High school students in the Wahhabi-led school learn that "the Jews conspired against Islam" and Sunni Muslims should shun all Shia Muslims. They also are taught that killing an apostate or an adulterer is acceptable under Islamic law. And polytheists (defined elsewhere as Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and even Shia and Sufi Muslims) likewise can be subject to death for their transgressions.
It is troubling enough to consider such lessons being ingrained in the minds of teenagers in Riyadh and throughout the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But the same textbooks are in use in Alexandria, Va., at the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA), a report issued earlier in June by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found.
The school issued a statement disputing the findings as "erroneous," and claiming the commission used "mistranslated and misinterpreted texts, and references to textbooks that are no longer in use at the Academy."
But this week, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, which leases property to the Saudi Academy, appealed to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice for guidance. According to a local news report, Fairfax County Chairman Gerry Connolly, who signed the letter, "offered a strong defense of the Islamic Saudi Academy and accused the school's critics of slander during a meeting last month in which the school's lease was" renewed. Now the county seems less sure as its letter to Rice indicates:
"As a local governmental entity, Fairfax County is not capable of determining whether textbooks, written in Arabic, contain language that promotes violence of religious intolerance, or is otherwise offensive to the interests of the United States. 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."
Early indications are that the State Department won't be of much assistance. In a news briefing after the USCIRF report was released, spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos told reporters the department expected all the questionable passages would be gone by the start of fall classes. But when asked why the Department wasn't issuing more of an ultimatum, spokeswoman Nicole Thompson minimized the government's role in the book controversy.
"This is a private school," Thompson said. "It is not a part of the Saudi embassy. It is not part of a diplomatic mission."
That seems to be the crux of the dispute. The USCIRF notes that the Saudi ambassador to Washington leads the school's board of directors, the Saudi Embassy owns one of the school's two properties and leases the other from Fairfax County and the ISA receives funding from the embassy, while sharing the embassy's IRS employer identification number.
In a report last October, the commission cited the Foreign Missions Act, which it says empowers the Secretary of State to regulate foreign missions in the United States, going so far as to force a mission to divest itself of a property:
The ISA is an arm of the Saudi Government, and the US Government has a right to stop foreign governments from engaging in activities on our soil in violation of the Foreign Missions Act, particularly because significant past documented concerns remain about whether what is being taught at the ISA explicitly promotes hate, intolerance and human rights violations, in some cases violence, and therefore may adversely affect the interests of the United States.
The State Department either disagrees or is reluctant to wield such a heavy stick. It has copies of textbooks used at the Islamic Saudi Academy and those books are being reviewed, Thompson said. She could not say by whom, or whether the results of that review would be released to the public.
Fairfax County's letter marks the fourth time in less than a year that government representatives have appealed to the State Department to act. In citing the Foreign Missions Act, the USCIRF report last fall urged that the school be shut down until it can prove the offending textbooks have been replaced. A handful of U.S. House members, including Steve Israel (D-NY) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) introduced Continuing Resolution 262, which asked the State Department to grant the Commission's requests about ISA textbooks and create a way to track reforms that the Saudis promised back in 2006.
That call was followed by a letter from a dozen U.S. Senators, led by Arizona Republican John Kyl, expressing concern that State Department officials have claimed progress on Saudi education reform, but little tangible gains can be seen. That is due, in part, to the Saudi government's refusal to grant full access to the textbooks. "Despite this lack of transparency, the State Department has repeatedly asserted that reforms have been made," the letter said.
In a response, Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Jeffrey Bergner never directly addresses the Senators' requests, but notes:
"The Foreign Missions Act provides the Department broad authority to regulate foreign missions in the United States in order to facilitate relations, to protect the interests of the United States, and for other specified purposes. The Department has not determined that action against the ISA under the FMA is appropriate, but will continue to carefully monitor the situation."
"I guess we need to know what ‘monitoring the situation' means," said USCIRF spokeswoman Judith Ingram. "It would be good to know where the books are in the State Department. Which office is holding them?"
In addition, State Department officials have defied repeated requests by the USCIRF for access to those textbooks. Department officials have not explained why they will not share the books, but repeatedly say the Academy has offered its book directly to the USCIRF for review. "[W]e understand that ISA has offered to make textbooks available to USCIRF," Bergner wrote in his letter to the senators.
Many of the books were collected by a congressional staffer at an ISA open house last fall. But a 12th grade textbook in the report – which discusses whether killing an apostate is allowable – wasn't at the open house. The USCIRF obtained a copy from Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar and activist who directs the Institute for Gulf Affairs. He has monitored education in the kingdom and at the ISA for the past seven years. Parents of ISA students help him keep track of the textbooks in use, he said.
"They have never been straight in giving a complete set of textbooks," al-Ahmed said in an interview.
That concerns seems to be shared by Wolf, who wrote his own letter to Rice Tuesday asking "that the State Department provide a complete English translation of the textbooks and issue an official assessment of the material contained in these books."
"The United States government owes it to those who are concerned and to the parents and students at the ISA to thoroughly examine this matter and find out the truth about the content of the textbooks in question," the letter continued. Wolf added a biting, handwritten postscript next to his signature:
"The State Department is not doing its duty."
Saudi officials acknowledged intolerant teachings in its textbooks and promised a comprehensive reform nearly two years ago. A CNN report at the time rings familiar to those monitoring the debate today:
Saudi Arabia said it had expunged all intolerant language from its textbooks. But a recent review of Saudi texts for the current academic year by the group Freedom House revealed, despite Saudi statements to the contrary, an ideology of hatred toward Christians, Jews and Muslims who do not follow the Wahhabi version of Islam.
Books al-Ahmed obtained do show signs of editing. In some cases, offending pages have been physically removed. Other sentences are whited out. What's left, he said, is a more subtle approach that doesn't alter the underlying message.
"There are still some problems," he said. "It is not harmless when you talk about the polytheists and you remove the section naming the polytheists, including Christians, Jews and other Muslims. It still says kill the polytheists."
Meanwhile, as detailed by Andrew Cochran at the Counterterrorism Blog, the school's 1999 valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was convicted in 2005 of joining Al Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction earlier in June.
The school received additional unwelcome attention two days before the USCIRF report's release, when principal Abdallah I. Al-Shabnan was arrested by Fairfax County police for obstruction of justice. Al-Shabnan is accused of failing to report sexual abuse allegations by a 5-year-old student against her father.
According to an Arab News report:
Police said in court papers that Al-Shabnan ordered a written report about the girl's complaint, which had been prepared by other school officials, to be deleted from a school computer.
Virginia state law requires school officials to report allegations of abuse within 72 hours.
"At no time did Mr. Al-Shabnan report the allegations to any child protective agency or law enforcement agency," an affidavit for a search warrant filed in the Fairfax County Circuit Court says. "He further stated that he was not aware that he was required to make such a report."
Court documents also say Al-Shabnan "stated he did not believe the girl's complaint and felt she may be attempting to gain attention."
The State Department, as spokeswoman Thompson indicated, sees no need to draw a harder line against the Saudis even when it comes to Saudi influence over an American-based school.
"Diplomatic actions don't always yield results immediately. Of course we would want the Saudis to not promote intolerance in the textbooks that they use," Thompson said.
"We will continue to work with the Saudis on this issue."