Debbie Almontaser is the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Ms. Almontaser has been recognized nationally for her interfaith and cross cultural work.
In the last few years special interest groups and self appointed individuals have taken it upon themselves to screen -and screen out–Arab or Muslim Americans who have been nominated for prominent position or chose to rise to the occasion to address community needs. These special interest groups have used the media and Internet as their venue to launch full-fledged smear campaigns against individuals seeking to make a positive difference in our country.
In fact, this sort of smear campaign attempted to deter the American public from voting for President Barak Obama. The Fair and Accuracy Reporting Center published a report called Smear Casters, which highlighted these allegations. It can be found at www.smearcasters.com. In addition to allegations about his Muslim parentage and education, twenty eight million CD copies of “Obsession” an incendiary propaganda film were mailed and distributed just before the election, including by this newspaper.
Though this effort was ultimately unsuccessful, this “swift boat style” campaign has continued to develop in the past year. Several groups continue to conduct whispering campaigns against Arab or Muslim Americans, and right wing conspiracy theories about
Muslims are poisoning the minds of some in Congress. In late February Senator Kyl saw fit to show the incendiary and misleading film “Fitna” in Congress. And anti-Muslim hysteria marches on.
Most recently these groups have begun to target other prominent leaders who have or had any associations with Arab or Muslim Americans or may share their concerns about foreign policies. Recently Chas Freeman withdrew his name under pressure for consideration for an important intelligence post as Senator Schumer joined the troubling ideological litmus testing relating to his criticisms of Israel. And more recently we read that Jihad Watch and the New York Post are attacking Mr. Harold Hongju Koh, President Obama’s choice to become legal advisor to the State Department. They are spreading groundless and ridiculous smears that he somehow advocates imposition of Shariah Law. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
As Eric Lichtblau’s article in the NY Times makes clear, there is considerable support for Mr Koh, despite the charges. One hopes that no high placed supporters or officials abandon him at this crucial moment. One hopes he will not lose his nerve.
I sincerely sympathize with Mr Koh. I was at the center of such a smear campaign in 2007 for founding the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the first Arabic dual language public school in the United States. The school was set to teach Arabic language and cultures to fill a dire need that our country is in need of- Arabic language speakers and experts in Arab cultural studies. Days after the school was publicly announced, the smear campaign against the school began by portraying the academy as a madrassa aiming to recruit and train youth to become home grown terrorists, which was far from what the academy was aiming to do under my leadership.
The smear campaign began on websites such at Pipelinenews, MilitantIslamMonitor, Atlasshrugs and Campus watch among many others, spread by “Stop the Madrassa” operatives. My leadership became the prime target in their eyes because of my religious and ethnic background. As an Arab and Muslim American, I was portrayed
as a Muslim extremist with an agenda to indoctrinate students.
Comments I made in local papers were taken out of context to portray me as anti-American and a 9/11 denier. These quotes were in turn used to conjure fear and suspicion of my leadership on websites and in local conservative papers. Months after the campaign began against me, a t-shirt that had nothing to do with the school or me became the center of attention where I was forced to resign by my employer after I was instructed to interview with the right-leaning New York Post that had one thing in mind and that was to further the smear campaign against the school and me. To fully understand what happened, read the exclusive interview that made the front-page the NY Times in April 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/28/nyregion/28school.html?pagewanted=1&hp
These groups are known to distort the record and defame the reputations of individuals who are suddenly declared to be “public figures” who in turn are unprotected by privacy rights. Without the resources of a truly public figure, it is very difficult to change false perceptions in the public. I must add that others who spoke up on my behalf were also targeted. A recent Jewish Week article describes how Rabbi Michael Paley was intimidated into silence because of his principled defense of the school and his recognition of the facts of the case.
In the name of protecting America from the enemy within, these special interest groups scour the Internet to learn their target’s social and political affiliations. In addition, they search for newspaper articles mentioning or quoting their targets- this is their lethal ammunition to bring the individual down at all costs. They have used the tactic of taking quotes out of context to smear an individual’s record over and over. The idea is to manipulate doubt and suspicion in the post 9/11 world we live in.
In addition, individuals with academic backgrounds have been recruited to give these campaigns credibility. These academic were supported in establishing Internet websites to post their so-called findings about individuals that in turn were picked up by conservative papers in different parts of the country. Some of these academics were also invited to be columnist in some of these papers. The Obsession film also includes such an academic veneer. This seems to fool some of the people some of the time.
The new McCarthy movement has no interest in nuanced or balanced discussion of extremist movements. On the contrary, by establishing think tanks and sponsoring foot soldiers to investigate Muslim individuals who were developing prominence in their communities, these many groups, their funders and supporters seek to maintain control over public discourse. The effect is chilling. We will not be able to solve the many problems of this city and the world without open discussion, interfaith dialogue and leadership from all groups. It is time for this distracting puppet show to end.