Belief Beat

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has concluded that New York City’s Department of Education wrongly fired Debbie Almontaser, a Muslim American from Yemen, discriminating on the basis of her race, religion and national origin. Almontaser was the founding principal of the Arabic-themed Khalil Gibran International Academy, a dual-language public school that opened in 2007, but was pressured to resign due to public outrage over her attempts to explain the word “intifada” — most commonly associated with the Palestinian uprising against Israel — does not mean “terrorism.” (Read this story for more details – it’s written by Andrea Elliott, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her series about an immigrant imam’s struggles in America.)

The Council on American-Islamic Relations and other groups representing Arab and Muslim Americans, including, have applauded this “good news,” but the DOE maintains that it did not discriminate against Almontaser and will not reinstate her; Almontaser is appealing her lawsuit against the city. We’ll see where this goes.

As a New Yorker and a religion reporter, I wasn’t surprised when this controversy erupted, given that

the city remains scarred by terrorism and is home to the largest population of Jews outside Israel. (In an odd twist, the interim principal who replaced Almontaser was Jewish.) If the “intifada” uproar hadn’t happened, something else would have set Islamophobes off against the head of a proposed Arabic-themed school.

The Khalil Gibran academy (named for the celebrated Lebanese American poet, who happened to be Christian) is among dozens of specialized schools in NYC, including LaGuardia Arts, the high school that inspired the “Fame” movie and TV shows. Other linguistic-themed options include the Hebrew Language Academy and the Hellenic Classical Charter School, which offers Greek and Latin. Public schools can’t have religious affiliations, but it’s inevitable that some confusion will ensue when the language being taught (Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin) is closely tied to a particular faith (Judaism, Islam, Orthodoxy Christianity, Catholicism). Isn’t it?

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