If there was any doubt about whether the question of religious hatred in Saudi textbooks would become a campaign issue in Virginia's 11th Congressional District race, the Democrat and Republican candidates dispelled that notion by midday Tuesday.
Whether the issue will register with voters, however, is another question.
Gerald E. "Gerry" Connelly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the Democratic candidate, sent a letter June 23 to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking for guidance on the county's renewal on May 19 of a lease with the Islamic Saudi Academy, which is funded and run by the Saudi government and whose governing board is chaired by the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
In his letter, Connelly requested "specific direction regarding the board's existing lease with the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia for the operation of the Islamic Saudi Academy," because, as a local government, "Fairfax County is not capable of determining whether textbooks, written in Arabic, contain language that promotes violence or religious intolerance or is otherwise offensive to the interests of the United States."
That power, Connelly's letter said, was granted the State Department under the Foreign Missions Act, which gives the secretary of State authority to divest or forgo the use of any real property determined to be necessary to protect U.S. interests.
In addition, the letter said, the lease itself contains the phrase "subject to the approval of the United States Department of State."
"The county simply does not employ the linguists and scholars required to make such a determination, and more important, such an effort is well beyond the scope and responsibility of local government," Connelly's letter continued.
The National Republican Congressional Committee said Tuesday that Connelly flip-flopped.
"Gerry Connelly's change of heart seems to come at an opportune time," NRCC press secretary Ken Spain said in a news release. "After giving a full-throated defense of the school and accusing critics of ‘slander,' it appears that Gerry Connelly is bucking under political pressure. It's hard to figure out what is worse, a public official who is incapable of standing by the courage of his convictions or one who has incredibly bad judgment."
Keith Fimian, a local businessman and the Republican candidate for the 11th District, said criticisms of the academy's texts are well-known and should have been examined more closely by the county's board of supervisors before they voted to renew the school's lease.
"The issue here really is that Mr. Connelly's trying to dodge the blame for his actions," Fimian said. "He's trying to show how well he'd fit into a Congress that tries too often to avoid dealing with big issues. They knew there was a problem here."
The issue has developed into an interesting quandary not just for the candidates for the congressional seat, currently held by Republican Thomas M. Davis III , who is retiring, but also for the federal government, which has received assurances from Saudi Arabia that it will clean up its textbooks by the beginning of next year's term.
The 11th District is widely considered vulnerable to Democratic turnover this election. Turnout in Fairfax County, which makes up about two-thirds of the district's population, has become increasingly Democratic in the last three presidential elections, possibly the result of an influx of immigrants and new voters into the district, said Toni-Michelle Travis, a professor of government at George Mason University.
"It's the new voters, who tend to be more Democratic, not old voters who are switching," Travis said.
Travis added, however, that she did not think the American Muslim community was large or well-organized enough in the district to have an impact, even if it were motivated one way or the other by the Saudi academy situation.
"I don't think it will go very far," Travis said of repercussions in the American Muslim community over the academy issue. "It's not organized enough to make a difference in the voting turnout."
Census Bureau records from 2006 show that residents identifying themselves of at least partly Arabic descent number fewer than 8,000 in the district, not 1 percent of the total population. Many thousands more identify themselves as having ancestry from Baltic or African nations, however. In addition, 3,600 claim ancestry from Iran and about 2,100 from Afghanistan.
The fact that Davis's wife, Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, lost re-election to the Virginia Senate to Democrat Chap Petersen, despite being better financed, could be a sign of things to come in the district, Travis said.
But Brian McNicoll, Davis's press secretary, said the district, which has the highest per capita income in the nation, is competitive.
"It's not a hard-left or a hard-right district," McNicoll said. "I don't know that there's been a huge transformation in who votes there. You cannot be a hard-right Republican and win there, and I think one of the things the primaries showed is you can't really be a hard-left Democrat either.
In the June 10 primary, Connelly defeated the more liberal former Rep. Leslie L. Byrne (1993-95) soundly, although turnout was low.
Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, director of outreach at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., and a board member of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, said he thought the issue fit broadly into that of supporting diversity, inclusion, and engagement as opposed to "Islamophobia, homophobia, day-labor-o-phobia." And minority communities understand the Democrats are more inclusive, generally speaking, Abdul-Malik said.
