New York City public schools to close on Muslim holidays.
Two weeks after New York City announced that its schools would observe the principal Muslim holidays, another school district in the State of New York signaled that Islamophobia in the US, and its classrooms, was hardly on the decline.
On March 18, a student at Pine Bush High School recited the American Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic. The exercise was part of the School’s “National Foreign Language Week“, an event held to celebrate the “many races, cultures and religions that make up [the US and the Pine Bush] School District”.
However, an event celebrating American multiculturalism and pledging patriotism was immediately met with anger and offense – driven by the conflation of the Arabic language with Islam, and in turn, inassimilability, violence and terrorism.
The controversy sparked by the “Arabic pledge” highlights, very vividly, how different dimensions of Arab or Muslim identity – even language – are conflated with threat. And more audibly, how even reverent attempts to reconcile Arab or Muslim culture with American identity incites zeal and scorn.
Pine Bush is roughly 85 miles away from New York City. Although within a 2-mile drive of the Big Apple, the School District is culturally and demographically worlds away. At 95 percent, the small town is overwhelmingly white. The Arab and Muslim-American populations are negligible, as is the presence of other minority communities.
National Foreign Language Week was an institutional attempt to culturally integrate (racially and religiously) minority students. Providing a platform, within the walls of the classroom, for these students to celebrate their native tongues, customs, and identities.
This invaluable teaching moment, as soon as the pledge was recited in Arabic, mutated into mis-education and malice.
“The pledge should always be said in English,” one student stated. Several parents were offended, “because they had family members killed in Afghanistan,” associating the language with war, and a nation where Arabic is not even spoken.
The very utterance of the language instantly evoked this imagery, and the translation of the pledge of allegiance from English to Arabic signaled hostility, imminent takeover, and the 'clashing civilizations' discourse permeating through every pore of American society.
The chorus of opposition was united by a common baseline. Namely, that Arabic was anything but a standalone language. But rather, the linguistic tentacle of perverted representations of Islam, ISIL and al-Qaeda, and terrorism.
The very utterance of the language instantly evoked this imagery, and the translation of the pledge of allegiance from English to Arabic signaled hostility, imminent takeover, and the “clashing civilizations” discourse permeating through every pore of American society.
Instead of standing firm with the spirit of National Foreign Language Week, the Pine Bush High School principal apologised for the recital. Consequently, endorsing the idea that reciting the American pledge of allegiance in Arabic was an inherently unethical or unpatriotic act. A decision from the school’s principal administrator and educator, no less, delivering a lesson (in Islamophobia) that won’t be soon forgotten by the School’s more than 1,000 students.
Limits of US multiculturalism
The Pine Bush pledge of allegiance controversy has also revitalised discussion of the tolerable scope of multiculturalism within American schools. Namely, which languages or cultures are deemed acceptable for students to celebrate at school – and which ones are considered pariahs?
This controversy, juxtaposed with NYC’s plans to observe the Muslim holidays, illustrates that the answers to this question are more complex than clear. Indeed, languages – like Arabic and English – are more than merely systems of communication. They are symbols, expressions of membership, and perhaps most saliently, religious and racial proxies.
Arabic, in past and present in the US, does not only signal foreignness, but also an inextricable nexus to Islam, the Middle East, and the Orient. Spheres positioned as America’s geopolitical and normative rival.
Several languages – primarily European ones such as French or Italian, for instance – are deemed assimilable with English. And therefore, American culture and its classrooms. However, other languages such as Chinese or Spanish are frequently branded as alien, inferior, and menacing. The former associated with long-embedded tropes of Asian hostility and subversion, and the latter linked to intense xenophobia and nativism.
However, Arabic – and the maligned entities and ideas it is associated with – stands head and shoulders above (other foreign languages) as linguistic pariah. While the pledge recited in Chinese or Spanish may have caused a minor stir, its reading in Arabic – as illustrated this past week at Pine Bush High School – rose to the level of national alarm and outrage.
A degree of zeal that matches the still climbing heights of Islamophobia on US streets. Which, unfortunately, is still being taught within the vast majority of its schools. While NYC’s decision to observe the Muslim holidays offers a much heartening exception, Pine Bush – exactly two weeks after that unprecedented step forward – still stands as the unequivocal rule.
Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.