Opponents of Muslim School "Divisive," "Self-Appointed Watchdogs"
Monday's front page was dominated by a puff piece on the controversial former principalof a Muslim school, Debbie Almontaser, "Her Dream, Branded as a Threat." Almontaser was forced to resign her position as principal of the Brooklyn public school she founded, Khalil Gibran International Academy. Reporter Andrea Elliott painted those opposed to the Muslim academy in fearsome and unflattering terms.
This is Almontaser's first interview since stepping down as principal, after defending the use of the word "intifada" on student T-shirts. Almontaser chose her venue wisely, given that Elliott gives reliably sunny profiles of local Muslims. (Sort of the Times' local version of Neil MacFarquhar.) Elliott's evasive three-part series on a mosque in Brooklyn and its imam Sheik Reda Shata won her a 2006 Pulitzer Prize.
Elliott vigorously defended Almontaser:
Debbie Almontaser dreamed of starting a public school like no other in New York City. Children of Arab descent would join students of other ethnicities, learning Arabic together. By graduation, they would be fluent in the language and groomed for the country's elite colleges. They would be ready, in Ms. Almontaser's words, to become "ambassadors of peace and hope."
Things have not gone according to plan. Only one-fifth of the 60 students at the Khalil Gibran International Academy 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," staff members and students said in interviews.
The Times is oddly nonchalant about a public school teaching Arabic from a Muslim perspective. (A front-page story from August 2007 about tax dollars going to a Hebrew school in Florida showed far moreskepticism.)
Elliott continued on Monday:
The academy's troubles reach well beyond its cramped corridors in Boerum Hill. The school's creation provoked a controversy so incendiary that Ms. Almontaser stepped down as the founding principal just weeks before classes began last September. Ms. Almontaser, a teacher by training and an activist who had carefully built ties with Christians and Jews, said she was forced to resign by the mayor's office following a campaign that pitted her against a chorus of critics who claimed she had a militant Islamic agenda.
In newspaper articles and Internet postings, on television and talk radio, Ms. Almontaser was branded a "radical," a "jihadist" and a "9/11 denier." She stood accused of harboring unpatriotic leanings and of secretly planning to proselytize her students. Despite Ms. Almontaser's longstanding reputation as a Muslim moderate, her critics quickly succeeded in recasting her image.
The conflict tapped into a well of post-9/11 anxieties. But Ms. Almontaser's downfall was not merely the result of a spontaneous outcry by concerned parents and neighborhood activists. It was also the work of a growing and organized movement to stop Muslim citizens who are seeking an expanded role in American public life. The fight against the school, participants in the effort say, was only an early skirmish in a broader, national struggle.
It's a battle that's really just begun," said Daniel Pipes, who directs a conservative research group, the Middle East Forum, and helped lead the charge against Ms. Almontaser and the school.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, critics of radical Islam focused largely on terrorism, scrutinizing Muslim-American charities or asserting links between Muslim organizations and violent groups like Hamas. But as the authorities have stepped up the war on terror, those critics have shifted their gaze to a new frontier, what they describe as law-abiding Muslim-Americans who are imposing their religious values in the public domain.
Mr. Pipes and others reel off a list of examples: Muslim cabdrivers in Minneapolis who have refused to take passengers carrying liquor; municipal pools and a gym at Harvard that have adopted female-only hours to accommodate Muslim women; candidates for office who are suspected of supporting political Islam; and banks that are offering financial products compliant with sharia, the Islamic code of law.
The danger, Mr. Pipes says, is that the United States stands to become another England or France, a place where Muslims are balkanized and ultimately threaten to impose sharia.
While Almontaser is a victim of persecution, her opposition is "divisive," while making standard operating procedure in the blogosphere sound sinister.
Mr. Pipes, 58, has emerged as a divisive figure in the post-9/11 era. An author of 12 books who has a doctorate in history from Harvard, he has made a career out of studying and critiquing Islam. His research group, which he established in downtown Philadelphia in the early 1990s, "seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East," according to its Web site.
Among his supporters, Mr. Pipes enjoys a heroic status; among his detractors, he is reviled. Those sharply divergent views reflect the passions that infuse Middle Eastern politics, arguably nowhere in the United States more than in New York City.
Mr. Pipes is perhaps best known for Campus Watch, a national initiative he created to scrutinize Middle Eastern programs at colleges and universities. The drive has accused professors of, among other things, being soft on militant Islam and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. It has stirred widespread controversy and, in some cases, may have undermined professors' bids for tenure.
Mr. Pipes was joined in the monitoring effort by other self-declared watchdogs of militant Islam. Their Web sites are often linked to one another and their messages interwoven. One critic, David Horowitz, founded Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, a campaign aimed at college campuses. He noted in an interview that monitors of radical Islam have increasingly trained their sights on nonviolent Muslim-Americans.
Muslim leaders, academics and others see the drive against the school as the latest in a series of discriminatory attacks intended to distort the truth and play on Americans' fear of terrorism. They say the campaign is also part of a wider effort to silence critics of Washington's policy on Israel and the Middle East.
Ms. Almontaser watched city officials and some of her closest Jewish allies distance themselves from her as the controversy reached its peak. She was ultimately felled by an article in The New York Post that said she had "downplayed the significance" of T-shirts bearing the slogan "Intifada NYC."
Last month, federal judges issued a ruling - related to a lawsuit brought by Ms. Almontaser to regain her job - stating that her words were "inaccurately reported by The Post and then misconstrued by the press."