Monday, August 20, 2007

Writer's group denounces anti-Arab racism in New York City

RAWI Urges the City of New York to Reinstate Debbie Almontaser

RAWI, the Radius of Arab American Writers, is concerned by the recent "resignation" of Debbie Almontaser from New York City's Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public school devoted to Arabic language and culture.

Almontaser generated public controversy when she was spotted by a reporter wearing a tee-shirt with the phrase "Intifada NYC" at an event sponsored by Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media. Both the event and the organization are unrelated to the Gibran Academy. As Almontaser attempted to explain repeatedly, the shirt is not in any way an endorsement of violence; "the word basically means 'shaking off,'" she noted.

Almontaser was subjected to vicious and factually unsubstantiated attacks by neoconservative media and commentators such as Daniel Pipes, who published sensationalistic articles entitled "A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn" and "Stop the NYC Madrassa." ("Madrassa" merely means "school" in Arabic.) Rupert Murdoch's New York Post dubbed Almontaser "the Initifada Principal" and ran an editorial under the title "What's Arabic for Shut It Down?" Amid the brouhaha, Randi Weingarten, the president of Almontaser's union, The United Federation of Teachers, took a public stand in opposition to Almontaser.

Almontaser, an Arabic-speaking Yemeni immigrant, is the founding principal of the school and is a veteran public school teacher. Because of the intense pressure, she was advised to resign as principal of the Academy; Mayor Michael Bloomberg accepted her resignation and swiftly replaced her with Danielle Salzberg, a non-Arabic-speaking American Jew; according to The Post, Salzberg is "an ardent Zionist who considered moving to Israel."

RAWI views this intense pressure and Almontaser's subsequent resignation as symptoms of pervasive anti-Arab racism in the United States through which nonviolent, workaday Arabic terms have been stigmatized with sinister, albeit nonsensical, connotations. We correspondingly view New York City's move to replace Almontaser with a non-Arab Zionist as a profound insult to the Arab American community. The clear message to the Arab American community is that we cannot undertake any of our own affairs without continuous public scrutiny and external bureaucratic supervision.

We have also learned that in moments of crisis the fear and loathing of Arabs will supersede the commonsensical need to exercise basic civil responsibility.

As a community of writers, scholars, and artists, RAWI is concerned about the consequences of the Almontaser imbroglio to the freedom of intellectual and cultural expression. If the City of New York can be cowed into taking action against a decorated principal who had done nothing other than wear a tee-shirt emblazoned with a cultural slogan, then groups whose purpose is to restrict public freedom will be inexcusably empowered. The effect of such groups on the Arab American community has already been substantial and has the potential to become pernicious.

Almontaser was the victim of a sensationalistic and premeditated media attack. She was then the victim of cowardice by her union and employers. RAWI urges the City of New York to reinstate her forthwith as principal of the Gibran Academy, a position from which she had no legitimate reason to resign.