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]
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.
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: The principal resigned today.
JOHN GAMBLING: Did she?
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Yep. She —- I know the woman. She has worked for the City in a variety of capacities. She’s very smart, honest -—
JOHN GAMBLING: Debbie Almonster [sic.]?
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: She’s certainly not a terrorist. She really does care. And she said something a couple days ago — she got a question. She’s not all that media savvy maybe, and she tried to explain a word rather than just condemn. But I think she felt that she had become the focus of — rather than having the school the focus, and so today she submitted her resignation, which is nice of her to do, and I appreciate all her service, and I think she’s right to do so. But now, let’s look to the future.
AMY GOODMAN: In the months since, Almontaser’s case has become a major issue of free speech and anti-Arab racism in post-9/11 America. Earlier this year she filed a federal lawsuit accusing New York City officials of violating her right to free speech and conspiring to remove her from her job. She was joined at the courthouse by dozens of supporters, including New York City Councilmember Charles Baron.
COUNCILMEMBER CHARLES BARON: There’s no reason why this sister shouldn’t be the head of a school that she started, she founded, she gave life to. This is absurd. This is xenophobia. This is racism. This is disrespectful. And we are standing here today solidly behind her to say that not only should she be considered, she is the most qualified, the best qualified and should be put in that position immediately. Immediately.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Almontaser gave her first interview for a lengthy article on her case in the New York Times. Today, she joins us from our firehouse studio in New York for her first national broadcast interview. Debbie Almontaser, we welcome you to Democracy Now!
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Thank you, Amy. It’s a pleasure to be here, and thank you for the wonderful coverage that you’ve given the Khalil Gibran International Academy last fall and now making it a national issue for people to better understand.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why you stepped down, even though you were the one who spearheaded the founding of this school?
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: As you had covered earlier in August, the whole saga with the campaign smear against me and the New York Post interview, that week of August 6 all of the support that I was receiving, from the Department of Education, from New Visions for Public School, just became, you know, unapparent, and I saw the withdrawal. And as of August 9, city officials, as well as people from New Visions, met with me, and basically putting it, you know, in the words of “It’s either you or the school. We will not move forward with the school if you do not resign.”
And as you may know, this school is a historical school in this country. It’s the first of its kind to be a public school teaching Arabic and cultural studies. And many people within New York City were looking forward to this school — the Arab American community, the broader community. And I could not put my personal interest ahead of the interest of the children that had already enrolled — forty-four students — the eight staff members that I had hired and this dream that many people had been waiting for. So I had no choice in the matter, as you could tell.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you come up with the idea for the school?
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: As highlighted in the New York Times article, the idea came from a New Visions representative who sought me out after speaking to people at the Department of Education, at the Mayor’s Office. And the final place was on a grassroots level at a falafel stand in Brooklyn, where the last person recommended that he call me. And he called me, and I met with him, and we had a discussion — this was back in April of 2005 — about the idea of creating an Arabic and Hebrew school, which later we were told by, you know, specialists in languages that we should focus on one language, and that would be Arabic, due to the fact that it’s one of the most sought-after languages in the world and that there is tons of federal funding to fund K-to-12 Arabic language instruction in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: How does it deal with religion, the school?
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: The school is a secular school. It has absolutely nothing to do with religion. And unfortunately, the rightwing groups began to spin the school as a religious school. The school is a secular school offering the New York City curriculum and meeting the state and city’s standards that all New York City public schools are mandated to, you know, meet. And it was a school that was going to be teaching Arabic as a second language, as many other schools do across the city, across the country, and provide students with a better understanding of Arab culture and history. As you may know, anyone who seeks to learn a foreign language, to be effective and proficient in that language, they need to know and understand the cultural nuances and the history of the people to use the language effectively without offending the natives of that language.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you build support for the school in the years leading up to it?
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: After I was approached in 2005, I began to do an informal feasibility study with members of the community in New York City, local politicians, clergy of all different faiths and the Arab American community, and getting them to see that this is an incredible opportunity to develop a school that would help people better understand the Arab culture, the Arab peoples.
And in April, I think, or May of — I think it was April of 2006, New Visions hosted a meeting for the Arab American community, where they pitched the idea. And after pitching the idea to the community, basically saying this is your opportunity, we would welcome such a school, now it’s up to you to decide whether this is something you want to compete for. And as you know, the Bill Gates and Melinda foundation provided money to New York City to create small new schools. So we were in a competition to get a $400,000 grant.
