The Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA) has once again found itself embroiled in controversy for allegedly using textbooks that "teach hate." Yet groups that can exercise power over the school have generally refrained from challenging it.
On May 19, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors considered a proposal extending the lease to the Saudi Arabian government, which funds and oversees the school. After about an hour of debate that featured impassioned speakers who either criticized the school for a lack of transparency or defended it from charges of intolerance, the board voted unanimously to extend the lease.
The supervisors frequently voiced frustration with the debate over the academy's teachings. "I don't like the idea that we have to dig into the level of detail of what goes on in the school to approve a lease that has been very successful for the county for 20 years," Supervisor John Foust said.
"We lease space all across this county to churches and educational groups," added Supervisor Michael Frey. "We don't ask them the kinds of questions the citizens here today wanted us to ask." He later declared that the academy had been a "good neighbor and steward of the property" and suggested that security concerns be left to the State Department.
According to the terms of the lease, the State Department has the right to intervene and close the school if it has objections to the way the school is run. The State Department has not taken action against the school. In 2006, however, it did note that in Saudi Arabia, "there is no legal recognition or protection of religious freedom, and it is severely restricted in practice."
The State Department received copies of the textbooks used in the school but has so far refused to publicly release the books or conclusions about their content. State Department officials were not immediately available for comment.
Another group nominally overseeing ISA is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) – a group that accredits the academy as well as thousands of other schools across the country. SACS first accredited ISA in 1990 and recertified the school in 2005 as the result of a review process that occurs every five years.
According to Hilda Kelly, director of the Virginia SACS office, such an evaluation includes a review team visiting the school and inspecting its adherence to seven broad SACS standards, which encompass a larger number of requirements.
One such obligation is that the school "offers a curriculum that challenges each student to excel, reflects a commitment to equity, and demonstrates an appreciation of diversity." Kelly declined comment when asked whether the allegations, if substantiated, would prove to be a violation of that standard and thus a possible basis for revocation of accreditation.
Dr. Patricia Golding, Virginia SACS associate director, also declined comment about ISA's status, but said the situation is "being looked into."
The only overseeing organization strongly confronting ISA in public is the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the federal body that issued two reports questioning the ISA textbooks. In a press release, USCIRF declared it has the mandate to monitor ISA because the school is "operated by a foreign government and uses that government's official texts."
In their latest report, the organization claims ISA is impeding outside investigation as well as continuing to use textbooks that incite hate and violence.
Judith Ingram, USCIRF's communication director, said the Saudi embassy repeatedly ignored requests for the books or more information. "We're a U.S. government agency, so the proper interlocutor is the ambassador," she said. "He's the highest representative [of Saudi Arabia], but he's also the chairman of the board for the school."
The USCIRF once called for the school to be closed, but Ingram emphasized the most important outcome is "that the textbooks be revised."
The tensions go both ways, however. Rahima Abdullah is the director of education at ISA, and she claims that the school has invited USCIRF officials to visit the school and examine the books for two years, adding that the invitations were "not even answered."
Ingram admitted that USCIRF had not gone to the school, but argued "a visit to the school is no substitute for an in-depth examination." The report they issued June 11 was the product of months of examination by two analysts with extensive backgrounds in Islamic culture as well as Arabic language, Ingram said.
"We're still working on revisions," said Abdullah. "But we feel we've complied with [government requests] as much as we possibly can." "Within two weeks of when the commission requested the books, the State Department had them," she added.
The State Department has not yet released the books to the public or USCIRF.
When asked if she would also be willing to send USCIRF copies of the books so their Islamic studies experts could do a full analysis of them, Abdullah simply replied, "The books are in a place where they should have access to them."
Back at the Board of Supervisors, the supervisors seemed unfazed in their support for ISA. Mernie Fitzgerald, Fairfax County spokeswoman, described the Board's vote as a "local land use issue," and said that "the State Department has made no recommendation [on the status of the school]."
At the May 19 meeting, Supervisor Gerry Hyland declared that, based on his visit to ISA and the oral report of a county volunteer fluent in Arabic who read textbooks the school provided, there was "no indication" that the school taught hate.
"The curriculum does contain direct references to the Koran, which if taken out of context and read literally, would cause some concern," argued Hyland. He later said ISA was "teaching young children in a fashion that is to be an example to others," citing the high percentage of students who go on to higher education.
Fitzgerald said that the supervisor had no interest in readdressing his remarks in light of the new USCIRF report. "His comments stand, and the actions [of the board] stand," she said.
Views like Hyland's don't make sense to Ingram, who said, "I don't see how you could possibly say the context would make that a different kind of statement," referring to passages from a textbook claiming Muslims could permissibly kill those who converted away from Islam.