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July 15th, 2010
01:39 PM ET

Q&A: former Khalil Gibran school head on Ground Zero mosque

Debbie Almontaser is the founding and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, New York’s first Arabic language school, which opened in 2007. She left that year over a controversy ignited by reports she defended the word "intifada" on a T-shirt, and she later said she was forced out by the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to The New York Times. She now chairs the Muslim Consultative Network. CNN’s Nicole Dow talked to Almontaser about a new New York controversy that contains echoes of the one that embroiled her three years ago: a proposal to build an Islamic Center near Ground Zero.

What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding the Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero?

I am saddened and perturbed that this hysteria is playing itself out again in New York City by the same interest groups that are out there basically spewing hate-filled propaganda about Muslims across New York City and America. America is bigger than that better than that. This country was built on the shoulders of giants who migrated from all over the world for the American dream.

Does it remind you of what you went through back in 2007 at the Khalil Gibran school?

Absolutely. The exact propaganda materials that were used against the school and me have basically been refurbished against Imam Feisal and Daisy Khan (two leaders of the Islamic center proposal) who are two incredible people in the U.S. and globally. They are doing amazing work to building bridges, to help people to understand Islam and Muslims globally. The fact that these two individuals have become the targets on this issue is just mind boggling, considering the reputation that they and their organization have nationally and globally.

It is important for Americans to know that this is a growing trend across the US, under the flagship of Islamophobia, targeting individuals and projects that are trying to build bridges of understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Sadly, such projects are being portrayed as a threat by these groups who seek to divide us as Americans.

Islam is not anything new to this land. Muslims have been in the Americas for hundreds of years. There are houses of worships that have existed for over 70 years. The oldest mosque in America was built in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1934, which is referenced by many as the Mother Mosque of America.

Can you remind us about what happened in your situation at the Khalil Gibran school?

The anti-Arab anti-Muslim propaganda by interest groups led the (New York) Department of Education to cave in. What most people don't know is in the aftermath of my forced resignation, there was a huge public outcry from people in the Jewish community, the Christian community, immigrant community, academic community and other communities that cared about social justice and equitable education. What developed after what happened to me was a coalescing of these community groups that led the charge to advocate for me and the school.

They formed a coalition called Communities in Support of Khalil Gibran International Academy. They organized rallies, educational forums, letter writing campaigns, etc. They made my issue the issue of all New Yorkers who believe in our constitutional freedoms.

And now the same is happening with the Cordoba Initiative. Interfaith groups and individuals who have worked closely with the Arab and Muslim communities nationally have come out in support of the Cordoba House project and are standing in solidarity with Imam Feisal and Daisy. People immediately saw through this propaganda and have risen to the occasion in supporting the project, and speaking out publicly against these attacks. I am also pleased to see that elected officials have publicly come out in support as well.

What did you learn from your experience?

That anyone, or any organization of a Muslim or Arab background choosing to create something that is unique and innovative, that may seem to challenge the status quo, may be seen as a threat by these individuals and groups who do not want to see American Muslims expanding their roles in the United States. The Khalil Gibran Academy, at the time, was an educational institution that was bridging the gap between cultures, where students were going to learn the Arabic language and culture to become Arab world experts. A school open to all students wanting to prepare for international careers and diplomacy.

The same stands for Cordoba House project, the first of its kind to not only serve the Muslim community, but the entire city, replicating the 92 Street Y in New York City. The fact that there are forces out there that are setting up roadblocks against such projects to flourish is based on fear and misconceptions that are constantly being replayed by these interest groups when institutions such as these are being presented to become a part of the American landscape. These interest groups are sadly playing on the fears of individuals who fear anything Arab or Muslim since the tragic events of 9/11.

What do you think needs to change regarding how American Muslims are perceived?

These interest groups have created this notion that Muslims are foreign and alien to American life, when they certainly are not. There are over six million Muslims living in the US, perhaps that number is even larger. Muslim individuals are very well integrated into American society. They are a vibrant part of American society, and really need to be recognized as an integral part of this country like other communities. There needs to be broader education on Muslims in America, who they are and how they contribute to this country, and for Americans to see them as an integral part of the society.

Do you think the situation will eventually improve?

I firmly believe that it will improve, because there are a lot of Americans who believe in the right to worship and freedom of expression under our constitutional rights, who will stand in solidarity with Muslims across this great land as they have for other communities who have been subjected to hateful bigotry fueled by a few misguided individuals over the course of this country’s history. As Americans we have a responsibility to stand united against division, intimidation and hatred. We must stand for a society based on mutual respect and understanding and dignity for all our communities.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 'Ground zero mosque' • Faith Now • Houses of worship • Islam • Mosque • Muslim • New York • Schools • United States

soundoff (53 Responses)
  1. shalomCA

    How far away is not "that close" I wonder? fear strikes deep in the heartland. Perfect love casts out fear.

