NEW YORK: It was intended to celebrate language and diversity. But reading the pledge of allegiance in Arabic at a US high school sparked a furious backlash in upstate New York.
Wednesday’s incident at Pine Bush High School, 80 miles (128 kilometres) northwest of New York City, angered students, parents, residents and even those who lost loved ones in Afghanistan.
The initial plan to celebrate National Foreign Language week was that students would read the daily American pledge of allegiance in a different language each day.
But when an Arabic-speaking pupil did so, she was harassed and called a terrorist, said senior class president Andrew Zink, 18, who approved the reading.
Zink, who stood by his decision, told AFP he had received threats on Twitter. Veterans who live in the area told US media they opposed the pledge being read in any language other than English.
Local newspaper the Times Herald-Record said school superintendent Joan Carbone received complaints from residents who had lost relatives in Afghanistan — a non-Arab country whose main languages are Pashto and Dari — and from Jewish parents.
Pine Bush Central School District apologised and said that from now on, the pledge of allegiance will be recited only in English.
A statement on its website said the intention had been to celebrate Foreign Language Week and “the many races, cultures and religions that make up this great country and our school district.”
“We sincerely apologize to any students, staff or community members who found this activity disrespectful,” it said.
Anger over apology
But the apology has angered Zink and others who say language has nothing to do with what it means to be American.
“Many people were angered about reading, but an equal amount are angered by the apology, so now everyone’s mad,” Zink said.
“America or even American isn’t defined in what language you speak in, but the ideas you believe in.”
Zink, who described Pine Bush as predominantly white, said the incident showed the small town is “not willing to accept other groups of people.”
Sadyia Khalique, a spokeswoman for the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, criticized the backlash.
“To see the language of Arabic ostracised and being used as a way to target communities or even lead to hate speech is something which is not a goal… of National Language Week,” she told AFP.
CAIR noted this was not the first time that Arabic had caused “prejudiced sentiment” in an American high school.
Hate calls and threats from parents namely followed a recitation of the pledge of allegiance in Arabic in 2013 in Colorado.
The same year, parents at a high school in Alabama opposed the introduction of Arabic lessons, claiming they would cause students to “learn a ‘culture of hate,'” CAIR said. â€“ AFP