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New Khalil Gibran Academy is caught up in controversy.

"Only in America" may be an overused phrase, but a debate is percolating in New York these days that reflects a uniquely American confluence of religious pluralism, church/state tensions, the politics of identity and fears unleashed by the war on terror.

At the eye of the storm is the new Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, slated to have opened Sept. 4. New York already has charter schools that teach other languages, such as Spanish and Chinese, and the new academy is supported by a broad coalition of civic leaders, including clergy from various faiths and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Yet it has been denounced as a breeding ground for Islamic radicalism by local critics, who have organized a grass-roots coalition called "Stop the Madrassa." The opposition has attracted the support of national figures such as Daniel Pipes, an influential critic of Islam.

City officials say the charter school does not promote Islam, but rather understanding of Arabic language and culture. Nonetheless, in a city where memories of 9/11 are still raw, critics argue the school could become an incubator for future terrorist cells.

The debate among them comes down to this: Should institutions that could foster moderate Islam be encouraged, or is the danger of jihadism so strong that any potential spark ought to be extinguished before it has the chance to burst into flame?

There are enough ironies surrounding this story to keep a battalion of cultural critics busy. Consider:

* The school's namesake, Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, was not a Muslim. He was baptized as a Maronite Catholic, and after his family immigrated to Boston in the 1890s and Gibran began to move in the city's artistic circles, he declared: "I am no longer Catholic. I am a pagan."

* The principal of the academy is a New York Jew who grew up Orthodox, a veteran educator named Danielle Salzberg, who does not speak Arabic. She became principal after the first principal, a Yemini Muslim named Debbie Almontaser, was forced to resign. (See accompanying story.)

* Two of the most vocal backers of the school are a rabbi, Michael Feinberg, and an African-American Baptist pastor, the Rev. Clinton Hiller.

* Though plans call for a middle school and high school, this fall the academy will serve no more than 60 sixth graders. So far 44 have enrolled, with only six Arabs. Host are African-Americans, whose parents say they're attracted by the favorable ratio of teachers to students and the cachet of their child learning a marketable foreign language.

* An adviser to the school, Imam Shamsi All of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, has been denounced by radicals who hand out leaflets in Times Square as "a moderate Uncle Sam Muslim who wants the Muslim community to imitate the West," as an "FBI mouthpiece" and as "the main 'Muslim' advocate of interfaith dialogue."

The case that the Khalil Gibran Academy is dangerous is based largely on its potential associations. Critics say the school will use materials prepared by the Council on Islamic Education, a Saudi-funded group accused of supporting jihadist ideology. The school is located near the Masjid al-Farooq mosque, which had been attended by some of the figures involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Others oppose the academy on church/state grounds, arguing that public money should not be used to open a school that seems to favor a particular religion.

Pipes argues that in principle having more Americans learn Arabic is a great idea, but that in practice Arabic-language instruction is rarely neutral, usually nudging students toward pro-Palestinian stances and hostility toward the West and the United States.

A number of Christian and Jewish clergy in New York have rallied to the school's defense, while others have sided with the critics.

Catholic reaction has been mixed. The Thomas More Law Center, a nonprofit law firm specializing in religious freedom founded by Domino's pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, has called the school "a Trojan Horse for radical Islam with taxpayer money." Another Catholic litigator, however, is more favorable. Kevin Seamus Hasson of the Washington, D.C.-based Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty says that since the academy does not establish Islam as the state religion, it does not pose a constitutional problem.

Further, Hasson argues, there are socially compelling reasons to foster such experiments that could encourage Muslims to reconcile their religious commitment with pluralism and democracy.

"Even taking a low-end estimate for the number of Muslims in America, we're talking about maybe 3 million people," he said. "The prospect of surrendering that many people to an ideology that wants to destroy us is stupid."

City officials said the Khalil Gibran International Academy was to open Sept. 4 as planned.

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His Web column, All Things Catholic, appears Fridays on NCRcafe.org.]
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Title Annotation:NATION; Khalil Gibran International Academy
Author:Allen, John L., Jr.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 7, 2007
Words:804
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