Fifty years ago, nine African-American students were blocked from entering the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas as a result of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the US Supreme Court barring segregation. The iconic images from that day of angry white protesters and National Guardsman harassing black teenagers resonated in the American sub-conscience for decades. Members of the angry mob, who had predicted terrible repercussions from integration, are likely spending the rest of their days trying to forget the whole affair, or simply hanging their heads in shame.
If there were lessons to be learned from the fear-mongering and hatred, they may not have passed on to the generation casting a wary eye on the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, NY. The school is the first of its kind to teach Arabic language and culture, but not the first of its type – there are 69 similar dual-language schools in New York alone, and others across the country. Interestingly enough, a similar but less-heated row is occurring over the Jewish Ben Gamla Charter School in Florida. At the heart of both debates is whether or not languages such as Arabic or Hebrew can be taught without teaching religion.
Unlike Hebrew, however, Arabic is for some a proxy for Islam and/or terrorism, and has stoked fears of taxpayer-funded “madrassas” (the school will have no religious instruction and will abide by New York educational standards) and breeding grounds for Islamists. As a result, 55 (out of a capacity of 60) new students ran a gauntlet of onlookers and police who descended on the school as it opened this week. A silent vigil of 75 people was held nearby in support of the school and its students, shades of Benjamin Fine, the white (Jewish) journalist who famously sat next to Elizabeth Eckford and said “don’t let them see you cry.”
In an attempt to avoid Little Rock-style imagery of protestors hounding students, school opponents gathered at City Hall instead. “With the Islamic school, you will have to have special observation, special auditing that you don’t need in a Greek school or a Chinese school,” explained Jeff Wiesenfeld, a spokesman for the Stop the Madrassa Coalition. “You don’t have a threat from those cultures.” The group announced the formation of a national group, the Citizens for American Values in Public Education, which plans to fight what it calls a “radical Islamist agenda” in public schools. Accusations against the school’s now-resigned principal, Debbie Almontaser, centered around her ability to answer questions related to the Palestinian intifada and not school curriculum, and allegations of an “Islamist agenda” relied on stretching any connection to the school (or non-connection) into a conspiracy. Challenged to the end to prove their theories, many critics could only resort to a grumbling “We’ll see.”
“The people who are so against the school for me seem more like the terrorists, by terrorizing the community and making us feel that it’s unsafe for our children to be there,” said one parent, who pulled her son out of the school in frustration. “They’re the ones who are terrorizing us. Not the school, not the principal and not the administration.” The school has made it to opening day in part due to the support of New York City officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who say that fears of a hotbed of radical Islam are misplaced. “Not gonna happen, not gonna happen, not gonna happen,” said Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott. “That is just totally ridiculous.”
In time, the children graduating from the school will make decisions about their lives that may be inspired from their time at Khalil Gibran. Some may turn their language proficiency into a career (the best paying ones will almost certainly be serving American military and intelligence interests). Others may continue to nurture a cultural interest, represented by food, music, or literature. Many will move on to learn about other things. And some may find an affinity towards Islam, though scores of American converts have done so without knowing a word of Arabic.
But if anyone still wants to keep track of the youngsters’ paths to extremism – all linked to a state-regulated high school in New York – another fifty years may not be enough to prove such an outcome. Before that happens, another generation may find themselves hanging their heads in shame.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.