Debbie Almontaser: Cowardice in the Face of Prejudice

Debbie Almontaser, a veteran Arab American educator was selected to lead the Khalil Gibran International Academy in New York City slated to open this fall. The school is unique in that there is an emphasis on Arab culture in addition to core subjects. She was forced to resign earlier this month because of anti-Islam, anti-Arab hysteria from largely conservative bigots in the media. In a move to surely designed to placate critics, her replacement is Jewish and and does not speak Arabic.

Almontaser was asked a question about a t-shirt she had nothing to do with that said “Intifada in New York” and she responded truthfully and eloquently about the origin and meaning of the word intifada in the Arabic language. Her critics seized upon her explanation because she did not include the now required caveat for all Muslims and Arabs and other people that look brown that she did not support terrorism. Since then, her character has been maligned and she was maliciously attacked and accused of supporting terrorism even though she has a considerable body of interfaith work.

During the Islam in the West conference this past June in Somerset, New Jersey, Hamza Yusuf commented that we have failed as a community to convey our religion and have allowed others to convey what Islam is not.

Hamza Yusuf then raised some interesting questions: Who are the chairs of African American Studies departments in the universities? African Americans. Jewish Studies? Jews. Seminaries? Christians. If you go to a large bookstore in the US, in the Christian section, all the books are positive. In the Jewish section, all the books are positive. In the Buddhist section, the books are glowing. The Dali Lama is such a nice man. When people think of Buddhism, they think Dali Lama. When people think of Christianity they think of the Pope and Mother Theresa. When they think of Hinduism they think of Gandhi.

Who do people think of when they hear the word Islam? Men with hoods and AK-47s. We need to change that.

It is precisely this incorrect and biased image that curtailed the Dubai Ports World deal and forced Debbie Almontaser to resign her position. I am reminded of a line from the Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The Crucible in which John Proctor says to Reverend Hale, “I never knew until tonight that the whole world is gone daft with this nonsense.”

Mona Eltahawy: Arab Principal was a Casualty of Fear

Samuel G. Freedman: Critics Ignored Record of a Muslim Principal


  1. asa. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf makes an excellent point. so i wonder if the course offerings @ muslims and arabs will now be taught from a jewish perspective. and you are indeed correct about the bookstores. the islam section always has some negative, anti-islamic books but the other religions rarely, if ever, contain books that are critical of those particular faiths.

  2. it is actually harder than we can imagine to convey the rightful image of Islam anywhere. the mindset has so stubbornly settled in the media that Islam is either known as a hateful oppressive religion OR a religion that just centres around rituals and traditions.

    try quoting from the Qur’an and relating the ayah application to our everyday lives. when i do that, or try to do that, i get quizzical looks saying: you’re not talking about Islam, you’re talking about technology / modern medicine / breastfeeding / parenting. how can that be related to Islam?

    some times i feel like giving up, with this huge urge to allow my efforts to cave in. especially when “they” then go on and say, if you want to talk about Islam just keep it to Qur’anic and Hadith studies, your belief system, the way you pray.

    it’s difficult, but u have everything to lose if you give up. so muslims do, literally, have to keep trying!

  3. Asalamu alaykum,

    I think that on an individual level, interacting with most non-Muslims is not a problem and a lot of understanding can take place and misconceptions can be erased but on a large-scale, it would take a majority of the information brokers in the media to help convey the message or change the perceptions of the masses.

    Welcome to the blog, HijabHaven.

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