A Q&A with Debbie Almontaser
For 25 years, Debbie Almontaser worked as a special education teacher, literacy trainer, multicultural specialist, and diversity adviser in New York City public schools. Today, she is a professor in the school leadership program at the College of Staten Island’s School of Education and the founder and CEO of Bridging Cultures Group, which provides cultural diversity training for both the public and private sector. She is the author of Leading While Muslim: The Experiences of American Muslim Principals after 9/11 (Rowman & Littlefield). Below, she shares what prompted her to write the book and what she hopes readers will learn from it.
Q: Why did you write Leading While Muslim?
A: My book actually was inspired by my own personal experience. I was the founding and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, New York. The school is an Arabic and English dual language school that opened in 2007. It was named after the poet Khalil Gibran. I was tapped to lead the school because of my background in public education and my work with the Arab community and the interfaith community in New York City in the wake of September 11.
In 2001, I was teaching at P.S. 261 in Cobble Hill in downtown Brooklyn, which was the heart of the Arab American community in New York. In the days after September 11, many Arab and Muslim families were afraid to bring their children to school. I helped establish an escorting system so that non-Muslim neighbors whose children attended the school could volunteer to take Arab and Muslim students to P.S. 261 and also pick them up after school. I’m proud to say the effort was successful, and it even grew to include other neighborhoods and neighboring schools. Non-Muslim families also volunteered to accompany Arab and Muslim families when they went shopping and visited the doctor. It was a time when the community came together, showed solidarity, and provided a safe haven for children and families.
A few years later, New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit educational organization in New York City, asked me to establish a school to teach Arabic. I was thrilled at the prospect. The school was to be a full-fledged public school for grades 6 through 12, with an international curriculum. In February 2007, the district gave its final approval of our school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, along with many other new public schools, to open in the fall. I had spent the summer putting together my team of educators from every race and religious background. We were so excited and we celebrated. But the blogosphere went viral with people aggressively portraying the school as a madrassa, an Islamic school.
For several months, critics publicly attacked me. They asked me Islamophobic questions such as, “Are you going to teach the children to hate Christians and Jews? Are you going to separate the boys and girls and lead prayer? Will the school be closed for Muslim holidays?” It was awful. All my responses were: “It’s a New York City public school. It will abide by the same calendar. There is no halal kitchen because it’s a public school.” To try to quell the controversy, we publicly released our curriculum and the textbooks we would use to teach Arabic.
Right before the school opened, things had started to settle down. Seventy students had enrolled, and my entire staff was hired. We had bought all our supplies: materials, tables, chairs, everything you can imagine. Then all of a sudden, the New York Post and other media outlets called the New York City Department of Education and asked about a T-shirt. Apparently, there was a press release that our critics, who called themselves the “Stop the Madrassa Coalition,” put out about a T-shirt with the words “Intifada NYC.” The coalition made a tenuous connection between the creation of the T-shirt and me. They publicly accused me of condoning the T-shirt and supporting it because the organization that created it was sharing office space with another organization that I sat on the board of.
The Department of Education called me and asked that I give an interview to the New York Post, which wanted to run a story, even though they knew I didn’t feel comfortable speaking to the Post. I agreed to do it with a press officer, and we thought the interview went well. But the reporter took my words out of context. To make a long story short, I was forced to resign from the school, which opened without me. I was heartbroken.
After the school opened, several lawyers contacted me because they thought I had a case against the school district. A lawyer named Alan Levine took my case pro bono. He filed a First Amendment lawsuit and a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and in 2010 it ruled in my favor, finding that I was forcibly removed from my position based on my ethnicity, nationality, and religion.
At the time, I was the director of special needs at Benjamin Banneker Academy, a public high school in Brooklyn, and I had started my doctoral program at Fordham University. I had entered the program wanting to do more research on dual language programs. But one of my colleagues suggested I write about American Muslim school leaders. I went to the library and found very little—only several articles that were written about yours truly. The data and literature I did find was actually on Muslim teachers and school leaders in private Islamic schools. But I found nothing on the experience of Muslim educators in public education. So I wrote my dissertation, which I turned into a book on the subject.
