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."
"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.
Wiesenfeld said Stop the Madrassa is not opposed to offering Arabic as a language elective in public schools: "We need Arabic speakers. We should have thought about it before and we can still do it." Pipes said he believes KGIA can teach Arabic without proselytizing for Islam, but "it should have teachers who understand the restrictions in working for a taxpayer-funded institution, and it should be supervised by a board that is aware of the problems that tend to accompany Arabic-language instruction." New York Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein has promised to shut down the school if it promotes religion.
Stop the Madrassa has grown into a national organization-Citizens for American Values in Public Education-and the controversy is going national. In Hollywood, Fla., school officials ordered the Ben Gamla Charter School to suspend temporarily its Hebrew classes until they could determine whether or not teachers were advocating Judaism. Like KGIA, the charter school follows a state curriculum, but it also teaches Hebrew, serves kosher food, and has a rabbi for a director.
Meanwhile, mom Amal Hasne says of the whole controversy, "It's too much. It's too much. It's not the first school to open teaching Arabic." She said she will continue to send her daughter to KGIA because it is small, she believes it is safe, and her daughter will no longer be "segregated" from non-Arabic-speaking classmates.
When the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR; see WORLD, March 22, 2003) opened its Central Florida office in the spring of 2004, Muslim convert Roy Smith signed up to volunteer. The retired lawyer and Tampa resident wanted to help CAIR's local chapter further the national organization's stated mission-namely, "to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding."
Smith, 50, became a dues-paying member and even applied for the paid position of civil-rights director at one point. But he began to suspect that CAIR's agenda ran deeper than its slick public-relations statement. He watched the group routinely shun simple solutions to cultural misunderstandings in favor of legal action and press releases about civil-rights violations. He wondered whether the organization was more concerned with publicizing the supposed victimization of American Muslims than it was with helping that community assimilate.
In an interview with WORLD, Smith revealed that behind closed doors CAIR's façade of moderation quickly lifted. He heard statements like "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Smith's reaction: "People who fly planes into buildings are not freedom fighters." He still hoped that CAIR could serve an important purpose, until this past spring when he learned of the organization's listing as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal lawsuit against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), a defunct American Muslim charity accused of funneling millions of dollars to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
Smith promptly asked that his name be removed from CAIR's membership rolls. He was not alone. According to a Washington Times report in June, dues-paying members of CAIR have fled the organization by the thousands in recent years. Tax records show that CAIR's annual income from member dues has plummeted from $732,765 in 2000 to $58,750 last year. Last month a CAIR attorney admitted that membership has dropped and donations have dipped beneath the organization's monthly budget requirements.
That's good news to Steve Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and author of six books on terrorism and national security. He has followed the HLF trial closely and told WORLD that the prosecution's evidence of connections between CAIR and Hamas has awakened some moderate Muslims to CAIR's true agenda: "Some of the chapters of CAIR are staffed by Muslims who are motivated by sincere beliefs about fighting discrimination and are not obsessed with Hamas. The unindicted co-conspirator designation was a shock to them."
Numerous other Muslim organizations, such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the North American Islamic Trust, also made the list of unindicted co-conspirators. But the potential impact of such revelations on the truly moderate Muslim American community has fallen short of Emerson's hopes due to sagging national press coverage. Most mainstream media outlets continue to take the quotes from leaders of CAIR and ISNA at face value.
Even segments within the Department of Justice have not heeded the implicit warnings emerging from the HLF trial. Last week, the DOJ co-sponsored ISNA's annual convention just outside Chicago, the largest such gathering of Muslims in the nation.
U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) attempted to dissuade DOJ officials from associating with an Islamic organization that U.S. attorneys have shown collaborates with the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Hoekstra's letter of protest charged the DOJ with making "a grave mistake to provide legitimacy to an organization with extremist origins, leadership and a radical agenda."
In a letter of response, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski defended the DOJ's presence at the ISNA conference as an attempt to engage the American Muslim community. He also noted the participation of a variety of government agencies, including the U.S. military, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and USAID.
Zuhdi Jasser, chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, told WORLD that such associations between government and Islamist organizations only serve to reinforce perceptions that groups like ISNA and CAIR represent the majority of American Muslims. He believes prosecuting such groups, not befriending them, is the proper strategy for reforming Islam in America: "If we're going to get a reformation process to happen, and what I would call a second enlightenment in Islam, it's going to take more pressure from the non-Muslim community to get Muslims to own up."
The Justice Department has typically applied such pressure. HLF is one of many Muslim charities federal authorities have shut down since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Others include the Islamic American Relief Agency, Global Relief Foundation, Benevolence International Foundation, Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, KindHearts USA, Global Charitable Organization, and Mabarrat.
Each of these organizations fell under suspicion for taking donations from American Muslims under the pretense of legitimate charity activity, while channeling some of their funds to known terrorist groups.
Kamal Nawash, president of the Free Muslims Coalition and a critic of Islamism, believes the exposure of such activity has pushed Muslims away from donating to mainstream Muslim groups. But he told WORLD that such financial retractions reflect only a general apprehension about getting into trouble, rather than any monumental awakening in the minds of American Muslims about the sinister aims of politicized Islamism: "On the grassroots level, the average Muslim is still completely oblivious to what's going on."
Both Nawash and Jasser hope to change that. Roy Smith is evidence that they can. "There's a veneer of moderation with CAIR, but it's just a veneer," Smith said. "You can't graft Islamist concepts into a democratic society. They are the antithesis of freedom, liberty, and due process."