Friday, August 31, 2007

Safety and Symbolism

I liked this NYT editorial (H/T) on the former principal, Debbie Almontaser, of a proposed Arabic immersion school in New York City, who was hounded out of her job by right-wing extremists lobbing disingenuous attacks. Though there were a lot of scurrilous charges hurled about ("She goes by Debbie, but her given name is Dhabah! It's a terrorist alias!"), the one that eventually did her in was a seemingly insufficient condemnation of a t-shirt saying "intifada NYC." Almontaser committed the apparently fatal mistake of trying to explain the literal meaning of the word "intifada", and how it's entirely possible that--being worn by an Arab-American woman, it might have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (indeed, apparently, "intifada" is more often a reference to an uprising by the Arab underclass against other Arabs who are oppressing them). She later clarified that she was in no way countenancing Palestinian terrorism against Israelis, but too late--the sharks smelled blood.

Unsurprisingly, it's PG who has the best response to the controversy, drawing an analogy to a Hindu wedding invitation that has a swastika on it:
At least according to Wikipedia, "intifada" seems to be the word Arabs use to describe rebellion, and commonly it's a rebellion against fellow Muslims, as in Bahrain, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco. That these rebellions are less well known to Elder than Palestinians' strikes against Israelis does not mean that "intifada" means the same thing to ethnically Arab-American girls -- the population to which the T-shirt was targeted -- that it does to Elder or the majority of non-Arab Americans.

Whether it is wise to wear a shirt that communicates something wildly different and potentially offensive to the viewer than to the wearer is another question. I probably wouldn't wear a Tshirt with the Hindu swastika on it in my hometown, because the vast majority of people there would misinterpret as a Nazi symbol. However, most Hindu wedding invitations do bear the symbol, and one assumes that anyone close enough to get an invite, who doesn't already know this much about Hinduism, will nonetheless assume a lack of knowledge on her own part rather than Nazi tendencies on the couple's.

Certainly if someone tried to say that my defense of the symbol made me "a poor choice as a role model for Hindu Americans," I would dispute that claim. And if it were made a ground to oust me from an educational position, I'd get really pissed. I have a responsibility to explain my culture to others when it could be misunderstood, but they also have a responsibility not to be rush-to-judgement jerks.

I probably would be a bit startled if I received a wedding invitation with a swastika on it, but I hope I'd keep my wits about me enough to remember that the meaning I associate with the swastika is not the situation it's being used in. This sort of cultural agility is crucial if we're to live in a pluralistic, diverse world where not everything means the same thing in every context.

Speaking more broadly, I support the creation of such a school, for the simple reason that America needs more people who are deeply familiar with Arab culture and language. It's a diplomatic necessity, and it's national security necessity. I wish this was a moot point, but the attack on Almontaser was merely the front-line of a more concerted effort to get the school shut down entirely. Unsurprisingly, it's much the same people who are willing to discharge military translators crucial to our national interest because they're homophobic that are trying to sabotage the creation of this school because their xenophobic. In either case, their prejudices are making America less safe, and I'm really tired of having to deal with it (and apoplectic that I then have to listen to babbling about they're the ones who are taking American security seriously).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why would you say she was hounded out by Consertives? no she was not she was hounded out by Americans of all stripes including me.How dare you ,MAKE believe journalist, or bloger, or what ever you call your self perhaps Joseph Gobles reincarnated. You are the reason people do not believe what they read on the internet , and listen to Glen Beck or other non fringe media