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.”
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