A good friend and former Professor of mine always began his classes on the developing world with an introduction to Islam. One of the first points driven home in the class, semester after semester, was the difference between Islam and Arabic. While the terms are obviously not synonymous (one being a religion and the other a language), this basic distinction is disregarded in recent fundamentalist efforts to demonize not only Islam, but the Arabic language itself.
I wanted to believe that we’d come far enough in this country that Muslim-Americans and non-citizens alike don’t have to suffer under irrational hatred, fanaticism, and repression. But for America’s small, but influential right-wing minority, this seems too much to ask.
I am referring to the racist war that has been declared on the Kahlil Gibran International Academy (in New York), and most specifically its Principal, Debbie Almontaser. The Gibran Academy is the first public institution in the U.S. committed specifically to learning the Arabic language. But the way the school has been attacked in media diatribes, one would think it was named after Osama bin Laden, rather than an uncontroversial, but well known poet. The Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran is best known for his classic work, The Prophet, written over 80 years ago and translated into over 20 languages. While Gibran’s works focused heavily on the corruption of Christian clergies and churches of his day, his other common themes include love, religion, life and death, and philosophy.
The Gibran Academy "controversy" comes at a time when Americans are desperately in need of shedding their parochialism of foreign cultures and languages. As the United States has become an international pariah during its occupation of Iraq, attacks on diversity can do little but strengthen American isolationism and ignorance. Americans are consistently rated in world opinion polls along with Iran and North Korea in terms of likeability, and incidents such as the Gibran protest are unlikely to improve its image. The anti-Arabic campaign is being spearheaded by notable reactionaries such as Daniel Pipes and Alicia Colon, as well as newspapers in the Big Apple including the New York Post and New York Sun.
But what, you might ask, are the specific crimes committed by Almontaser and the academy, deemed so egregious as to warrant the right-wing’s wrath? Daniel Pipes lays out his case in a number of editorials written in the NY Sun in the last few months. Pipes claims as "fact" that "Islamic institutions [which Gibran Academy is not], whether schools or mosques, have a pattern of extremism and even violence." He argues that "learning Arabic in-and-of-itself promotes an Islamic outlook," as "Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage." Pipes feels that the teaching of Arabic may lead to "moral decay," since "Muslims tend to see non-Muslims learning Arabic as a step toward an eventual conversion to Islam, an expectation I encountered while studying Arabic in Cairo in the 1970s."
In another Op-Ed for the NY Sun, Alicia Colon follows up on Pipe’s statements, protesting that "This proposal [for an Arabic language school] is utter madness, considering that five years after September 11, ground zero is still a hole in the ground and we’re bending over backwards to appease those sympathetic to individuals who would destroy us again." The editors at the NY Post also deem the anxieties over the school as "right on target."
Pipe’s and Colon’s anger appear to be derived, in part, from Principal Almontaser’s alleged "support for terrorism." Almontaser was demonized for initially refusing to condemn a t-shirt with the slogan "Intifada NYC," which was being sold by the group "Arab Women Active in Art and Media," which shares an office with another group that has ties to Almontaser (a rather tenuous and tendentious "connection," I know). Aside from the "crime" of having this connection with the group in question, Almontaser has also committed the second crime of explaining the meaning of the word Intifada: "it basically means ‘shaking off.’ That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic. I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don’t believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City. I think it’s pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City societyand shaking off oppression."
This statement, while seemingly innocent enough, is deemed irrefutable proof of Almontaser’s "gratuitous apology for suicide terrorism," in Pipe’s own words, and as evidence of "warmongering," in the eyes of the NY Post editors. Normally whenever I read such fanatical claims amongst American right-wingers, I don’t bother to respond. Pipes and Colon’s claims may be too stupid to merit a rebuttal, but the effectiveness of such attacks is truly disturbing for anyone committed to multiculturalism and democracy. Racist rhetoric has been allowed to dominate media discourse for too long, and has often been successful in setting the terms of debate as erroneous as those terms may be. Consider, for example, an August 26 report from the Chicago Tribune on the disputed school. The story claims that "at the core of the debate [over the school] is a linguistic disconnect." This may be what apologists for Pipes want the public to believe, but the claim has no bearing on reality whatsoever. For one thing, there has been no "debate" going on here, only racist bullying. American media commentary has been hijacked by pundits who have zero commitment to intellectual debate of the issues, and even less commitment to understanding the nuances that come along with learning about foreign cultures and languages. That the claims of Pipes and others could even be taken seriously by New York political leaders and media reporters is a sign of just how far our intellectual culture has deteriorated.
Consider a few of the following facts that are either ignored or twisted in the current media-political "debate" over the school.
1. While the Kahlil Gibran academy has been attacked for indirectly teaching Islam in a public institution, Gibran himself was not even Muslim, he was Christian Arab. Why the administrators of the school would have consciously chosen Gibran as an inspiration for an "Islamic school" is never explained in media debate (and why would devout Muslims enroll in a school named after a Christian poet expecting to get an Islamic education anyway?). One would hardly know about the school’s non-Muslim roots, however, after reading Pipe’s tirades.
2. The official language of the most populous Muslim country in the world (Indonesia) is not even an Arabic, but Bahasa Indonesia. One wouldn’t know this either by reading the NY Sun or NY Post editorials. That there’s nothing inherently linking Islam with Arabic is a lesson Americans should be taught as children, although it is not included in most civics discourses in this country.
3. Contrary to the claims of Colon and Pipes, Almontaser was indeed correct that the word "Intifada" means "uprising" or "shaking off." The word is not inherently tied to military attacks on civilians. I used to make this same point when I taught Middle East politics, although I would also presumably be denigrated as a terrorist sympathizer for my failure to declare war on the Arabic language.
4. The nation for which Pipes reserves most of his anger is Palestine as he attacks Palestinian suicide bombers who target Israeli civilians. While predominantly Arabic speaking, Palestine retains a sizable non-Muslim minority, another inconvenient fact ignored by Pipes. Twenty-five percent of West Bank residents are Christian and Jewish speaking Arabs. Such a reality would be deemed little more than a paradox, however, by ignorant minds vilifying the Arabic language as Muslim in orientation.
Claiming that the Arabic language is inherently Muslim makes about as much sense as claiming that English is inherently Christian. But this doesn’t mean that such efforts to confuse the public are ineffective. As of late August (and in light of a five month campaign by the "Stop Madrassa Coalition," of which Pipes is a part) Almontaser has been pressured to step down as Principal of the Gibran Academy. Furthermore, Pipes and other members of his coalition have vowed not to end their campaign until the academy is permanently closed. The New York Times reports that, in light of the protests, "the chancellor of schools, Joel Klein, is considering other locations for the school [currently in Brooklyn], or even postponing the opening for a year." The attacks, and many others of their kind, have also left a terrible psychic scar on many Arab-Americans forced to endure unbridled American racism. Sadly, U.S. "multiculturalism" seems to make room only those with enough political and social capital to effectively fight back against media and public prejudice and xenophobia. Even Arab-American citizens are deemed as "outsiders" or "foreigners" within such a twisted value system.
It remains to be seen whether the racist views of Pipes and his ilk are representative of the American public as a whole. How Americans react to anti-Arab/anti-Muslim political-cultural campaigns will do much in determining the status of Arab Americans in the future, and the vigor of our democracy. One thing seems clear though: as long as a loud minority of reactionaries is allowed to hijack public dialogue and debate, not much is going to change.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror" (forthcoming December 2007). He can be reached at email@example.com