Khalil, the Heretic

Sigh. It has been far too long since I wrote here, and my review of John Yoo's "The Powers of War and Peace" has sat incomplete too long. My apologies. It seems that life happens while you are busy making other plans. The Yoo review will, sadly, continue to be delayed. Reviewing and critiquing political and legal theory takes more concentrated research and thought time than I seem to be able to muster in a single lump of late. So, please forgive me if I fall back for a moment on a simpler task, and write about media fear-mongering and cultural ignorance.

I was reading this morning, a little piece over in Think Progressive regarding Fox News's fear mongering coverage of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), a new school opening in Brooklyn that will teach the Arabic language (in a special 2 our session after normal school hours) and Arab culture. When I saw the article and the Fox video, I knew nothing about the KGIA, but it seemed a little surprising to to me to hear the phrases "Muslim school", "Islam 101?" , "Funding Fatwa?," and "Coming soon to a classroom near you, Al Qaeda!" used with regards to a school named after Khalil Gibran, a Lebonese Christian, excommunicated from his church and exiled from his Ottoman Turk-controlled homeland for his attacks on the corruption of the nobility and the church, so I did a little research,

On the one side I found a blog by Daniel Meeter, paster of the Old First Reformed Church, who along with Rabbi Andy Bachman had accepted the invitation of the school's designated principal, Debbie Almontaser to serve on tKGIA's advisory council, in which he described her as an American Patriot. On the other, I found an article by Daniel Pipes in the New York Sun entitled "A Madrassa Grows In Brooklyn", which described Ms. Almontaser as an extremist. This article and a whole series of articles at are echoed in blogs all over the Web.

As I said, I know nothing of the school or Ms. Almontaser, but was suspicious of claims that someone who invited a pastor and a rabbi onto the advisory council of a school named after an iconoclastic Christian was pushing a fundamentalist Islamist agenda. After a couple of hours Googling and reading, it seems pretty clear that Fox News, Pipes, Pipline and the others are either engaged in fear mongering or are its victims.

Take, for instance, the following description of the Ms. Almontaser from a article entitled "The Dangerous Islamist Leftism Of Dhabah (Debbie) Almontaser And The Proposed Khalil Gibran School In Brooklyn":

According to Dhabah Almontaser, the principal designee of the proposed Khalil Gibran School in Brooklyn, the 9/11 Attacks America's Fault, and "terror is the last resource of a desperate and oppressed people" (as in oppressed by America). Almontaser's views and objectives are so bizarre that the school will be a government funded madrassah...

and contrast it with this slightly longer quote from the interview:

Terror is the last resource of a desperate and oppressed people, but that does not mean that it is acceptable. People who do terrorist acts have lost the sense of right and wrong, each individual committing such acts should be punished with the maximum extent of the law. Only Allah is entitled to take lives.

Just a little bit of a difference. She sound less of a "Dangerous Islamist" when she disapproves of terrorism and killing. When asked, "How do you think terror can be combated?" her reply was

- At least not by bombing a country into pieces! We did not bomb the hometown of Timothy McVeigh to combat terror when he exploded the Oklahoma bomb in 1995. Great Britain does not bomb North Ireland to fight down the IRA, and Spain does not kill hundreds of civilians in their search for ETA terrorists. So which right do we have to kill Afghan women and children, old and young in the search for Al Qaeda? - Terror is combated by finding the terrorist cells, break them down and bring the responsible to justice. I am sure that our intelligence can find them. With the technology of today they survey what ever they want and are infiltrated in all kinds of communities.

At the time she said this, a little more than a year after 9/11, it was a point of view that would have been shocking or hard to swallow for a great many, but today as an ever-growing majority of Americans turn against the President's "War on Terror" it seems more mainstream.

On the other hand, her view on the causes of the 9/11 bombing are still not mainstream, and I can see how some, perhaps even many, would find them shocking or a little threatening. Asked "Why do you think terrorists attacked the USA?", she replied,

- A year ago I could not answer such a question. To me it was just impossible to comprehend how someone could do such terrible, totally sick atrocities. Many said they were not surprised that terrorists attacked the US. That hurt me deeply. Today I believe that the terrorist attacks can have been triggered by the way the USA breaks its promises with countries across the world, especially in the Middle East and the fact that it has not been a fair mediator with its foreign policy. It is not true that the people in the Middle East and Southeast Asia hate our lifestyle, our freedom and our democracy. What disturbs them is that we in order to secure our own well being, deprive them of the possibility of achieving the same high living standard and freedom of choice that we have in the western world.