I wanted to find out whether the political discourse, global events, and the media coverage of Islam and Muslims were affecting the school leadership and the spirituality of Muslim principals. I found 20 individuals to interview across the United States, but only 14 agreed to be in the study. They were six men and eight women, all public school principals. Six were African American Muslim school leaders, and another six were Arab Americans from various parts of the Middle East: Yemen, Syria, Egypt, and Palestine. The other two individuals were from Pakistan and Tanzania. I had to beg and plead with them for interviews and promise them anonymity.
The other six, particularly a couple from New York, never responded to my emails and phone calls. I understood at the time that they probably feared speaking to me because they saw what happened to me with the Department of Education.
Q: For those who agreed to be in your study and your book, what are some of the challenges they have faced as Muslims post-9/11?
A: Many of them have faced discrimination and have experienced fear from constantly feeling insecure about their jobs and always thinking twice about how they conduct themselves and watching what they say so they are not perceived as being a “Muslim radical.” It was really sad to see that.
For instance, one of the principals I interviewed hired a couple of teachers who were Muslim. When they asked him to schedule their classes so they could attend Friday prayer, he created a flexible schedule for them. At the same time, he also had Muslim high school students who wanted to pray at the local mosque, and he allowed them to do so after they brought in permission slips signed by their parents. He would also walk them to the mosque to ensure their safety. He was then reported to the district for promoting Islam, and the school district investigated him. District officials interviewed him, his teachers, and his students. He spent the school year thinking he would lose his job.
At his disciplinary hearing, he was told he could no longer accompany the students to the mosque, and he was devastated by that. Although he was not fired and kept his job, he ended up becoming very guarded. He didn’t want to have anything to do with his Muslim students, so he distanced himself from them. It was sad for the students because they knew he didn’t want to associate with them or serve as their role model. He also didn’t want to engage the teachers in any conversations about Islam or being Muslim.
Q: What do you hope non-Muslim educators and policymakers can learn from these experiences that you describe?
A: I want them to see that, just like them, American Muslims aspire to be the best leaders they can possibly be. Teaching is not a very well-paying job, but people make these sacrifices because they want to serve and cultivate a generation of leaders in our society. The fact that they’re not supported and feel under attack is really unfortunate.
One thing I highlight in my book is the importance of non-Muslims becoming allies and interrupting Islamophobia and interrupting anti-Muslim sentiments and working closely with their communities and Muslim leaders to make sure Muslims don’t feel isolated. Allies can advocate for school district policies that incorporate curricula and teaching about Islam and can also encourage school districts to connect with nonprofit organizations to provide cultural diversity training.
Q: Are there any programs or school districts currently doing a great job of building bridges between cultures?
A: In Nashville, Tennessee, an Islamic center holds an annual teacher training program. I was recently there, and the center actually purchased a hundred copies of my book to give to teachers, the superintendent, and the school district staff, as well as their university partners. The Muslim community there consists of Arab Americans, South Asians, and Bengalis, and the center has been holding this program for some time.
Q: In the spring, the AFT’s executive council passed a resolution opposing anti-Muslim bigotry, discrimination, and violence. Why do you think such a resolution is needed, and what can it do to help?
A: This resolution is a safeguard for teachers, students, and entire school communities. It makes them feel supported, and its creation is really amazing. I’m especially pleased the resolution calls for the development of a Muslim caucus within the AFT. When I was teaching, I had hoped to try to convince American Muslim colleagues to join me in establishing a Muslim caucus within the United Federation of Teachers, but I was unable to galvanize Muslim teachers’ support. Many of them felt nervous and were concerned about putting themselves out there, so I never got a chance to do it. But now that this resolution is coming from the national union, I believe Muslim teachers from all across the country will really feel encouraged and safe enough to want to do it.