    August 6, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
  2. Larold

    Ok. This makes sense now. I always wondered why extremists say the west is out to destroy Islam. It simply justifies their actions, and the pull out their Korans to quote chapter and verse. Without this perceived attack, they would have no ground to stand on....not that they do now. They must be seen as victims, or else their reason for existing turns to sand. What a lovely bunch of people.

    August 5, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  3. runswithbeer

    Read the Constitution folks. IT may be insensitive to build a mosque that close to the 9/11 site but it will stir a debate and shine a light on all the cockroaches that use religion as a tool for racism.

    August 5, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
  4. Eric

    Dear Peace2All,
    The Crusades are going on today as they will forever. Wake up.
    Only insensitive and disrespectful fanatics would build a Mosque that close to the WTC ground.
    Period.
    The Megan Putneys and Debbie Almontasers of this world are simply brainwashed zealots and are only to be pitied.

    August 3, 2010 at 8:54 pm |
  5. ChasR

    Yes, Americans have religious freedoms, unlike Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries. Maybe we can barter, Have the Muslims give the Jews their most holy Temple Mount back and get rid of that dome of the rock, and they can have the 9/11 site where the Muslims killed 3,000 of our hard working innocent Americans.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:16 pm |
    • Mikey from Elmira, NY

      And I say yet again..... This. Is. Not. On. Ground. Zero. It is not. All this uproar is over a building within walking distance of ground zero, not even visible from ground zero. And why should America have to compromise IT'S religious freedom just because oppressive regimes on the other side of the planet do? The founding fathers envisioned America to be that beacon of freedom that draws freedom loving people from all faiths and all oppressive regimes all over the globe. It's just a shame that throughout history these groups have found the themselves the brunt of discrimination here in the land of the free. 9/11 is just an excuse to discriminate against the American Muslim community. The American Muslim community as a whole had nothing to do with 9/11. What happened was not their fault. 9/11 was perpetrated by Saudi extremists. 9/11 was politically motivated resulting from our involvement (for better or for worse) in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. If they were trying to make a religious statement against Christianity they would have attacked a Christian site in Jerusalem. They would have flown those planes into the Vatican. Venezuela is 98% Christian and yet is closely allied with many Muslim majority nations, including many that people think are our enemies because of a religious disagreement. Islam is an excuse used by both sides. The fact is the events leading up to and after 9/11 were political. America trying to increase it's influence in the middle east and extremist groups trying to eliminate America's influence in the middle east. The average Muslim American citizen was as deeply effected by 9/11 as any American. I know quite a few. And they're all good people. And if America is still anywhere close to the values it was founded on, they would be permitted to practice their religion however and wherever they please. Saudi Arabia isn't like that? Well screw Saudi Arabia! Saudi Arabia isn't a beacon of freedom like America. And I refuse to further compromise the values of this great nation.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:15 am |
  6. JohnQuest

    Reality, Good Monday Morning (from here in our nations Capital). Again you speak of how violent Islam is or can be, do you think Christians or America is less violent?

    July 19, 2010 at 9:21 am |
    • Reality

      John, Again it is all about the koran and what it teaches with respect to conquering/dominating all infidels and all women. Said book begets violence because of this. The Christian's operating manual, the NT for all its flaws does not.

      July 19, 2010 at 6:24 pm |
    • Mikey from Elmira, NY

      "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword." Matthew 10:34

      The Bible may have been a little more subtle about it, but the new testament isn't much more tolerant the the Koran. And was the inspiration for much bloodshed throughout the ages. Let's not forget what Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke about those who refuse to follow him:

      "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me." Luke 19:27

      Nothing permitting oppression of women in the new testament?

      "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent..." 1 Timothy 2:11-15

      "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife...wives should submit to their husbands in everything." Ephesians 5:22-24

      And there's tolerance for non-believers?

      "And whoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when you depart there, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Truly I say to you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city." Mark 6:11

      "Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe." Jude 1:5

      "Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son." 1 John 2:22

      "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed" 2 John 1:10

      I know many good Christians that violate these particular scriptures. They are still good Christians and good Americans. I also know many good Muslims. In the end we should be judging our citizens based on their actions, not what is said in the books they read.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:18 am |
  7. Mikey from Elmira, NY

    Are we going to forbid Muslims praying in this garden on ground zero? If not then what's the problem with Muslims praying in a building a couple blocks away from ground zero?

    July 19, 2010 at 12:34 am |
    • Reality

      Why? Because we won't be able to hear the imams preaching their vitriol against the infidels like you and me. And the koran guarantess such vitriol.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:17 am |
  8. cassie

    Red stinking weed, or whoever you are, please look back to the post by Reality regarding a garden (rather than a grass/weed patch.) That sounds like a really good idea. NYC can always use some garden space and a garden for meditation could be a beautiful thing. Some fountains and pavillions and well placed trees could make it a fine memorial to those who have died on 9/11 as well as a place where we could envision a better world.

    July 17, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.