Middle East studies in the News
Debate Erupts Over Muslim School in Virginia [on Islamic Saudi Academy]
by Theo Emery
For years, children's voices rang out from the playground at the Islamic Saudi Academy in this heavily wooded community about 20 miles west of Washington. But for the last year the campus has been silent as academy officials seek county permission to erect a new classroom building and move hundreds of students from a sister campus on the other end of Fairfax County.
The proposal from the academy, which a school spokeswoman said was the only school financed by the Saudi government in the United States, has ignited a noisy debate and exposed anew the school's uneasy relationship with its neighbors.
Many residents living near the 34-acre campus along Popes Head Road, a narrow byway connecting two busy thoroughfares, say they oppose it because they fear it will bring more cars, school buses and flooding of land that would be paved over for parking lots.
But others object to the academy's curriculum, saying it espouses a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. A leaflet slipped into mailboxes in early spring called the school "a hate training academy."
James Lafferty, chairman of a loose coalition of individuals and groups opposed to the school, said that its teachings sow intolerance, and that it should not be allowed to exist, let alone expand.
"We feel that it is in reality a madrassa, a training place for young impressionable Muslim students in some of the most extreme and most fanatical teachings of Islam," Mr. Lafferty said. "That concerns us greatly."
School officials and parents say they are bewildered and frustrated by such claims. The academy is no different from other religious schools, they say, and educates model students who go on to top schools, teaches Arabic to American soldiers, and no longer uses texts that drew criticism after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Kamal S. Suliman, 46, a state traffic engineer with three daughters at the academy, called the accusations "fear tactics and stereotyping."
"Ideological issues do not belong in this matter," Mr. Suliman said. "I'm hoping that cooler heads will prevail," and that a decision about the expansion "will be made based on facts."
The Fairfax County Planning Commission is to vote Thursday on the school's request for a zoning exemption to allow construction of the classroom building. Regardless of the outcome, the request is voted on by the county Board of Supervisors.
Hazel Rathbun, who has lived near the Fairfax campus since 1971, said she worries about traffic safety and flooding on her winding road, and called criticism of the school's Muslim focus "hate filled" and irrelevant. "It's detracting from what we see as a very real issue for us," Ms. Rathbun said.
The Saudi government bought the property, formerly the site of a Christian academy, in 1984. It also rents a county school building in Alexandria.
In the 1990s, the academy bought property in Loudoun County, about 25 miles northwest of Fairfax. Over the protest of local residents, they planned a campus for 3,500 students through grade 12, but they scrapped the plan in 2004. They decided to build instead on the Popes Head Road site, where classes were held for youngsters from pre-kindergarten through first grade.
In 2007, the academy notified the county of its building plans, and last year, transferred the young pupils to the rented building in Alexandria. Academy officials hope to consolidate both campuses into a "state-of-the-art" school in Fairfax, said Abdulrahman R. Alghofaili, the school's director general.
Until Sept. 11, 2001, the academy drew minimal attention, but shortly after the terrorist attacks, Israel turned away two graduates over suspicions they were suicide bombers. One was charged with lying on his passport application, and received a four-month prison sentence.
In 2003, the academy's 1999 valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was arrested in Saudi Arabia, where he had gone to study, and two years later was convicted in Federal District Court in Alexandria of conspiracy to commit terrorism, including a plot to assassinate President George W. Bush. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Mr. Abu Ali's family called the accusations "lies," and his lawyers say he was tortured when he was held in Saudi Arabia.
Besides, academy officials and parents contend, an entire school should not be condemned for the actions of one or two students. They point out that no one laid the blame for the massacre at Virginia Tech on the high school alma mater of the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho.
Last year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan federal agency charged with promoting religious freedom in United States foreign policy, concluded that texts used at the school contained "exhortations to violence" and intolerance.
School officials rejected those findings, saying the commission misinterpreted and mistranslated outdated materials. The school now prints its own materials and no longer uses official Saudi curriculum, said Rahima Abdullah, the academy's education director.
"We have hundreds of students and hundreds of parents who send their students to this place to get ideal education," said Mr. Alghofaili, the director general. "It doesn't make sense that their parents would send their kids to a place to learn how to hate or to kill others."
The Fairfax Planning Commission chairman, Peter Murphy, said questions about religion, politics and diplomacy were "distractions" that did not belong in deliberations about whether the academy should be allowed to expand.
"Whatever happens, some people are going to be happy and some people are not going to be happy" with Thursday's vote, Mr. Murphy said. "I'm not basing this on happiness. I'm basing it on land-use issues."Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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