NEW YORK // A Yemeni-American schoolteacher forced to resign as principal of New York City's first Arabic-language public school three years ago has said she feels vindicated by a federal commission that ruled she was a victim of discrimination. Debbie Almontaser, who has given few interviews during her legal fight, said she had been shocked by people's ready acceptance of right-wing claims she was a "jihadist" and "extremist".
"What I experienced was very dramatic," she told the New York One local television station. "It was something that shook my core, that people I worked with and trusted were easily influenced with right-wing propaganda, and for them to second-guess and have a knee-jerk reaction was quite devastating." Ms Almontaser was the first principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, which falls under the supervision of the city's department of education. The DoE strictly maintains separation between church and state and ensures the public curriculum is followed.
But Ms Almontaser and the school were targeted by a small but vocal group of protesters led by Daniel Pipes, who heads the Middle East Forum, a conservative research group that also runs CampusWatch. The latter group has targeted professors around the country for their supposed anti-Israel and pro-Islam bias. The case of the opposition, which came together in a group called "Stop the Madrassa", was taken up by some media. The New York Post, a right-wing tabloid newspaper printed a front-page article in 2007 accusing Ms Almontaser of having ties to a group that produced T-shirts with the slogan "Intifada NYC".
She said she simply explained to the reporter that "intifada" meant shaking off and did not endorse any kind of violence. She also said the city's education department pressured her to give the interview, during which one of its employees was present. Last week, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found the education department "succumbed to the very bias that creation of the school was intended to dispel and a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on DoE as an employer".
The commission also said it was the newspaper's article that spurred the education department to force Ms Almontaser to resign. "Significantly, it was not her actual remarks but their elaboration by the reporter - creating waves of explicit anti-Muslim bias from several extremist sources - that caused DoE to act," the commission said. City officials deny she was forced out and that she resigned voluntarily. The New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who announced her resignation on his radio show, saying "she's certainly not a terrorist" but adding she was "not all that media savvy, maybe".
Ms Almontaser and Alan Levine, her lawyer, said she was the target of a smear campaign aimed at stopping the academy, which was dubbed "Intifada High" by some media. But the school's founders named it after Khalil Gibran, the Christian Lebanese poet, to emphasise the school's focus on Arabic culture, rather than any religion or ideology. "The DoE instead repudiated the mission of the school, repudiated what Debbie stood for and succumbed precisely to the hatred that she and the school were designed to oppose," Mr Levine said. "And that frankly was a missed opportunity on New York City government."
The commission's ruling that city officials discriminated against Ms Almontaser "on account of her race, religion and national origin" was welcomed by the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair). "This preliminary victory is a strong rebuke to the vocal, agenda-driven minority that seeks to marginalise the American Muslim and Arab-American communities," said Aliya Latif, a Cair civil rights director. "We call on the department of education to reinstate Ms Almontaser or place her in a comparable position."
The commission said the education department, which did not agree with its ruling, had to respond with a settlement offer by this Wednesday. Ms Almontaser has asked for her old job back, damages of $300,000 (Dh1.1 million), legal fees and back pay. The case could end up in court if there is no agreement. She is also appealing against a federal court ruling that dismissed her lawsuit against the education department. The ruling said her interview with the New York Post was "pursuant to her official duties" and therefore not protected by the First Amendment, which safeguards free speech.
Meanwhile, the Arabic school in Brooklyn was running smoothly after a rocky start, thanks in part to support from the wider community, including Jewish-American groups, said Lena Alhusseini, executive director of the Arab American Family Support Centre, a founding partner in the non-religious school. "The whole controversy was manufactured and it got very nasty," Ms Alhusseini told The National last year. "But we still opened the school and that was the best way to reply to the attackers."