Its most virulent critics have dubbed it “Terror High” and 12 U.S. senators and a federal commission want to shut it down.
The teachers, administrators and some 900 students at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Fairfax County have heard the allegations for years — after the Sept. 11 attacks and then a few years later when a class valedictorian admitted he had joined al-Qaida.
Now the school is on the defensive again, after a report issued last month by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says the academy should be closed pending a review of its curriculum and textbooks.
Abdalla al-Shabnan, the school’s director general, says criticism of the school is based not on evidence but on preconceived notions of the Saudi educational system.
The school, serving grades K-12 on campuses in Fairfax and Alexandria, receives financial support from the Saudi government and its textbooks are based on Saudi curriculum. Critics say the Saudis propagate a severe version of Islam in their schools.
But al-Shabnan said the school significantly modified those textbooks to remove passages deemed intolerant of other religions. Among the changes, officials removed from teachers’ versions of first-grade textbooks an excerpt instructing teachers to explain “that all religions, other than Islam, are false, including that of the Jews, Christians and all others.”
Official seems weary of criticism
At an open house earlier this month in which the school invited reporters to tour the school and meet students and faculty, al-Shabnan seemed weary of the criticism.
“I didn’t think we’d have to do this,” he said of the open house. “Our neighbors know us. They know the job we are doing.”
Indeed, many people familiar with the school say the accusations are unfounded. Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald Hyland, whose district includes the academy, has defended it and arranged for the county to review the textbooks to put questions to rest. That review is under way. The academy’s Alexandria campus is leased from Fairfax County.
Schools that regularly compete against the academy in interscholastic sports — many of them small, private Christian schools — are among the academy’s strongest defenders.
Robert Mead, soccer coach at Bryant Alternative High School, a public school in the Alexandria section of Fairfax county, said the academy’s reputation has been unfairly marred by people who haven’t even bothered to visit the school.
“We’ve never had one altercation” with the academy’s players on the soccer field, Mead said. “My guys are hostile. Their guys keep fights from breaking out.”
Under 9/11 spotlight
The academy opened in 1984 and stayed out of the spotlight until the Sept. 11 attacks. Criticisms were revived in 2005, when a former class valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was charged with joining al-Qaida while attending college in Saudi Arabia. He was convicted on several charges, including plotting to assassinate President Bush, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Most recently, the religious freedom commission — an independent federal agency created by Congress — issued its report, saying it was rebuffed in its efforts to obtain textbooks to verify claims they had been reformed.
The commission recommended that the academy be shut down until it could review the textbooks to ensure they do not promote intolerance.
Since the commission’s report, the academy has given copies of its books to the Saudi embassy, which then provided them to the State Department. The commission is waiting to get the books from the State Department.
On Nov. 15, a dozen U.S. senators, including Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., wrote a letter to the State Department urging it to act on the commission’s recommendations. And on Tuesday, Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Steve Israel, D-N.Y., introduced legislation to write the commission’s recommendations regarding the academy into law.
Chairman questions textbooks
Michael Cromartie, the commission’s chairman, said he does not question the character of the student body or the faculty, most of whom are Christian. The commission is focused specifically on the textbooks, and has legitimate concerns given the problems that have been endemic in the Saudi curriculum, he said.
“It’s not about whether the students are civil to their opponents on a ball field. It’s about the textbooks,” he said.
At the open house, seniors said they worry that news accounts will hurt their college applications. Most students said they were shocked that the government panel had recommended closing the school.
Omar Talib, a senior, said the school caters to students from across the Muslim world, not just Saudis. It makes no judgments on other religions or against Shiite Islam, as some critics have contended.
“I have four children at this school. I’ve never heard them say ‘Mom, today we learned we should kill the Jews,”’ said Malika Chughtai of Vienna. “If I heard that kind of talk, I would not have them here.”