journalism part was in leading the reader to a series of unexpressed disturbing conclusions about the trustworthiness of Almontaser as the principal of an Arab-English school.

The NYC DOE didn’t ask for her resignation because of her opinions, but because she totally botched the New York Post interview and placed herself and the DOE in an untenable position. Even the head of the NYC Teacher’s Union called for her resignation. I mean, forget it, as soon as she went around O’Houlihan’s barn explaining the root meaning of “Intifada” she was toast. If nothing else a teacher should understand that the meaning of words evolve with usage. Consider the word “gay” for example.

I sympathize with her. If it hadn’t been for the yahoos of “Stop the Madrassa” she’d be happily working at her dream job as principal of an Arabic-English dual language school but she has only herself to blame.

Perhaps my opinion is slightly tainted by my inbred general distrust of Islam but I don’t think so. I don’t have a problem with the school and I don’t have a problem with Almontaser and I think the marriage of her as principal and KGIA would have been a match made in heaven. But that ship has sailed. That wouldn’t be a good idea any more.

The NYC DOE did what it had to do to protect the school and the needs of the school children of NYC. Isn’t that what it’s there for?

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