Archive for Debbie Almontaser

Beyond the Mosque: Bloomberg and New York’s Muslims

Posted in Loon-at-large with tags , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2010 by loonwatch

Bloomberg’s defense of the Park51 proposal will never be forgotten but neither should be his mixed record in regards to the Muslim community.

Beyond the Mosque: Bloomberg and New York’s Muslims

(Gotham Magazine)

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg strongly defended the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero last August even as polls showed most New Yorkers opposed the project, he garnered some favorable media coverage and praise for his stance.

A New York Times editorial called Bloomberg “the leader with the courage to make the case” for the center. Tom Robbins, a Village Voice columnist and frequent critic of the mayor, wrote, “Mike Bloomberg did a brave and good deed for this city” when he spoke out in favor of the project, known as Park 51. Errol Louis called Bloomberg’s speech on Governors Island defending the proposed center “the finest speech of his career.” And the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization, praised Bloomberg for “defending the rights of Muslims and other Americans to build houses of worship.”

The mosque, while significant, is just one issue. Beyond that, many Muslim groups, faith leaders and activists who have applauded Bloomberg’s forceful defense of Park 51 say his administration has had a mixed and at times disappointing track record on policies affecting the Muslim community. Among other issues, they cite his failure to speak out on proposals for other mosques around the city, his refusal to provide a school holiday for Muslim holy days and the attitude of the police department toward Muslims in the city.

“We appreciate that Bloomberg came out and took a stand in a very difficult political moment, particularly a backlash against Muslim communities,” said Monami Maulik, the executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a grassroots activist group serving the South Asian community. “On the other hand, we also saw it as window dressing in many ways because the bottom line is that it’s the policies and practices that the administration puts in place that affects the members of our community day to day.”

A Range of Concerns

An estimated 800,000 Muslims live in the city, and their numbers are growing. Not surprisingly, they have an array of concerns — extending far beyond a mosque in lower Manhattan. Interviews with a wide array of Muslim community leaders indicate that the Bloomberg administration and the city’s Muslim community have a complicated and nuanced relationship.

“It is a work in progress,” said Adem Carroll, the former executive director of the Muslim Consultative Network and the former coordinator for the Islamic Circle of North America’s 9/11 relief program. “He has hired some Muslims as commissioners who work very hard at being liaisons. He himself does not visit our community members very much, at least that’s the perception.”

Robina Niaz, the founder and executive director of Turning Point for Women and Families, a non-profit organization that seeks to address domestic violence within the Muslim community, said she has seen a “marked change in the last several months” toward the positive in how Bloomberg is perceived in the Muslim community.

Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid, an African-American leader at the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, describes the relationship between the Bloomberg administration and the Muslim community as “strained.” But he said, “There has been a demonstration of some political sensitivity on the part of that administration toward some issues of importance to the Muslim community.” For example, ‘Abdur-Rashid said, after a September 2009 fire badly damaged a mosque in the Bronx that served a large West African Muslim community, “the Bloomberg administration was a great help and assistance to them, helping them to find a temporary place to worship.”

However, a consensus exists that the Bloomberg administration needs to reach out more to the Muslim community, especially in a difficult political climate for Muslims.

“Just because he supported Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Park 51, that doesn’t mean every other issue should be taken off the burner,” said Niaz.

In an interview, Fatima Shama, a Palestinian-American Muslim who is the commissioner for immigrant affairs under the Bloomberg administration, forcefully defended the administration’s efforts.

Bloomberg “has engaged with the Muslim community more than any other mayor in this city,” said Shama, noting that she was the first Muslim hired to be commissioner of immigrant affairs. Shama also pointed out that Bloomberg holds an annual Iftar dinner, to mark the fast breaking during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Voice of Reason

With anti-Muslim prejudice seemingly on the rise across the country, many Muslims in New York would like the mayor to go beyond his speech on the mosque and community center near Ground Zero. In particular, they wish he would speak out on the battles over proposed mosques elsewhere in the city. In the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island, the board of a Catholic Church blocked plans for a proposed mosque when, in the face of harsh condemnation, they refused to sell a vacant convent to a Muslim organization. In Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, a proposed mosque and community center has also sparked controversy.

“Bloomberg this time around chose to stand on the right side of history on the Park 51 controversy by making that eloquent speech, but I don’t think that he should stop there. I think he’s positioned uniquely as a mayor, as a national leader, to lead the charge against Islamophobia if he really wants to redeem himself in the eyes of Muslim New Yorkers considering that he’s failed them a few times,” said Debbie Almontaser, the founder and former principal of theKhalil Gibran International Academy, the city’s first dual-language Arabic public school.

