Features

Islam 101?

Religion | Parents, pundits, and pedagogues battle over New York's Arabic school

Issue: "Safe haven," Sept. 15, 2007

BROOKLYN, N.Y.- Most students starting middle school face problems like pimples and algebra. But when sixth-grader Noor Hasne walked into Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) for the first time on Sept. 4, she faced reporters, uniformed security guards, and the opposition of a 500-strong grassroots coalition.

Amal Hasne, a pregnant mom trailed by a toddler and wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf, said she enrolled her daughter in the public school because it teaches Arabic, a language she wants Noor to learn and pass on to her own daughters. But KGIA's critics, including the "Stop the Madrassa" coalition, say that the school will teach not just Arabic but the Islamic religion as well.

KGIA is located in a Brooklyn neighborhood with a high Muslim population, just down the street from a Chinese restaurant that serves cuisine approved by Muslim religious law. The school is starting with 57 sixth-graders and plans to add a grade each year on the way to becoming a 6-12 school. According to its Executive Summary, the school's primary focus is "learning about the richness and diversity of Arab culture and history," including "the history, culture and official language of the Arab Nations."

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"Stop the Madrassa" members ask why the Summary mentions only one culture. Pamela Hall, Stop the Madrassa board member, said her group fears the school will teach only Islam, ignoring Arabic-speaking religious groups like Coptic Christians, Maronite Christians, and Sephardic Jews: "Please tell us how they're going to talk and teach about the rest of the Middle East." Melody Meyer, spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education, said any accusation of political or religious indoctrination is "absolutely false."

Frank Gaffney, president of the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, says the school has not provided the information citizens need to judge for themselves. In a Stop the Madrassa press conference, Gaffney asked, "Who are the teachers? What are the textbooks? Who will be providing the after-school program?" Stop the Madrassa has filed four Freedom of Information Law requests, asking that the school supply details.

KGIA has stated that students will take classes in the Arabic language, Arabic visual arts, and Arabic music. History classes will focus on Arab-American contributions to American history. Michigan State University is helping the school craft its Arabic-language curriculum, not yet in place.

That curriculum is a red flag for Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, who told WORLD that a school can teach Arabic objectively only by "rigorously controlling for political and religious pressures, making sure that these do not impinge on the learning process." Pipes said that since the curriculum was still "under wraps as though it were a military secret," citizens must look at school personnel to learn what the school represents.

Stop the Madrassa board member Hall said that school personnel have been "very loudly stating the Islamist ideology we are concerned about." Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a City University of New York trustee, complained that the KGIA advisory board consists "of a few left-wing rabbis and a few right-wing imams." For example, advisory board member Talib Abdul-Rashid is an imam at the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem: That mosque's website proclaims, "Allah is our goal. The prophet Muhammad is our leader. The Quran is our constitution. Jihad is our way. And death in the way of Allah is our promised end."

The Department of Education's Meyer said the school is no different from the 70 other dual-language schools in New York City: "They have the same focus and mission. . . . The Middle East is not a religious focus. It's not going to focus on any one religion or ideology." She says her department will monitor the school using an academic assessment test, and a Special Commission of Investigations will conduct an investigation if needed.

Several Muslims have added their voices to those opposing the school. Eblan Farris, board member of the Friends of Khalil Gibran Council, said the school "would not honor the legacy of this great poet," a Lebanese-American Christian. M. Zuhdi Jasser, chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, said that the school can't choose between Arabic culture and Islam: "If you're looking at Arabic culture and you remove the Islamic spiritual aspect of that, then you destroy it. . . . It would be no different than trying to take Christianity out of European culture." Jasser said his organization is against "any type of public funding for a theme school that is based on culture and religion," not just because it favors one faith over another but also because "collectivization and segregation" stimulate Islamic nationalism.

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