So the community, Arab American community, engaged in a process to choose a social service organization that would be the lead partner of the school, and they also selected me to head spear — to spearhead this effort, as New Visions did in the first place. But I wanted the Arab American community to feel a sense of ownership and have a voice in the development of the school, in terms of choosing the lead partnering agency as well as leading — as well as, you know, choosing the leader to head this project.
AMY GOODMAN: Debbie Almontaser, we have to break, but when we come back, I want to play for you some clips of the neoconservative Daniel Pipes, one of the people who spearheaded the protest against you, and then talk about why you ultimately stepped back — stepped down as the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran School. After that, we will go to the issue of mountaintop removal. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Debbie Almontaser, who was the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International School in New York until she stepped down before it actually opened. Debbie Almontaser is known as a builder of bridges between the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities in New York. But I wanted to turn now to neoconservative pundit Daniel Pipes. In April 2007, he wrote an op-ed for the New York Sun about Debbie Almontaser’s appointment that helped spark the campaign against her school. In an interview for the New York Times website, Pipes was questioned about some of his claims.
DANIEL PIPES: I worry that the intensive instruction of Arabic brings with it, in many cases, political and religious or religious indoctrination.
ANDREA ELLIOTT: You referred to it, in your first op-ed piece that ran in the New York Sun, as a “madrassa.” Was that a bit of a stretch?
DANIEL PIPES: Yes, it was a bit of a stretch. It was intended to get attention. But basically, that was correct, in the sense that “madrassa” is a school where Islam is taught. And my fear was and is that the Khalil Gibran International Academy is a school where Islam is taught.
ANDREA ELLIOTT: What have you learned about it that is concerning to you?
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.
AMY GOODMAN: In this clip on the New York Times website, the New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott questions Daniel Pipes about his accusations of calling you an apologist for the 9/11 attacks.
DANIEL PIPES: I was worried about Ms. Almontaser because of statements she’d made and affiliations she had, all of which suggested to me that she is someone sympathetic to radical Islam or is herself an Islamist.
ANDREA ELLIOTT: You have referred to her as a 9/11-denier on the basis of a quote she gave, which was, quote, “I don’t recognize the people who committed the attacks as Arabs or Muslims." You did not cite the second part of the quote, which was “Those people who did it have stolen my identity as an Arab and have stolen my religion.” Why didn’t you include the second part?
DANIEL PIPES: I think — I’d be happy to include the second part. I think all of it is of a piece of denial. They have not stolen her identity. They have not stolen her religion. She needs — what she needs to do is denounce them and say that what they represent is Islam in its worst form. They are not non-Islam. To deny that Osama bin Laden is a Muslim is sheer hypocrisy. Osama bin Laden is a Muslim. And to say that he has stolen Islam or hijacked Islam or is not a Muslim is false.
AMY GOODMAN: Debbie Almontaser, your response?
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: My response to that is, I chose to be an educator, not a politician to create a platform that I need to condemn every little thing or huge thing that happens across the world. This school was about bringing young people together, providing them with a high-quality education to become global leaders.
For Mr. Pipes to use that quote, as I had mentioned earlier, this is a prime example of the distortion, and to make it seem that I’m a sympathizer is quite ridiculous. If anyone, you know, can say that they, you know, felt and understood what September 11th was, I could certainly be one of those people. My son, who’s a National Guardsman, served at Ground Zero for six months. He was deployed on September 11th with his unit to be a part of the rescue and cleanup mission. So for him to call me a sympathizer or a denier is quite ludicrous, because this is my country, this is my home, this is where I’ve chosen to live, and I am entitled to all the rights and civil liberties that others have.
And for me, you know, to be targeted as one, you know, that has to speak on everything is quite unfair. You know, this is not the profession that I chose. I chose to be an educator, not a politician. And it’s unfortunate that, you know, Arabs and Muslims are constantly pigeonholed into this situation, that they have to show their loyalties by condemning everything that happens. You know, we deserve to be able to live our lives like everybody else. We should not have to, you know, prove our loyalty every time something happens, because this is our home, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Debbie Almontaser, can you talk about the role of the media? The New York Post headline that ran: "City Principal Is ‘Revolting’: Tied to ‘Intifada NYC’ Shirts." The article quoting you as saying that this girls’ organization that had the T-shirt was “shaking off” oppression.
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: The New York Post for months was seeking to do an interview, and I basically kept my distance, because the New York Post has always written negative articles about Arab and Muslim Americans. And I certainly knew that anything that they were going to write about me or the school was not going to be favorable. And unfortunately, due to the persistence of the Department of Education, I had no choice but to provide an interview.