In 2007, many Muslims and other New Yorkers believe, Almotaser fell victim of that prejudice when a right-wing campaign targeted the school and Almontaser. Following an article in the New York Post that claimed she “downplayed the significance” of T-shirts bearing the word “intifada,” she was“forced to resign following a directive from Bloomberg, according to Almontaser. Earlier this year, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that the Department of Education discriminated against Almontaser and “succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school intended to dispel.”

Almontaser’s resignation remains on the mind of many community leaders.

Perceptions of the mayor’s actions don’t stop at New York’s borders. While Bloomberg does not have a role in formulating foreign policy, many Muslim activists disapprovingly cited his staunch support for Israel, and specifically his January 2009 visit to Israel while the country waged an assault on the Gaza Strip in Palestine.

“His relationship with Israel, supporting Israel with no limits, hurts us,” said Zein Rimawi, a member of the New York City-based Arab Muslim American Federation. “Don’t forget: We are Arabs, we are Muslims, and the people in Gaza are Arabs and Muslims and we support them.”

Under Suspicion

In addition, Muslim leaders have concern about New York Police Department counter-terrorism practices in the Bloomberg era. Civil rights organizations like CAIR-NY and DRUM have of police harassment of Muslims in New York.

Arguably the biggest irritant came when the police department released a 2007 report, titled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. The report detailed the process by which it saw some American Muslims as being “radicalized” into terrorists and said that, while Americans Muslims are “more resistant to radicalization than their European counterparts, they are not immune.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations promptly criticized the report, saying, “Its sweeping generalizations and mixing of unrelated elements may serve to cast a pall of suspicion over the entire American Muslim community.” In the wake of the report, the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition formed and critiqued the report for presenting “a distorted and misleading depiction of Islam and its adherents.”

Following meetings with Muslim organizations, the police department quietly issued a two-page clarification that stressed that the “NYPD’s focus on al Qaeda inspired terrorism should not be mistaken for any implicit or explicit justification for racial, religious or ethnic profiling.”

While Muslim organizations welcomed the clarification, criticism of the report remains.

“It’s not clear what the NYPD really thinks, because it’s leaving the bulk of its assertions and its conclusions in place,” said Faiza Patel, who works with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Project. The clarification “didn’t address all of [the Muslim community’s] concerns. The way it was done — really kind of hidden there — makes it seem as if the police department is talking out of two sides of its mouth.”

The police did not respond to requests for comment. But Shama defended the department, saying it has many Muslims in the police force and also has aMuslim Officers Society whose mission includes promoting “a mutual understanding between the NYPD and the Muslim community.”

“I don’t think there are any broad brushes or generalizations in the report,” said Shama, when asked about Muslim community leaders’ criticism of the document. “But we do have a policy that if you see something, say something. … It’s a new day in a new country,” she said, referring to the post-9/11 world.

No Days Off

Bloomberg’s opposition to closing public schools on two Muslim holidays — Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha — disappointed many in the Muslim community — particularly after the City Council approved the change in the school calendar. In July 2009, the New York City Council passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the inclusion of Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha, two Muslim holidays, into the school calendar. Underscoring the issue, parent-teacher conferences this year are being held today, which is also Eid Ul-Adha.

The administration opposed the measure, saying that the school system can’t celebrate every holiday. “One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school,” Bloomberg has said.

Shama said the Bloomberg administration “absolutely listened to all the requests and concerns of the school holidays coalition” before taking its position. Despite that, ‘Abdur-Rashid said, the administration stand “left a very bad taste in the mouths of many Muslims.”

Faiza Ali, the director of community affairs for CAIR-NY, said her organization is still pursuing the issue. “We’re looking to the leadership of the mayor and chancellor…[to] re-tool the school calendar to fit the needs of the community,” she said.

Alex Kane blogs on Israel/Palestine and Islamophobia in the United States athttp://alexbkane.wordpress.com/, and you can follow him on Twitter here. His work has also appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, The Electronic Intifada, Common Dreams, Palestine Chronicle and Alternet. He is a former intern at the Gotham Gazette.