[This is the point where she made the oft-quoted statement about terror being the last resource.]

This sort of candid criticism of American policy is the kind of thing that gets liberals and progressives accused of "hating America", and is an accusation that is hard for many of us to hear, but that makes it all the more important for us to listen to it and to understand where it comes from, rather than react with fear or anger. Rather than focusing solely on the extent that she holds her country responsible and not her faith or language, seeing it in a conext that starts and ends with a staunch disapproval of terror ("such totally sick atrocities... should be punished with the maximum extent of the law.") and on religious and ethical grounds in the context of her religion, can help us understand world culture and how it affects us all.

This brings me back to the thing that fist caught my ear, the fact that the Fox commentators and the critics in The New York Sun and the blogosphere all talk about the Khalil Gibran school and don't bother to mention that it was named after an anti-traditionalist Lebanese Christian, most likely because they don't even know. They fear and hate, but do not understand.

And that is not all that surprising. Gibran became quite popular in the late 60's but was generally viewed as a smaltzy poet, a source of pop aphorisms thanks to the popularity of The Prophet in both abridged and unabridged versions. In fact, though, he was really something of a radical and iconclast. Two of his works that I enjoyed while growing up were Spirits Rebellious, and Broken Wings. The first story in Spirits Rebellious, "Madame Rose Hanie" and Broken Wings address the same theme, a beautiful young woman in love with one man but in an arranged marriage with another older richer one. In Rose's case, Gibran argues explicitly that in leaving her rich husband to live with the poor one she loved, Madame Hanie was being faithful. Had she stayed, her motives and actions would be hardly different from that of a whore. Broken Wings is told from the perspective of the young man, whose beloved Selma dies in childbirth having stayed with her older husband. It was my favorite of his stories, even before I met and married my own Selma. How could I not appreciate:

In every young man's life there is a "Selma" who appears to him suddenly while in the spring of life and transforms his solitude into happy moments and fills the silence of his nights with music.

The final story in Spirits Rebellious, "Khalil, the Heretic", is of a young peasant man who stands up to a corrupt sheik and church. It's not a subtle story, but it is the one that got him exiled from his country and excommunicated from his church and the passion of its attack on church and state in the name of Jesus and the people helps one to understand his other works. (By the way, the title is not quite so self-referential as one might think, as Gibran's name was actually Gibran Khalil Gibran--Khalil Gibran was his father's name. His American publisher didn't think people would understand the double name.)

I bring up who and what Gibran was because, Anglo-Germanic Celt though I may be, his poetry, his faith, his art and his rebellion were all a part of my childhood, and it is perhaps due to that as well as all the other diverse influences that make me believe in this country and its E Pluribus Unum philosophy. The fear mongers would have us believe that the only part that matters is the "one", that foreigners should cast off their old languages and culture and become one, but that misses the great strength that there is in the "out of many". The great miracle of this country's founders was that Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics, Quakers, and Deists could all agree that their religion need not be the established one, that we could have many, or even chose none. Louisiana could join the Union with a legal code that owed more to French law than British Common Law. French-speaking enclaves could exist in New Orleans and northern New England, three Republics with Spanish traditions and histories and Spanish-speaking citizens could join the Union. We can be different and be Americans, love America.

A prayer offered by the title character of "Khalil, the Heretic" seems particularly appropriate to Vox Libertas.

Hear us, Oh Liberty; Bring mercy, Oh Daughter of Athens; Rescue us, Oh Sister of Rome; Advise us, Oh Companion of Moses; Help us, Oh Beloved of Mohammed; Teach us, Oh Bride of Jesus; Strengthen our hearts so we may live, Or harden our enemies so we may perish And live in peace eternally.

I cannot read them in the original Arabic, but the English version does nicely.

But, as ever, don't believe me. Read the works of Gibran. Read Debbie Almontaser's own words and think about them. Compare them to what is said about her. Learn something of the history of the Middle East, study from the Anglo/French, Turkish, Jewish and Arabic perspectives. See if you can synthesize a holistic view of that history from the varied versions.

Be a free voice, the voice of liberty, cry "Freedom!" till it rings. Vox Libertas