As the school year began last Monday, Houston's new Arabic Immersion Magnet School saw the first day marked by discriminatory, xenophobic protests. The public elementary school is among a number of schools with a dual language curriculum in the Houston Independent School District. While other schools offer a Spanish - English or Chinese - English curriculum, this is the first Arabic - English program in Houston and among the first in the nation. The school's mission focuses on cultural awareness and creating "competent global citizens." For most children at the school, Arabic will be their second or third language.
Yet, last Monday morning, a group of around 30 protesters carried signs with statements such as "Everything I Ever Cared to Know about Islam Was Taught to Me by Muslims on 9-11 2001," "Qatar Out of Our Schools" and "Just Say No! Immigrate, Infiltrate, Caliphate." The protestors waved American flags and told reporters that students should be focused on learning English.
Among the many flaws in this rhetoric, the protestors' claims conflate language and religion, implying that the Arabic language cannot be separated from the religion of Islam. Perhaps the protestors don't realize that there are Arab speakers who are Christians, Jews, or adherents of other religions or none at all. And many Muslims don't speak Arabic. Moreover, the majority of Muslims are not Arab. But what's more significant than these inaccuracies, these Islamophobic messages condemn a large, diverse population based on the actions of a few. Equating Muslims with terrorists, they push hurtful stereotypes based in fear mongering and latent racism. These claims try to establish the idea of a dangerous foreign 'other' excluded from the American promises of equality and tolerance. This idea of immigrant infiltration stokes the flames of xenophobia, suggesting that the US has a fixed, 'pure' culture that risks being diluted or distorted by the foreign 'other.' The protestors' arguments also insinuate that English is the only legitimate language for Americans to speak and that all other languages are inherently foreign.
Along with this faulty logic, these protestors misunderstand the current state of Texas -- the second largest, second most populous, and fastest growing state in the country. In the past 30 years, Texas has seen significant demographic shifts. It's been a majority-minority state since 2004. And it is among the top three destinations for new immigrants. While Texas is well known as home to the largest number of evangelical Protestants in the US, it also has the largest Muslim population and the second largest Hindu population in the country. Its largest city, Houston, now ranks as the most ethnically diverse city in the nation. And it's the top refugee resettlement city in the country. Accordingly, the cliché of Texas as primarily a Red State stronghold of Anglo evangelical Protestants doesn't adequately represent the breadth of diversity that actually exists in the state. And it certainly doesn't represent Houston.
This diversity is part of the American experience. From its beginnings, the United States was celebrated as a great experiment in diversity, tolerance, and religious freedom. Reporting on his travels in the young nation, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville described the character of the U.S. as the result of "the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty," which he argued "elsewhere have often been at war but in America have somehow been incorporated into one another and marvelously combined." And this diversity is woven into the fabric of Texas. Consequently, developing cultural literacy, as the Arabic Immersion Magnet School aims to do, prepares students not only to become global citizens, but also educated citizens of their culturally diverse city. Better education about the diverse cultures and religions represented in Houston and greater Texas is essential for creating a public square that makes room for the free encounter of the many peoples of Texas.
Significantly, on the second day of school, supporters stood in front of the school with signs reading "Have a Great School Year!" and "America Was Built on Diversity."