 

Federal Body: Daniel Pipes et al. are “Extremist Sources”

Posted in Anti-Loons with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2010 by loonwatch

Richard SilversteinRichard Silverstein

EEOC Finds Bias in NYC Firing Arab School Principal, Almontaser

by Richard Silverstein

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the New York City Department of Education (DOE) discriminated against Debbie Almontaser, founding principal of the Khalil Gibran Academy, the City’s first Arab-language public school, when they removed her from her position. Readers of this blog may recall a ferocious campaign waged by Jewish neocons and Islamophobes like Daniel Pipes, David Yerushalmi, the N.Y. Post, and Stop the Madrasa against the school and Almontaser personally.

Matters came to a head when Almontaser was smeared over a T-shirt displaying the word “Intifada.” Her opponents made her out to be a supporter of Islamism and armed resistance because she explained the Arabic meaning of the word to a reporter, while not denouncing it sufficiently. When Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein dropped her like a hot potato, her days were numbered. After her forced resignation, she sued and lost. Then she filed a claim with EEOC for discrimination. TheN.Y. Times reports on the finding:

A federal commission has determined that New York City’s Department of Education discriminated against the founding principal of an Arabic-language public school by forcing her to resign in 2007 following a storm of controversy driven by opponents of the school.

Acting on a complaint filed last year by the principal, Debbie Almontaser, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the 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 D.O.E. as an employer,” according to a letter issued by the commission on Tuesday.

The commission said that the department had discriminated against Ms. Almontaser, a Muslim of Yemeni descent, “on account of her race, religion and national origin.”

This is a great deal for civil rights in New York and in America. It is a day that Arab-Americans can be proud. It is a day when all Americans should be proud. Debbie Almontaser turned to the federal government for redress and it did what it could to make her whole.

This is a day when Muslim-haters like Norman Podhoretz and his friends I mentioned above should hide their heads in shame (though they will shake their fists in defiance instead). Their bullying has been shown for what it is: un-American, unfair, unjust. We are better than the haters in Stop the Madrasa. The democratic system worked.

My chief regret is that the political leadership of New York and the Jewish communal leadership were cowards and turned tail at the first sign of trouble. Instead of standing up to the ranters, Bloomberg folded at the earliest opportunity. The New York Jewish federation, after allowing Rabbi Michael Paley to represent it in the fight on behalf of the Academy, forced him to shut up. I was never able to determine who specifically made this decision–whether it was an executive decision by CEO Jon Ruskay or a lay decision influenced by a wealthy neocon board member like James Tisch. Whoever made the decision betrayed the courage necessary for true leadership. Instead of speaking out and doing the right thing, they let Daniel Pipes present the Jewish community’s position by default.

The EEOC called on New York City to do the right thing:

The commission asked the Department of Education to reach a “just resolution” with Ms. Almontaser and to consider her demands, which include reinstatement to her old job, back pay, damages of $300,000 and legal fees. Should the two sides fail to reach an agreement, the dispute will end up in court, her lawyer said.

Instead of hearing the message, the City’s attorney said his client would fight Ms. Almontaser every step of the way. They still haven’t gotten the message. I only hope that cooler heads will prevail. The former principal was wronged and deserves her job back and the chance to lead this school. That’s what’s fair. That’s what’s American.

I do take issue with one statement in this report:

Despite Ms. Almontaser’s longstanding reputation as a moderate Muslim, her critics succeeded in recasting her as a “9/11 denier” and a “jihadist.”

This is very sloppy writing and editing. Her critics did NOT succeed in recasting her as any of those things. But the mud flung by the Islamophobes resonated in certain quarters (like the pages of the Post) and her employer hung her out to dry. There was never ANY truth to any of the claims against Almontaser. They were all lies. So in that sense her critics could not have succeeded in any objective sense in labeling her. But they waged a vitriolic racist campaign which the DOE and city refused to counteract. Rather than fight, they folded.

In its criticism of the City’s actions, the Commission found that Almontaser had said nor done anything related to the T-shirt incident that warranted her removal:

It was The Post’s article, the commission wrote in its letter this week, that prompted the Department of Education to force Ms. Almontaser to resign. (City officials have said that she resigned voluntarily.)

“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 D.O.E. to act,” the commission’s letter said.

I’m delighted that the EEOC pointedly noted the nasty role playing by Pipes and STM and labelled them “extremist.”

 

D.O.E. Discriminated, Rules Federal Commission

Posted in Loon Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2010 by loonwatch
Debbie Almontaser was discriminated against for her religion.Debbie Almontaser

The New York Times reports:

Federal Panel Finds Bias in Ouster of Principal
By Andrea Elliot
Published: March 12, 2010

A federal commission has determined that New York City’s Department of Education discriminated against the founding principal of an Arabic-language public school by forcing her to resign in 2007 following a storm of controversy driven by opponents of the school.

