Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Vilification of Language

Last week I read this story about Debbie Almontaser, the principal of a new Arabic-language school in NYC, who, after having the bad form to discuss in public the actual meaning of the word "intifada," was mau-maued into first apologizing, and then resigning:
The principal of a new Arabic-themed public school in Brooklyn resigned under pressure, days after she was quoted defending the use of the word “intifada” as a T-shirt slogan.

Debbie Almontaser, a veteran public school teacher, was hired to lead the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a middle school that was scheduled to open this fall. An immediate replacement was not announced, and Ms. Almontaser’s abrupt exit left the future of the school in question.


The remarks that made her the focus of criticism were in response to questions from The New York Post over the phrase “Intifada NYC,” which was printed on T-shirts sold by Arab Women Active in Art and Media...

Here is The Post’s account of Ms. Almontaser’s comments:

“The word [intifada] basically means ’shaking off.’ That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic,” she said.

“I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don’t believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City.

“I think it’s pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society … and shaking off oppression.”

Ms. Almontaser issued an apology the next day, saying that she regretted her remarks. “By minimizing the word’s historical associations, I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence,” she said in a statement.

But the apology was followed by criticism from Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers. Ms. Weingarten stopped short of calling for Ms. Almontaser’s resignation, but called the word intifada “something that ought to be denounced, not explained away.”

The Palestinian intifadas, which encompassed actions both violent (front page of the NY Times) and non-violent (tucked deep inside, if reported at all, as student boycotts and general strikes just don't sell papers like exploding pizzerias do), were uprisings against, the attempt to "shake off," what is widely recognized (everywhere but in the U.S., anyway) as an illegal, dehumanizing, and brutal Israeli military occupation. As with the term "jihad," right-wing elements have sought to define "intifada" solely in terms of its association with terrorist violence. Debbie Almontaser had the temerity to challenge these misrepresentations and misunderstandings, and to defend the term's proper use in the context of social activism. The fact that she has now had to resign over this, indeed that she felt she needed to apologize at all, indicates the almost complete dominance of the Israeli narrative in American media, and the ability of hardline pro-Israel and anti-Muslim activists to manipulate the ignorance and fear of Americans about Islam and Arabs to quell discussion and debate, and to make verboten the expression of certain ideas and opinions.

Speaking of ignorance and fear, here's Daniel Pipes:
Almontaser's departure, however welcome, does not change the rest of the problematic school's personnel, much less address the more basic problems implicit in an Arabic-language school: the tendency to Islamist and Arabist content and proselytizing.

To reiterate my initial assessment in March, the KGIA is in principle a great idea, for the United States needs more Arabic-speakers. In practice, however, Arabic-language instruction needs special scrutiny.

Bigotry rarely comes so blatant as this. Offering no evidence, because, of course, his audience requires none, Pipes simply asserts that an Arabic language school would obviously tend toward Islamist and Arabist proselytizing. This "madrassa," a term he employs as a pejorative, must be monitored for righthink. (I'm picturing Pipes sitting in a tiny little chair in a kindergarten classroom, pad and pen in hand, perpetual scowl on his face, as children learn the Arabic alphabet.) Yes, Pipes supports, in principle, the learning of Arabic language and culture (after all, we need spies, don't we?) provided there is nothing taught which might deviate from the Likud Party platform.


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