Virginia Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf has weighed in on the controversy over the teachings of the Saudi government's school in Northern Virginia, sending a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking for a complete translation and assessment of the school's textbooks.
A federal commission's independent investigation of the books found that they contained passages espousing religious hatred and giving permission to kill unbelievers, passages critics say are in violation of an agreement the Saudi government made with the United States in 2006 to clean up its textbooks.
"The United States government owes it to those who are concerned and to the parents and students at the ISA [Islamic Saudi Academy] to thoroughly examine this matter and find out the truth about the content of the textbooks in question," Wolf's letter read. "Your personal attention is appreciated. Please keep me informed of developments."
A post-script handwritten in all capital letters near the signature read, "The State Department is not doing its duty."
State Department Spokesman Rob McInturff said Tuesday that the responsibility for monitoring what was taught at the school belonged not to the State Department but to Fairfax County, the jurisdiction outside Washington where the school is located; McInturff also said the department was concerned about the Saudi government's curriculum, both locally and abroad, and had received promises from the Saudis in 2006 that they would clean up the texts by the 2008-2009 academic year.
McInturff did not return calls Wednesday for comment on Wolf's letter.
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the State Department has been reluctant to investigate the issue, despite gaining promises of change in 2006.
"With the administration imploring Saudi Arabia to drill more oil and cooperate on other fronts, maybe that's why it clearly does not want to be critical of Saudi Arabia this time, and to take a hard look at these books," Shea said.
International human rights law obligates Saudi Arabia to reform practices promoting religious intolerance, said Shea, who pointed out that the Saudis have a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In addition, she said, U.S. legislation on international religious freedom (PL 105-292) requires the president to take punitive actions against countries that the State Department designates as violating religious freedoms.
So far, Saudi Arabia has eluded punishment. Although it was first designated a "country of particular concern" in 2004, the Saudis' 2006 promises to promote greater religious tolerance among its people, including revising curricula, prompted Rice to continue to waive administrative action, according to a State Department press release from July 2006.
In the release, John Hanford, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom and an ex officio member of the related U.S. commission, said he was pleased the Saudi government proved willing to engage with the United States.
"These policies are significant developments, and I appreciate the Saudi government's interest in confirming them publicly so that all interested parties may follow progress made in these areas," Hanford said in the release.
In addition, Jeffrey T. Bergner, the State Department's assistant secretary for legislative affairs, wrote in a letter to Sen. Jon Kyl , R-Ariz., in January – 18 months after the U.S.-Saudi agreement – that the State Department planned to monitor the progress of the Saudis in upholding their July 2006 vows to "eliminate all passages that disparage or promote hatred toward any religion or religious group." While it noted reasonable progress, the State Department considered it premature to judge the overall success or failure of Saudi revisions, Bergner wrote.
In light of the stipulations of U.S. and international law, and the threat of punitive actions, the Saudi-U.S. confirmation of changes in 2006 was akin to a bilateral agreement that both parties were obligated to uphold, Shea said.
"We see it as a bilateral agreement, and it's very specific and said all the things they had to do, including clean up these textbooks," Shea said. "So this is now being handled by the State Department as if they're hearing about this for the first time, and it's a very hot potato for them, and they're passing this potato back to the county."
Attention to the Text
The Islamic Saudi Academy has come under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks after the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported several examples of extreme religious intolerance in books it said were taken from the school.
Last fall, the commission called on the State Department to close the school until its Arabic-language textbooks could be publicly reviewed for violence, discrimination, or intolerance based on religion or belief.
Shortly after the commission raised the issue, the Saudi government turned over the academy's textbooks to the State Department, but the department has not made the books public or issued a statement about its contents, the commission's June 11 report said.
Through independent sources, the commission procured 17 of the textbooks, which contained several passages that, according to the commission's translations, could be construed as inflammatory.
• A 12th-grade commentary on the Koran says it is permissible for a Muslim to kill an "apostate," or convert from Islam, an adulterer, or someone who has intentionally murdered a believer. " ‘He (praised is He) prohibits killing the soul that God has forbidden (to kill) unless for just cause ...' " the commission report quotes the textbook as saying. "Just cause is then defined in the text as ‘unbelief after belief, adultery, and killing an inviolable believer intentionally,' " the commission report states.
• Another 12th-grade textbook on monotheism states a ‘[m]ajor polytheism makes book and wealth permissible,' which in Islamic legal terms means a Muslim can take the life and property of someone believed to be guilty of this alleged transgression with impunity," the commission report says. "Major polytheists," according to Sunni Muslims, include Shi'a and Sufi Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists.
The Islamic Saudi Academy has repeatedly denied the findings of the commission's report, calling them misinterpreted and erroneous, and has said it does not teach the cited texts at its school. It also invited the commission to its campus to review materials and speak with faculty, saying the commission's refusal "speaks volumes about the seriousness of the commission's intentions," according to a statement on the school's Web site.
Shea countered that the study required months of analysis, both of the Arabic language and of the relevance of the text to U.S. and international law. A couple of hours at the school would not have been sufficient or appropriate, she said.
The Saudi academy teaches 900 students in grades K-12 at two campuses in Alexandria and Fairfax, Va., and is one of 19 similar schools in or near Western capitals that are funded by the Saudi government and have Saudi ambassadors as their chairs; the Norther Virginia academy leases its property from Fairfax County.
Although U.S. legislation (PL 97-241) gave the State Department "broad authority" to regulate foreign activities, the department had not determined whether the academy should fall under the act, Bergner wrote in his letter to Kyl.
In another letter, Gerald E. "Gerry" Connelly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors also sought clarification from Rice. In that letter, which was sent Monday, Connelly asked the State Department for guidance on whether the county should have renewed the academy's lease in May, saying the county didn't have the resources to make a proper determination. Connelly, a Democrat, is running against Republican businessman Keith Fimian for Virginia's 11th Congressional District seat.
The Republican National Congressional Committee labeled Connelly a flip-flopper for writing the letter and said Connelly and Fimian said the county board should have more closely examined the issue before voting to renew the academy's lease.
Wolf, who first introduced the legislation that created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote in his letter to Rice that Saudi Arabia's role in promoting the harsh Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and funding radical clerics abroad is well-known.
In the letter, he referenced the Pulitzer-Prize winning book, "The Looming Tower," by Lawrence Wright; despite Saudi Arabia's constituting only 1 percent of the world's Muslim population, it supports 90 percent of the expenses of the entire faith, including thousands of religious schools around the globe staffed with Wahhabi imams and teachers as well as radical madrassas along the turbulent Pakistani border — and also the Saudi government academies, Wolf wrote.
Matt Korade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.