Acting on a complaint filed last year by the principal, Debbie Almontaser, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the 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 D.O.E. as an employer,” according to a letter issued by the commission on Tuesday.

The commission said that the department had discriminated against Ms. Almontaser, a Muslim of Yemeni descent, “on account of her race, religion and national origin.”

The findings, which are nonbinding, could mark a turning point in Ms. Almontaser’s battle to reclaim her job as principal of the school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn.

The commission asked the Department of Education to reach a “just resolution” with Ms. Almontaser and to consider her demands, which include reinstatement to her old job, back pay, damages of $300,000 and legal fees. Should the two sides fail to reach an agreement, the dispute will end up in court, her lawyer said.

Commission officials declined to answer questions about the case, citing federal confidentiality law, but Ms. Almontaser’s lawyer provided a copy of the letter to The New York Times.

“There is no question that this is an important step in the road to her ultimate vindication,” said Alan Levine, Ms. Almontaser’s lawyer. “Up until now, the D.O.E. has really had its way and hasn’t had to answer for its actions.”

In a statement, a lawyer for the city disputed the commission’s findings.

The Department of Education “in no way discriminated against Ms. Almontaser and she will not be reinstated,” said Paul Marks, the city’s deputy chief of labor and employment law in the Law Department. “If she continues to pursue litigation, we will vigorously defend against her groundless allegations.”

The controversy surrounding the dual-language school began in early 2007, shortly after the city announced that Ms. Almontaser, a longtime teacher, would lead it. A group of opponents, including conservative commentators and a City University trustee, mounted a campaign against the school and Ms. Almontaser, claiming that she carried a militant Islamic agenda.

Despite Ms. Almontaser’s longstanding reputation as a moderate Muslim, her critics succeeded in recasting her as a “9/11 denier” and a “jihadist.”

The conflict came to a head that August, when Ms. Almontaser’s opponents, who had formed the Stop the Madrassa Coalition, asserted that she was connected to T-shirts bearing the words “Intifada NYC.” While Ms. Almontaser was on the board of an organization that rented space to the group that distributed the shirts, she was unaware of them, she said. (The commission determined that she had no connection to the T-shirts.)

Nonetheless, in response to mounting inquiries about the shirts, the Department of Education pressured her to give an interview to The New York Post, she said. In that interview, with a department employee listening in, she explained that the root of the word intifada meant “shaking off,” but that it had acquired other connotations because of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

The next day, The Post published the article under the headline “City Principal Is ‘Revolting’ — Tied to ‘Intifada NYC’ Tee Shirts,” stating that Ms. Almontaser had “downplayed the significance” of the T-shirts. (Federal judges later issued a ruling — related to a lawsuit brought by Ms. Almontaser — stating that The Post had reported her words “incorrectly and misleadingly.”)

It was The Post’s article, the commission wrote in its letter this week, that prompted the Department of Education to force Ms. Almontaser to resign. (City officials have said that she resigned voluntarily.)

“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 D.O.E. to act,” the commission’s letter said.

Pressure soon mounted for Ms. Almontaser to step down. Randi Weingarten, the head of the teacher’s union, published a letter in The Post that was sharply critical of Ms. Almontaser. She finally resigned on Aug. 10, under pressure from the mayor’s office, she said. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced the resignation on his radio show, saying, “she’s certainly not a terrorist,” while adding that she was “not all that media savvy, maybe.”

Ms. Almontaser continued working with the department in an administrative job, at her principal’s salary of about $120,000, but that job was eliminated and she was demoted.

The lawsuit that she filed against the city, claiming that her First Amendment rights had been violated because she was forced to resign after saying something controversial, was dismissed. She is appealing that decision.

A lawyer for the Stop the Madrassa Coalition said he found the commission’s determination predictable. “I think the E.E.O.C. is constitutionally constructed to find discrimination in a high-profile case,” said the lawyer, David Yerushalmi.

But the development struck other lawyers as surprising. Bill Lann Lee, a labor-law expert in San Francisco, said the commission rarely issued such rulings, and so its decision might help Ms. Almontaser if she pursued a discrimination lawsuit.

“The courts tend to consider what the E.E.O.C. finds,” he said, adding that “the courts know generally that these findings are very rare, so if there is such a finding, there’s a general belief among lawyers and judges that there may be something there.”

Jenny Anderson and Jennifer Medina contributed reporting.

Big ups to the E.E.O.C.  Way to be on the ball on this one.