Debbie AlmontaserOn October 17, Debbie Almontaser, the founding principal of the nation’s first public school with a focus on the study of Arab language and culture, delivered the 18th Annual Rose Sheinberg Lecture. In a talk entitled “Arab Culture and Islam: Challenges in Diversity Education,” Almontaser emphasized how her personal experience as an educator and interfaith activist has demonstrated the importance of challenging bigotry within the school system.

Donna Nevel, coordinator of the Participatory Action Research Center for Education Organizing (PARCEO) that operates in partnership with the Educational Leadership Program at NYU Steinhardt, introduced the lecture, praising Almontaser for her unwavering commitment to justice in the education system. “She is committed to challenging our two-tiered system of education that privileges some at the expense of others, and to ensuring that all our children receive the education they deserve,” Nevel said.

Almontaser has maintained this commitment even in the face of what Nevel described as “a vicious smear campaign” against the school Almontaser helped found, the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) in Brooklyn, NY. In her lecture, Almontaser claimed that despite the emphasis in the school’s mission on cross-cultural learning and understanding, it was cast in the press as an extremist organization. After the controversy gained national attention in a New York Post article, Almontaser was forced to step down from her position as principal. She has nevertheless continued her work as an educator; she currently chairs the Muslim Consultative Network, and she is a doctoral student in urban educational leadership at Fordham University.

Attributing the incendiary reaction against KGIA to a growing trend of Islamophobia, Almontaser also pointed to a number of other incidents in 2010, including the violent beating of a Muslim cab driver, as well as the protests against the building of a Muslim center in Park 51 at the World Trade Center. “We must make very clear that Muslim and Arab-American identities do not contradict that founding values of the United States. One can be fully Muslim and fully American simultaneously without compromising either identity,” Almontaser said.

Education, Almontaser argued, is the most important tool in working against bullying of any kind, which is strengthened by fear and ignorance. Almontaser made a number of suggestions as to how schools might combat Islamophobia in particular: “In schools and universities, hire counselors who understand the diverse needs of Muslim-American students; establish academic centers that will specialize on Arab and Muslim- American and Muslim integration; hire Muslim-American chaplains in largely populated universities; create curricula that reflects who our students are and promotes respect for all its students.” The ultimate goal, Almontaser said, is for schools to teach children to become “empowered, independent thinkers who are able to work with cultures beyond their own.”

Posted October 21, 2011

Watch the full video of the event (1 h 11 min):