[Marxism] The attack on (cestruction of?) the Khalil Gibran Academy

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri Aug 31 09:13:07 MDT 2007

Although this item from Counterpunch  was dated August 30, it makes no
mention that Almontaser was replaced as principal by a non=Arabic-speaking
woman who is Jewish.  Wahether this person chosen because she was Jewish or
because she did not know Arabic or both, I do not know. I suspect the latter
was a factor, because there are Jews who know Arabic. My father, whose
experiences made him a far ranging linguist, knew Arabic, but I -- more
assimilated to America than I am 00 know no other language well but English.
Ignorance is organically part of being a Good American.

Faced with  a group of students who blazoned the word "intifada", the ousted
princioal was guilty of not denouncing them, as is the duty of US citizens
when confronted with support to the Palestinians.  Acting as a teacher not a
politician, she explained to them the broader meanings of the word intifada
and did not denounce them.

What were her own opinione, I do not know.  Perhaps she agreed with the
anti=Zionist views attributed to the students and responded accordingly..
But, perhaps and  more likely In my opinion, she was sim[;u respecting the
opinion of her students, regard;less of her own opinions, and using the
occasion to point out the facts of language, one of the meanings of

This could indicate that ignoranc of terrorist Arabic, not the fact that she
was Jewish, was the number one motivation for her appointment.  Ignorance of
other languages --- the American way -- is being recogned as key to defense
of the 100 percent American way of supporting Isrel against the Arabs.  

One question remains unanswered.  How can the new principal, who knows no
Arabic, police discussion at the Academy that takes place in Arabic.  How
can be sure that no teacher will agree with something said in favor or
intifada, jihad, or even a democratic secular state in Palestine, if she has
no idea what they are saying in that language, with all its potential for
subversion of the American way.

One possible solution: ban speaking in Arabic at the academy.  Perhaps the
Academy can be redirected to teach  Hebrew to Arabs, thus preparing them for
assimilation into the democratic Arab world that the US is striving to

After all, it would not be hard to prove that the Arab language was not
constructed for the purpose of defending imperialist and Zionist occupation
of Arab land. Other languages are probably more comfortably fitted to that

Or perhaps the Academy can be transformed to teach the new US specialty ==
English as the Only Language -- to immigrants who come from Arab, Latin, or
other imperfect backgrounds.

One final point.  My line of argument here is partly inspired by George
Orwell in his great novel 1984,  In his appendix on Newspeak, Orwell,
pretending to speak for the new ruling group, argues that in the new
language the Declaration of Independence of the US colonies could only be
translated by the single word "thought'crune".

Something like that seems to  be what the ruling class and the right are
aiming for in the conflct over the Kahlil Gibran Academy.  Palestinian
rights? "Thought=crime".
Fred Feldman

August 30, 2007
The Right-Wing's War on the Gibran Academy
Arabic as a Terrorist Language

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

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

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 adimag2 at uic.edu


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