“It’s hard not to believe that this is in some way a political statement,” said one opponent, 72-year-old Lorna Salzman of Brooklyn. “I think it can very easily deteriorate into something that people could see as confrontational.”
Debbie Almontaser expected the reaction. The longtime New York City educator, a Muslim of Yemeni background, will be leading the soon-to-open Khalil Gibran International Academy. She has done extensive interfaith and cultural work to fight stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims in the post-Sept. 11 world.
The school is named after the famed Lebanese-American Christian poet who promoted peace. It would be one of a few nationwide that incorporate the Arabic language and culture. Almontaser and city Department of Education officials say the curriculum will be in line with basics required from public schools while integrating elements of its theme.
For instance, the crucial role of Arabs in developing algebra would be explored in math. In history, students may study Egypt’s extraordinary past. And, of course, Arabic will be offered as a second language, at a time when Arabic speakers are in great demand in a number of fields. The goal is to eventually teach half of the classes in Arabic.
New York already has schools specializing in Asian culture and Chinese language, and is opening one that centers on Latin-American culture. When the education department revealed plans for the Arabic school earlier this year, the reaction was fierce on right-wing Web sites.
Daniel Pipes, a conservative commentator who frequently rails against militant Islam, wrote on his blog: “In principle it is a great idea – the United States needs more Arabic-speakers. In practice, however, Arabic instruction is heavy with Islamist and Arabist overtones and demands.”
I suppose I should know more about Daniel Pipes by now. I have to question his statement that Arabic instruction is “heavy with Islamist and Arabist overtones and demands.” What does he even mean by that?
I’ve heard similar statements before. In fact, a large part of why the State Department was ignored by the neocons when it came to their “planning” for the Middle East is the prevailing belief that everyone who learns or knows Arabic is irrationally biased towards the Arab world and against Israel.
“Teachers are going to be expected to provide students with multiple perspectives on whatever the issue is,” Almontaser said. “Students will, through the critical-thinking skills that they will develop, make informed decisions on the perspective that they want to believe. It’s going to be quite difficult to do, but that is a priority.”