And during my interview, the reporter asked me for the root word of the word “intifada,” and prior to that, he asked me about my affiliation with this organization, and I made it very clear that this organization had nothing to do with the school or me in my capacity as principal. I sit on a board of an organization, like many other principals across the city, and therefore, you know, this is a moot point. This organization and its T-shirt have nothing to do with me or the school. Following that, he asked for the root word of the word “intifada,” and I simply, the educator in me, provided him with the root word, which is "shaking off," and moved onward to give a lengthy explanation of how this word has different meanings for different people based on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where thousands of people have been killed, also mentioning that, you know, it evolved and developed into “shaking oppression,” as well as “uprising,” and that’s why this word has developed a negative connotation.
Of course, the reporter at that point, you know, just decided to take the "shaking off" and to portray me as minimizing the historical context of the word, as well as making it seem as though I defended this organization and the T-shirt for having, you know, this T-shirt. I did not defend the T-shirt. The one thing that I did do was defend the girls that he was vilifying with a follow-up question, where he asked me, “Well, we have reason to believe that these girls are going to be engaging in a Gaza-style uprising,” and my response to him was, “I don’t believe these girls would be engaging in a Gaza uprising. They are simply, you know, getting the opportunity to learn how to express their views and be able to, you know, tell their stories, rather than to be exploited in the media.” And that was simply it. And he took my response in defense of the girls as defending the T-shirt, which I did not defend.
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of the other media, for example, the New York Sun, and overall who you think was behind the major move to have you removed?
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Well, the New York Sun began simply, as early as March, by allowing Daniel Pipes to write op-ed pieces, as well as some other writers that they have. And, you know, it was just horrendous to see some of the captions. There was one title of an article by Alicia Colon that read, “Arabic School Idea is a Monstrosity,” and towards the end of the article, she basically calls for everyone to take out the torches and circle City Hall. I found it very disturbing to see this kind of reporting, particularly from papers within the city, who chose to give an opportunity for outsiders to give their personal opinions on the school, as well as on me.
And so, you know, that continued with the New York Sun, and then the New York Post jumped on the bandwagon over the summer. And this was all really, you know, taken on by a coalition called the Stop the Madrassa Coalition who — Daniel Pipes is actually on their board, and he was able to, you know, collectively find other people in the city and outside of the state to jump on his wagon and venture in this smear campaign against the school and, eventually, me.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times piece, the major piece on you on Sunday, said only one-fifth of the sixty students at the Khalil Gibran International School 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.’” This, according to staff members and students in the interviews with the New York Times. Your response, Debbie Almontaser?
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: It is quite disheartening to hear that, you know, the vision for a school that was going to be building bridges of understanding and tolerance has turned into something quite the opposite. And, you know, it’s all systemic. You know, when you take the visionary leader of a school who brought people on board, as well as brought families on board — there were, you know, more families, Arabic-speaking families, that had actually enrolled their children, and upon hearing about my removal, they chose to remove their children. So it’s unfortunate that that’s happened. But, you know, this happens in any organization or institution when something such as this happens, you know, three weeks before its opening.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you like to be the principal of the Khalil Gibran School now?
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Most definitely.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain your lawsuit at this point. Where does it stand?
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: My lawsuit at this point stands at — it’s going to be going for full trial based on the First Amendment claim. So we are hopeful. I remain hopeful that, you know, the legal system will do the right thing and rule in my favor. And, you know, I’m prepared for the long haul, because I’m not just standing up for my own rights, but I’m standing for the rights of Arabs and Muslims across the country. As you can clearly see, the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment that is going around this country is quite startling. And, you know, the fact that we’re living in a new McCarthy era is quite, you know, fearful for many people. So I hope that my case will certainly set national and international precedents that Arabs and Muslims cannot be treated in this way.
AMY GOODMAN: The Mayor — the City, I should say — the attorneys for the City say they didn’t force you out, you quit.
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Of course, they’re going to say that, because that’s, you know, their perspective. But I was forced out. You know, the ultimatum was it’s either you or the school. And as I said earlier, the school was something that many people were looking forward to, and I wanted to see this historical dream come alive, even at the cost of, you know, making me the sacrificial lamb.
AMY GOODMAN: Any last words?
DEBBIE ALMONTASER: My last words are basically urging the American public to really develop a better understanding of the political agenda that is out there by people such as Daniel Pipes and rightwing groups who are going after prominent Muslim and Arab American leaders who are trying to make a difference in this country. It is so important to allow us to bridge the gaps and build bridges of understanding among people across this country and to, you know, continue in the healing process of developing a better country and a better world for all of humanity.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Debbie Almontaser, for joining us. Debbie Almontaser was the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International School, but she stepped down before the school actually opened. We will continue to follow her case, as she is now suing the City of New York.