"If you're anti-immigrant, if you're anti-minority if you're anti-civil rights, you're anti-civil liberties, you're probably anti-Islam . . . they all wind up in the same boat," he said. "So how it becomes an issue politically is when you bundle these issues together, the coalitions and alliances come together."
Bad Report Card
But inclusive is what critics have accused the Saudi academy of not being. The school came under fire from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for the second time since October for using of textbooks containing inflammatory statements about other religions, including permission to kill apostates, or those who convert from Islam.
The commission, which is appointed by Congress, released a report June 11 quoting the texts and saying the State Department, although it received copies of the books used at the school after the commission raised the issue last spring, has not made the books available to the public or the commission.
The commission said it acquired at least 17 textbooks used by the academy during the 2007-2008 school year from sources other than the State Department or the academy itself; some of the examples came from a congressional office.
The Saudi government promised it would purge such language from its national curricula in July 2006, telling the U.S. government that, among other policies to improve religious freedom and tolerance in that country, it would "revise and update" textbooks to remove remaining references that disparage other Muslims and non-Muslims within one or two years.
As that time frame draws to a close, the commission decided to release its report and again expressed concern over the content of textbooks at the academy, which has 900 students in grades kindergarten through 12 at two campuses in Alexandria and Fairfax.
Last year, the commission recommended the school be closed amid similar concerns.
Judith Ingram, communications director for the commission, said the commission was told the Saudi academy should have its textbooks fully revised by the 2008-2009 school year and said she welcomes the changes. The Saudi Academy did not return phone calls for comment by Tuesday evening; it did publish a statement on its Web site calling the commission's report "erroneous."
"The report contains mistranslated and misinterpreted texts, and references to textbooks that are no longer in use at the academy," the statement said. The school also said the commission's refusal to come to the school called its intentions into question. Rob McInturff, a spokesman at the State Department, confirmed that the department received Connelly's letter. He said he believed it was the responsibility of local school boards to monitor what happened at schools such as the academy.
The State Department, while willing to cooperate, was concerned about getting the Saudi government to change its textbooks around the globe, including at the academy, and it wouldn't be able to confirm whether that had been accomplished until the fall.
"I think, the bottom line is, the State Department is more than happy to cooperate and help out, and we've said we'll cooperate as we can, but that's very different than saying we're responsible for all foreign schools in the United States, and we're not, legally we're not," McInturff said.
He also said the Saudi academy had offered to open its doors to the commission, and he encouraged the two entities to work together.
Ingram said it was unrealistic to expect a thorough analysis of the textbooks after only a few hours at the school, in part because the texts are in Arabic and require interpretation. She characterized the academy and Saudi government's actions as defensive and "a shell game."
"It would be very, very easy for the ISA [Islamic Saudi Academy] or the Saudi embassy to put aside any doubts . . . but to continually call into question our analysis without actually answering specifically any of the concrete examples that we brought up in our report seems to me to be a not very constructive approach," Ingram said.
Ingram also said the commission pulled three examples from books provided to congressional staffers — books that were in addition to the ones the commission had acquired.
"If I were running a school and someone made these allegations, I would try as hard as I could to look thoroughly at the books I was using," Ingram said.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf , R-Va., who drafted the legislation creating the commission, said the State Department owes it to the public as well as the Saudi academy to get to the bottom of the issue. Wolf said he planned to ask for hearings before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the issue.
"I think we need a truly objective analysis of what is being taught and what has been taught," Wolf said. "Like I say, if it's nothing, then I think we owe it to the school to say the things that were said are not true. But if it is true, we owe it to the people to stop the preaching of hate."
The commission's findings came about a month after the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted to renew the academy's lease. The board conducted its own study of the textbooks last year at the request of Supervisor Gerald Hyland, whose district encompasses the academy, according to the Associated Press.
Although Hyland and the county did not release the results of what they had found, Hyland said at the meeting in which the vote was taken that, "I would be less than frank if I didn't tell you that the curriculum does contain references to the Quran, which, if taken out of context and read literally, would cause some concern."