AWAAM Under Fireby Eleanor J. Bader
Arab women's group catches heat in school controversy
When playwright John Guare penned Six Degrees of Separation in 1990, he demonstrated the tenuous trail separating Person A from Person B. Now, “six degrees of separation” has been extended beyond the individual to encompass community organizations working in Arab and Muslim communities.
To wit: Debbie Almontaser, the beleaguered founder and first principal of Brooklyn’s Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), a bilingual Arabic-English public school that opened in September 2007, is on the board of SABA, The Association of Yemeni Americans. SABA rents office space to AWAAM, Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media.
In the summer of 2007, critics of KGIA—organizations including Stop The Madrassa, a pro-Iraq War group called Gathering of Eagles, The United American Committee, and Citizens for American Values in Public Education—discovered AWAAM selling T-shirts with the slogan Intifada NYC. As Six Degrees would have it, these critics conjured a connection between Almontaser and intifada and began a no-holds-barred campaign against both her and the school that captured headlines in The New York Post, The New York Sun and on FOX 5 TV. Among the charges were allegations that KGIA would be a vehicle for Islamist ideology and that Almontaser would allow teachers to propagate radical religious beliefs and undermine the national security of the U.S. of A.
Preposterous as it sounds, the T-shirt brouhaha led to Almontaser’s resignation and she is presently in litigation against the City’s Department of Education. For its part, KGIA, one of approximately 60 dual language schools across the five boroughs, is on its third principal in five months and remains in the media spotlight.
And AWAAM? Mona Eldahry, the group’s founder, says that the campaign against the group has forced it to shift gears. “In our earlier years a lot of our work was disconnected from campaigns, meaning we trained about 70 girls a year in community organizing and in video production, DJing, radio production and graphic design. This past summer we became forced to connect our curriculum to actual campaigns, defending KGIA and Debbie.” In 2007, the group also pushed for recognition of two Muslim holidays, Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Adha, on the public school calendar.
Their 2008 agenda includes continued support of KGIA as well as teaching video production at the Al-Noor School in Sunset Park. AWAAM will also run a summer program that teaches community organizing skills like campaign development, power analysis, and studying the intersections between racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, adultism, and ableism. Communication and media are also stressed so that the girls are comfortable when speaking out. “We want the media to see the faces of Arab and Muslim youth and the young women of color who make up our membership, just as we want to continue to produce our own media to affect public discourse,” Eldahry says.
Indeed, despite its name, AWAAM is not exclusively Arab. The group includes Muslims as well as Christians and has grown to include an array of adolescents and teenagers of color.
African American board member Erica Waples, a Christian, became involved in 2003 and joined the board in 2004 because she wanted to do something concrete to contest the racism she was witnessing. “After 9-11 I saw firsthand the backlash toward the Arab and Muslim communities. I even heard it from my own family,” she begins. “The attacks and discrimination were overt and frequent. I saw that it had become okay, acceptable, because ‘they’ might be terrorists.”
Waples sees AWAAM’s focus on gender as especially important. “Our goal is to train the girls to be social justice workers,” she says. “We only have female mentors so the girls see women, and women of color specifically, in leadership, doing things.”
Fatin, a 19-year-old Brooklyn College student, participated in AWAAM several years ago and currently volunteers at the organization. She is incredulous about the political attacks AWAAM has shouldered. “KGIA and AWAAM are not related. Before the school opened I was optimistic about it. I didn’t think about opposition. I envisioned KGIA as a bridge, showing the good things that Arabs like Khalil Gibran had done. It’s as if the school’s opponents don’t want Arabs to look good. How else can you explain such racism?”
AWAAM is presently one of seven groups participating in the Communities in Support of KGIA Coalition that came together following the T-shirt controversy. Other members include Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Center for Immigrant Families, Brooklyn for Peace, the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, The Muslim Consultative Network, and the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn.
Donna Nevel represents the Center for Immigrant Families, a collective of community members and low-income, immigrant women of color based in upper Manhattan. “I find it outrageous that the Mayor and the Department of Education caved in and let educational policy be dictated by virulently racist, right-wing groups,” she says of Almontaser’s firing. “Rather than standing up to Stop the Madrassa and other critics, the city let the right-wing dictate who our education leaders will be. This shows real disrespect and contempt for communities of color in this city,” she says.
Not surprisingly, opponents of KGIA and AWAAM see things differently. Retired lawyer/businessman Stuart Kaufman is the founder of Citizens for American Values in Public Education, a national grouping focused on what he calls “the dangers that might arise if Islamists, radical Muslims, somehow make significant inroads into public schools.” He works hand-in-hand with Stop the Madrassa, a one-year-old local effort to close KGIA.
“In the worst case scenario, people who have malevolence towards the West, towards the U.S., and towards people of faiths other than radical Muslim, will get a foothold in the public schools and will use these schools as a platform for indoctrinating children into radical Islam,” Kaufman says.
Although he concedes that this has not happened, he worries that AWAAM and Almontaser have an agenda that runs counter to American interests. “In 2002, Almontaser ascribed some of the blame for 9-11 to the U.S.,” he says. “She also refused, when asked, to categorize Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations. The intifada T-shirt was a small part of it. We have no idea what textbooks are being used at KGIA. We have no idea what handouts are being distributed.”
A Freedom of Information Act request to force the Department of Education to reveal KGIA’s curricula is pending. This is necessary, Kaufman says, because DOE’s assurances that KGIA is a non-religious public school serving diverse students have done little to assuage his group’s anxiety. Neither do testimonials about Almontaser’s good character from people as varied as Borough President Marty Markowitz; Rabbi Mychal Springer, the Associate Dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School; or the metro-area chapter of Pax Christi. Still, Kaufman is defensive. “You should know that we are in favor of teaching Arabic in the public schools. We just don’t think that it should be taught in a school that is hermetically sealed,” he says.
The idea that any public school is immune from DOE scrutiny is absurd, say KGIA and AWAAM supporters. Furthermore, they charge that Kaufman’s assertion that KGIA defies church-state separation is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Why? Because Stop the Madrassa and Citizens for American Values in Public Education have secured legal counsel from the Thomas More Law Center, a legal advocacy outfit whose purpose is “the defense and promotion of the religious freedom of Christians.”
Apparently, it’s true that politics breeds strange bedmates.
Contradictions aside, Eldahry admits that the controversy has taken its toll and says that she can’t help but be annoyed by the seemingly-endless strife with which AWAAM has had to contend. On the flip side, she remains upbeat, a task made easier by the hundreds of requests for Intifada NYC T-shirts that continue to pour in. Eldahry notes that “the fight to save KGIA brings together professors and college students whose academic freedom to teach and learn has been attacked; writers who’ve been censored; public school teachers who are trying to give students a fair view of current events and history; and those of us fighting against the U.S. backlash against Arabs, Muslims, immigrants and people of color.”
Through it all, Eldahry maintains that her convictions have never wavered. “We have, and will always have, the right to speak, read and write about our histories and experiences.” She and other KGIA supporters maintain that the relationship between activists and community organizations, regardless of the number of degrees separating them, is irrelevant. What matters is the education of New York City’s young people. It is this education that, first and foremost, has been imperiled by the campaign against AWAAM, Almontaser, and the Khalil Gibran school.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader