Park51 is only the latest, and it won’t be the last.
In the fall of 2007, New York’s first Arabic-language public school was slated to open in Brooklyn. For a namesake, organizers chose the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, a pacifist, an immigrant to New York, and a Christian so obsessed with Jesus he often said the Son of God visited him in his dreams. With a name like Khalil Gibran International Academy, they thought, surely no one would mistake it for a Muslim school.
“Imbuing pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism, proselytizing for Islam, and promoting Islamist sympathies will predictably make up the school’s true curriculum,” professional anti-Muslim Daniel Pipes wrote in a New York Sun op-ed, “A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn.” Later, he’d admit the claim was “a bit of a stretch.” No matter: Pipes’ rallying cry was heard by conservative activists, who founded a Stop the Madrassa Coalition, unleashing a vicious tarring of Khalil Gibran’s would-be principal, Debbie Almontaser. Three years later, those same activists would set upon the “Ground Zero mosque.” “All of these groups are connected and working on one thing,” Almontaser told a colleague and me recently, “to eliminate anything Arab or Muslim in the United States.”
A pillar of the local interfaith community and longtime educator, Debbie Almontaser worked with the Bloomberg administration to make Khalil Gibran a reality. The Times called Almontaser “arguably the city’s most visible Arab-American woman.” She carries herself tall and wears a simple, tightly-wrapped hijab that covers her hair but not her neck, making her high cheekbones all the more striking. Kind but authoritative, with a girlish lilt in her voice that puts one instantly at ease, “Principal Almontaser” would’ve suited her well.
The summer before Almontaser was to take the helm of Khalil Gibran, Stop the Madrassa spokeswoman Pamela Hall went trolling at New York’s annual Muslim Day Parade. Hall found a t-shirt that read “Intifada NYC” and snapped a picture. Gold mine: Almontaser was on the board of an organization that rented office space to the women’s group that made the t-shirt.
In our post-9/11 landscape of guilt-by-association, a time when every public American Muslim must prove their nonviolence by ritually denouncing radical Islam and Hamas, it was enough of a smoking gun. Department of Education officials pressured Almontaser to do an interview with the New York Post, the city’s preeminent tabloid. The next day, newsstands were plastered with the words “CITY PRINCIPAL IS ‘REVOLTING’: TIED TO ‘INTIFADA NYC’ SHIRTS.” The Bloomberg administration forced Almontaser to resign; in September, Khalil Gibran opened without her. Installed in her stead was an Orthodox Jewish woman who spoke no Arabic. Stop the Madrassa wanted more: specifically, Khalil Gibran’s closure. Staff took precautions not to give them fuel. “We cut pictures of mosques out of the Arabic books,” one teacher told Colorlines magazine as the school year began. “We are afraid that anything could be taken out of context.” But such measures would never be enough; the damage was done. Stop the Madrassa et al., triumphant, had caught a whiff of what they could accomplish.
Now that the fervor over Park51, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” has died down somewhat, we can actually step back, take a look around, and consider: the shitstorm that just passed through town is a familiar one. The proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan is the Brooklyn “madrassa” all over again, with the same cast of conservative activists working to block the mainstreaming of Muslims in the public sphere. Imam Abdul Feisal Rauf wants to create essentially a Muslim YMCA in Lower Manhattan? They say he supports Hamas and has terrorist ties. Debbie Almontaser wanted to head a public school that’d specialize in Arabic? Also—you guessed it—a Hamas supporter with terrorist ties. And repeat.
The anti-Muslim voices in the echo chamber are the same now as they were three years ago. They never stopped; they talked amongst themselves, writing books and articles and blog posts, the in-crowd growing larger and more devoted—until another big, ambitious project spearheaded by Muslims came around. Suddenly a mass amplification took place, and we found ourselves asking a question traditionally under the purview of the Right: what is happening to our country?
Khalil Gibran was not the beginning; our local and national history can be read as a grand succession of shitstorms. Yes, nativism is the great American common denominator. And New York has its own specific tradition of reactionary backlashes, in which the majority sees both its safety and entire way of life threatened by minorities. Where to begin?
Suzanne Wasserman of CUNY’s Gotham Center for New York City History points to colonial New York’s fears of slave rebellion. It was a time when 1/5th of Manhattanites were owned by another in what historian Jill Lepore has termed “a wretched calculus of urban unfreedom.” Accused of plotting to kill every single white person on the island, dozens of slaves were either burned at the stake or hanged in 1741. In the next century, Wasserman notes New York saw riots against Irish Catholics in the 1830s, the anti-immigrant Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 1850s, and the draft riots during the Civil War, when angry mobs of resentful working class whites attacked African-Americans, carrying out lynchings in the West Village. Twentieth-century New York saw race riots, and lots of them: 1919, 1935, 1943, 1968, and more. Then there were the hard-hat riots against the New Left in 1970, when construction workers attacked anti-war protestors near City Hall. Lest we be lacking in sympathy for angry mobs, we’d do well to remember the Stonewall riots and the Tompkins Square Park riot, when gays and the homeless did battle with the cops—or rather, in the case of the latter, were outright attacked by NYPD’s finest.
Nowadays, we don’t lynch, and we riot rarely. The occasional individual will stab a Muslim cabbie in Manhattan, beat a Mexican on Staten Island, or kill an Ecuadorian on Long Island. Mostly, we blog. An angry, fearful mob, posting and commenting, commenting and posting, in a town square cobbled with pornography and hate speech: the internet.
And yet, Mayor Bloomberg offers an appealing narrative of progress. In a landmark speech on Governors Island in August, he declared his unwavering support for Park51, the Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. He termed New York “the freest city in the world,” a “hard-won” freedom thanks to a long line of struggles beginning in the 17th century with Jews and Quakers petitioning the Dutch—unsuccessfully—for the right to build a synagogue and hold meeting groups, respectively. “I do agree with Bloomberg that we are the most tolerant city in the entire universe,” Wasserman wrote me in an email—a proud New Yorker, backlashes and all.
From Khalil Gibran to Park51, these last three years can be read as a narrative of progress for Bloomberg as well: finally, some might sigh with relief, he has remembered his own people’s history of discrimination and, seeing the fate of the Jews as irrevocably tied with the fate of all oppressed peoples, seen the light. Not quite. For starters, Almontaser pointed out, Bloomberg still steadfastly refuses to include Muslim holidays in the New York public school calendar.
And then there’s Israel. Objectively speaking, Bloomberg and his administration threw Debbie Almontaser under the bus because of a t-shirt with the words “Intifada NYC.” Almontaser failed to denounce the word to the New York Post. Instead, she’d given the educator’s answer: a history lesson.
“We all know what a huge supporter of Israel Bloomberg is,” Almontaser told me. Exhibit A: the mayor’s trip to the Jewish state during the 2008-09 attack on Gaza. Israel, Almontaser says, is “the elephant in the room” of New York politics. It’s a force that can make the mayor demand a public school principal’s resignation. A force that can make Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, defend Israel’s blockade of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, saying the goal is a honorable one: “to strangle them economically.” Such is the power of Zionism that it asks Jews, the majority of whom lean leftward, “to check their liberalism at [the] door,” as Peter Beinart put it.
Were Abdul Feisal Rauf to say a single critical word about Israel, Almontaser predicted Bloomberg would withdraw his support for Park51 in a heartbeat.
“Anything is possible,” she said.
“When it comes to Bloomberg and Israel?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she replied with a laugh.
It struck me as a very Jewish response, in a way: finding humor in the stuff of the world’s wrongs against you.
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