Let Arabs Tell the Truth

Case Number One:

Architect and political analyst Raed Jarrar lives in America. A year ago, he was in New York's Kennedy Airport getting ready to board a plane back to his home in Oakland, California, when a federal Transportation Security Administration official told him he would not be allowed on the airliner unless he removed his shirt.

You may be thinking: bomb belt. But Jarrar had already passed two pre-boarding security inspections with no problem. The issue was not what was underneath his t-shirt, but what was on it.

In white letters on black, his shirt read "We will not be silent." The real issue, it developed, was that the words were written in Arabic as well as English.

According to a federal civil rights discrimination lawsuit filed this month by the American Civil Liberties Union, the TSA official, identified only as Inspector Harris, told Jarrar that it is impermissible to wear an Arabic shirt to an airport, equating it to a "person wearing a t-shirt at a bank stating, 'I am a robber.'"

Told that he would have to take off or cover up the shirt because other passengers were uncomfortable with its message, and worried that he might miss his flight or even be arrested, Jarrar, who works for the American Friends Service Committee, accepted the JetBlue airline crew's self-styled compromise offer of a free covering shirt and a seat reassignment from the front of the plane to the very rear.

Case Number Two:

Debbie Almontaser was to have been principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, New York City's new Arabic-language public school when it opened its doors in Brooklyn next month. But a series of articles in the New York Post earlier this month drew a tenuous link between Almontaser and an organization which was, in the Post's words, "hawking T- shirts that glorify Palestinian terror"

"The inflammatory tees boldly declare "Intifada NYC" - apparently a call for a Gaza-style uprising in the Big Apple."Almontaser's response was measured. "The word [intifada] basically means 'shaking off.' That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic," she said, in remarks quoted by the Post.

"I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don't believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City.

"I think it's pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society . . . and shaking off oppression."Almontaser was right. So was Jarrar. They were telling the truth. It was their truth, to be sure, but the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was written ? and placed before all 26 other amendments ? specifically to protect each individual's personal truth.

There is some irony in the circumstance that the First Amendment defense of free speech often fairs poorest in the court of public opinion.

New York Sun columnist Daniel Pipes, who has strongly backed efforts to fire Almontaser and shut the school's doors before they ever open, called her remarks on the t-shirts' message "a gratuitous apology for suicide terrorism."

The Anti-Defamation League also weighed in against the shirts. ADL spokesman Oren Segal called them "a reflection of a movement that increasingly lauds violence against Israelis instead of rejecting it. That is disturbing."

After an onslaught of criticism, Almontader issued a public apology. "The word 'intifada' is completely inappropriate as a T-shirt slogan," she said. "I regret suggesting otherwise. By minimizing the word's historical associations, I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence. That view is anathema to me."

To which Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an unapologetic far-right settlement advocate, was unmoved. "It is an absolute outrage that she doesn't know what intifada is all about," he said. This is not about shaking off - this is about carnage represented by blowing up pizza stores in Israel, blowing up buses."

"This woman should not be principal of any school," added Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. "This shirt should read, 'I promote terror and hate on a daily basis, and all I got for it is this lousy T-shirt.' "

In the end, Almontader bowed to the pressure, writing in her letter of resignation that she made the decision for the benefit of her students and teachers so that they could have "the full opportunity to flourish without these unwarranted attacks."

My heart goes out to Raed Jarrar and Debbie Almontaser and the multitude of Arabs and Muslims in America who on a routine basis are profiled, humiliated, stifled, and shunned, their universe of belief and language and identity written off as a culture of death, an agent of world jihad, their legitimate and honest efforts at self-expression buried in an avalanche of intentional misreading and misrepresentation.

Under the circumstances, it is plain to see why Jarrar and Almontaser might be tempted to opt for silence over the exercise of their rights to free speech. It is plain, and it is tragic as well.


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