Debbie Almontaser, who resigned under fire from her position as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), New York’s Arabic-themed school, has spoken out publicly for the first time. In a statement read from the steps of City Hall she said:
“On Feb. 12, 2007, the Department of Education announced the establishment of KGIA. In the days following, right-wing blogs began spinning KGIA as an Islamist school with a radical extremist jihad principal. And local New York City papers fanned the flames with headlines like: ‘Holy war! Slope Parents Protest Arabic School Plan’, ‘A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn’, and ‘Arabic School Idea Is a Monstrosity’. From the day the school was approved to the day I was forced to resign, The New York Sun plastered my picture on its website with a link to negative articles about KGIA.
“Leading the attack was the ‘Stop the Madrassa Coalition’ run by Daniel Pipes, who has made his career fostering hatred of Arabs and Muslims. The coalition conducted a smear campaign against me and the school that was ferocious. Members of the coalition stalked me wherever I went and verbally assaulted me with vicious anti-Arab and anti-Muslim comments. They suggested that, as an observant Muslim, I was disqualified from leading KGIA, even though the school is rigorously secular, and its namesake, Khalil Gibran, was a Lebanese Christian. To stir up anti-Arab prejudice, they constantly referred to me by my Arabic name, a name that I do not use professionally. They even created and circulated a YouTube clip depicting me as a radical Islamist.
“Then in early August, The New York Post and the Stop the Madrassa Coalition tried to connect me to T-shirts made by a youth organization called Arab Women in the Arts and Media. The T-shirts said, ‘Intifada NYC’. Post reporters aggressively sought my comment. Because the T-shirts had nothing to do with me or KGIA, I saw no reason to discuss the issue with the media. I agreed to an interview with a reporter from The Post at the D.O.E.’s insistence. During the interview, the reporter asked about the Arabic origin of the word ‘intifada’. I told him that the root word from which the word intifada originates means ‘shake off’ and that the word intifada has different meanings for different people, but certainly for many, given its association with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, it implied violence. I reiterated that I would never affiliate myself with an individual or organization that would condone violence in any shape, way, or form. In response to a further question, I expressed the belief that the teenage girls of AWAAM did not mean to promote a ‘Gaza-style uprising’ in New York City.
“Although The Post story distorted my words, it accurately reflected my view that I do not condone violence. That should have been the end of the matter. D.O.E. officials should simply have said that it was clear that neither I nor KGIA had any connection to the T-shirts. They should have pointed out that I had devoted my entire adult life to the peaceful resolution of conflict and to building bridges between ethnic and religious communities. In other words, they should have said that the attacks upon me were utterly baseless. Instead, they forced me to issue an apology for what I said. And when the storm of hate continued, they forced me to resign.”