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The week before, the Federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission ruled that the New York Department of Education and the City of New York had discriminated against Almontaser 3 years ago. In their non-binding ruling, they called for a "just resolution in accordance with Almontaser's demands," while asserting that she had been unjustly removed from her position at the Kahlil Gabran International Academy "on account of her race, religion and national origin." This finding tends to support Ms. Almontaser's claims for "Back pay, damages, and legal costs," although the New York City Department of Education has since said that "The department in no way discriminated against Almontaser and she will not be reinstated."
Debbie Almontaser was a well respected educator with 19 years of experience, when she was approached by the New York City Department of Education and school reform group New Visions. Almontaser seemed the logical choice to head up this Arabic language school, because she had already worked in many programs designed to build bridges between New York City's Christians, Muslims, and Jews as well as other ethnic and racial groups. In the past, she had been honored by the City of New York for her work, which Mayor Bloomberg was personally aware of when he met with her in the past.
This did not seem to matter after the school was approve on February 2007 as a full fledged public school. In June 2007 a group was formed called Stop the Madrassa, which defamed Ms. Armontaser by attributing to her the characteristics of a fanatic jihadist in total derogation of her well known pacifist actions and beliefs throughout her life. In addition, the NY Post was "gunning for Almontaser," who had the intelligence not to speak with them, because she felt they would only distort whatever she said in furtherance of the witch hunt being orchestrated by the right-wing blogs that had started to attack her within 48 hours of the public announcement about the projected opening of the school in Brooklyn.
There are several reasons we have decided to talk about Ms. Almontaser's case:
1. One of the primary purposes of education is to break down tribalism by teaching students, while they are in the process of becoming adults, to develop and use analytical skills to realize the common positive and negative values held by all people, no matter how different they initially appear. It is the success of this primary function of education that creates an ever changing American identity, so that we can derive the strengths and perspectives of all of our people. Almontaser used this approach even in organizing the school and its design team, made up of Christians Muslims Jews, Latinos, Blacks etc. In the past, this has been what has given us a competitive edge both culturally and economically. To the extent that we have become ridged and inflexible in the definition of what it is to be an American or to limit what ideas that we can address in educating our children is the extent to which we have become less viable as a people.
2. Tolerance has always been a good barometer of how successful we are in educating our people. When supposedly intelligent politicians allow themselves to be manipulated by the irrational and unsubstantiated hatred and fear of bigots, one becomes aware of just how degraded our analytic skills have become. Presently, there is a great deal of discussion about how poorly public schools are functioning, but if the truth were told, given the behavior of NYC officials, a half-century of failed public education has created dangerous thought processes among many of the politicians and others who one would justifiably think should know better.
3. Stereotyping exists, because it is easy and requires no thought. Recently, we have seen this applied to 94 teachers who were fired en masse in Rhode Island or discussions that seek to lay all the blame for what is wrong in education on bad teachers without thinking about whether such an answer makes any sense at all.
4. What we don't know as a people can hurt us as we saw on 9/11. Debbie Almontaser's "school was about educating the general public about Muslim and Arabic culture and heritage." For those of us who have studied the Renaissance, there is a clear awareness of just how much we owe this culture for its endeavors in science and philosophy, but most of all for preserving our shared traditions' foundation of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge. While Europe was going through the Dark Ages, Islamic culture thrived. Allowing an enlightened Islamic culture to flourish in Brooklyn might offer a counterbalance to our less than enlightened fellow citizens still living in a xenophobic Dark Age.