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Education Reporter

Arabic Language and Culture Public School Opens in New York

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German, Mandarin and Spanish charter schools focus on the language and culture of the theme country in a religiously neutral environment. Can schools focus on the Arabic language and culture and maintain the same religious neutrality? Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), in New York City, opened this fall in the midst of a heated debate on that question.

The NYC Department of Education established KGIA in March of this year as an Arabic language and culture-themed public school, to open in September. Some community members immediately expressed concern about the school, fearing it might become a "government-funded madrassa." "The materials that are included in an Arabic curriculum have a natural tendency to promote Islam," warned Daniel Pipes, an expert on radical Islam. Concerned citizens banded together into the group Stop the Madrassa, intending to ask the Department of Education some very difficult questions about the school. To most of these, Stop the Madrassa believes it still has not received answers.

Three imams serve on the school's advisory board, along with Christian and Jewish clergy. "If the KGIA has no religious content, then why is every one of its advisory council members a reverend, rabbi, or imam, plus one Ethical Culture representative?" asks Stop the Madrassa. Most of these Christian and Jewish clergy represent extremely liberal viewpoints within their traditions. Among the imams, however, at least one serves in a mosque at the opposite end of the spectrum. "Allah is our goal," declares the website of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, where board member Talib Abdul-Rashid preaches. "The prophet Muhammad is our leader. The Qur'an is our constitution. Jihad is our way. And death in the way of Allah is our promised end."

The department did make one major change to KGIA's staff before the school opened last month. Dhabah "Debbie" Almontaser helped to found the school, and was principal-designate until August. Her appointment drew criticism immediately because of her history of extreme political views and ties to groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Community members who criticized Almontaser and asked for more information on her background received little attention from the department; but in August, the principal-designate was forced to resign.

It became public that Almontaser shared an office with an Islamist group that sold T-shirts reading "Intifada NYC." The word "intifada" refers to Islamic radicals' attacks on Israeli Jews between 1987 and 1993. Almontaser defended the T-shirt, stating that "intifada" meant merely a "shaking off" and that no one should object to the slogan. This lost her the political support of New York's Mayor Bloomberg and the education department, which until then had made her position impervious to public outcry. CAIR issued a statement denouncing the result, saying that Almontaser was "unfairly pressured to resign from her position as principal due to attacks." Although Almontaser won't direct the school as principal, her influence will linger. She helped to create KGIA's mission and curriculum, and appointed the faculty who will remain and carry on that mission.

Though the school has already opened its doors, the coalition to close them again is still growing. The Thomas More Law Center, a Christian legal group, has now lent its support to Stop the Madrassa. "Rather than use the public school system to assimilate Muslims and other immigrants into American culture, New York City is doing everything it can to keep them isolated — a target-rich environment for recruiting potential new homegrown terrorists and a recipe for a future 9/11 disaster, according to my read of the NYPD report," said Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center. Together with the citizen's coalition, the group has promised to bring a federal lawsuit against the school if it learns that religious indoctrination or other violations have occurred.

Khalil Gibran is not the only public school in the United States with an Arabic language and culture theme. Others include Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, and Amana Academy in Alpharetta, Georgia. As Daniel Pipes has documented (www.danielpipes.org/blog/758), taxpayer funds go to a variety of other Arabic language programs at public schools, some of which have suspicious ties to politically extremist Islamic groups.

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