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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 September 2007, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
New York Arabic school sparks row
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, New York

The welcome signs waved by smiling supporters were meant to make the 60 students enrolled at New York's first publicly-funded Arabic language school feel welcome on their first day in class.

A policeman watches as pupils arrive for their first day at the Khalil Gibran International Academy
Police officers were stationed by the gates on pupils' first day of school

But there was no hiding the dozen police officers who stood outside the gates, nor the reporters who had shown up for the opening of a school surrounded by controversy.

The Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, named after a 20th Century Lebanese Christian poet, has attracted students from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Some have joined to reconnect with their families' culture and homeland; others, with no Arab or Muslim background, because they believe learning the language will give them a valuable skill.

But while the school is backed by city authorities, over the past few months it has become embroiled in a row fuelled by suspicion over its curriculum and a controversy over its original head teacher.

Suspicion

As classes began on Tuesday, members of the "Stop the Madrassa" protest group rallied outside New York's City Hall, calling for the school to be shut down.

People rally in support of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in New York
Supporters say it is no different to other language schools in New York

Although "Madrassa" means school in Arabic, in English the word has become associated with radical Muslim religious schools.

Opponents of the Brooklyn school argue that not enough has been made public about its curriculum, which is why there is suspicion about its agenda.

"We are, all of us, in favour of teaching Arabic, it's not about whether we teach Arabic culture. We're all in favour of doing that too," said Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security and Policy in Washington and a former assistant secretary of defence in the Reagan administration.

"It is about teaching it in an appropriate way and this is not an appropriate way. In fact, it is a way that is fraught with peril, not just for New York but for the country at large."

An internet search reveals how heated the discussion has become. A post on one website suggests that the school's football field will be converted into a terrorist training camp.

Another comment reads: "Now Muslims will be able to learn how to become terrorists without leaving New York."

Double standards

New York City's education department has defended the school against its critics.

A supporter of the Khalil Gibran International Academy holds up a sign
Education officials say the school will teach the normal core curriculum

Official Garth Harries told reporters there were 200 small schools in New York teaching Chinese, French and Russian and that the Arabic language school would be no different.

"It's a core sixth grade curriculum that these kids are starting with, which is the basics - maths, English, history, science," she was quoted as saying.

"And the kids are also going to be learning Arabic, which is an incredibly exciting and unique opportunity for these kids.

"Religion plays absolutely no part in the school. This is a public school, it wouldn't play a part in any of our schools."

The school also has the support of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The New York Immigration Coalition has condemned the attacks on the school, saying a clear message must be sent "that racist comments associating Arabic language and culture with terrorism will not be tolerated".

If anything they want to show off the kind of tolerance and culture that they want to teach
Chung-Wha Hong
New York Immigration Coalition
Executive director Chung-Wha Hong said the school, like any other, had to be very open about its curriculum and indeed had shown its readiness to be so.

"If anything they want to show off the kind of tolerance and culture that they want to teach," she said.

"It would be a mistake to demand more information from this school than we do from others. We would be applying double standards."

But Mona elTahawy, a New York-based commentator on Muslim and Arab affairs, said the school should be making more details public.

"I think it's a serious mistake on behalf of the school and the Department of Education not to have made it much clearer, much earlier what exactly the school was going to be teaching," she said.

Furore

The controversy over the school reached fever pitch last month after its founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, failed to condemn the use of the word "intifada" in the slogan "Intifada NYC" on a T-shirt worn by Arab women.

Debbie Almontaser, who resigned as headteacher of the academy
Headteacher Debbie Almontaser resigned after a controversy

The Arabic term is commonly used to refer to the Palestinian uprising against Israel. Ms Almontaser said in Arabic it simply means "shaking off".

Two local tabloids reported claims she had ties to Islamic extremist organizations. But friends and supporters say she is a moderate Muslim who preaches inter-faith understanding.

Ms Almontaser resigned and the city replaced her with a Jewish principal who does not speak Arabic.

Parents who decided to send their children to the school said they were upset and saddened by the furore.

Among them was a Jewish mother who was on the design team for the school and said she would not have supported it if there were anything sinister on the agenda.

Another mother, Carmen Colon, had enrolled her 11-year-old son but pulled him out when the controversy started growing.

"I know for a fact that any American who learns Arabic will make tons of money whether it's translation, whether it's in the customer service area," she told US networks.

"The people who are so against the school for me seem more like the terrorists, by terrorising the community and making us feel that it's unsafe for our children to be there."

Hebrew school

Meanwhile, the Hebrew-teaching Ben Gamla charter school in Hollywood, Florida, has also been also in the spotlight, with its Kosher meals, rabbinical director and lessons about Jewish culture.

At the heart of the debate over both schools is whether Arabic and Hebrew can be taught without teaching religion.

Ultimately, it stems from the American conviction that paying taxes to support religious teachings is a violation of the separation of church and state.

While there have been no rallies demanding that the Ben Gamla school be shut down, the school was ordered to suspend Hebrew classes while officials from the local school board determined whether teachers were advocating the Jewish faith.

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish campaign group, and the Jewish Federation of Broward County have expressed concerns about the separation of church and state.

"There are unanswered questions as to how the subject matter of Jewish culture can be taught without also teaching the Jewish religion," federation head Eric Stillman said.

In New York, at the City Hall protest, Frank Gaffney from the Center for Security policy said he thought taxpayers' money should not go to the Ben Gamla school either.


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