U.S. Representative Frank R. Wolf (R-10) has again called for a thorough investigation and review of curriculum textbooks being used by the Islamic Saudi Academy citing the U.S. Commission in International Religious Freedom's claim that they "promote violence and intolerance."
In a September 16 letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Wolf chastised the State Department for not answering his previous letters on the Saudi Academy textbook issue and for ignoring his plea to have the controversy settled prior to the commencement of the 2008-09 school year.
"I write to let you know that I just received my first response from the State Department after having written three letters over a two-month period regarding the Islamic Saudi Academy and concerns raised by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on the content of textbooks being used there," Wolf wrote.
"After seeming inattention to these concerns, the letter my office ultimately received in response did not address my repeated requests that you convene a meeting of relevant State Department and USCIRF representatives -- to include the expert analysts commissioned by USCIRF to translate and interpret the ISA textbooks as well as any analysts commissioned by the State Department...to conclusively determine what is being taught at ISA," he stated.
To buttress his request, Wolf included a recent report by the Heritage Foundation that stated "ISA is subject to the terms of the Foreign Missions Act" and that it is in the State Department's powers to declare ISA "a foreign mission of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."
IN THE LETTER to Wolf, signed by Matthew A. Reynolds, Acting Assistant Secretary, Legislative Affairs, the State Department indicated that, although they had not answered previous inquiries about ISA in writing, they had kept Wolf and his staff informed of their actions.
"Your letters have raised important issues. We have appreciated the opportunity to discuss these with you and your staff in recent months. No government should produce materials that are intolerant of religious, racial, or ethnic groups, nor include such material in its educational curricula," Reynolds wrote.
When questioned as to why his letter seemed to indicate that no contact had been made by the State Department relative to his ISA inquiries, Wolf insisted, "The State Department has never been by my office." However, he did not confirm or deny any contact between his staff and the State Department over the period of time of his correspondence with Secretary Rice.
"The matter is very simple. If there is no problem with the textbooks than the State Department should act to remove the cloud. If there is a problem then remove the books," Wolf said.
"Two scholars from the Religious Freedom Commission have looked at these text books and they say there is a problem. It needs to be resolved one way or the other," he said.
Reynolds also pointed out to Wolf that, "the school has reported that it is in the process of adopting new religious curricula and textbooks for the 2008-09 school year. The ISA has stated publicly that the new school year's textbooks are currently being reviewed by professors at two American universities." Neither the professors nor their universities were identified by Reynolds in his letter to Wolf.
DEBATE ABOUT the school's curriculum and textbooks ignited in October 2007 when the Religious Freedom Commission issued a report calling for the school's closure "until such time as the official Saudi textbooks used at ISA are made available for comprehensive public examination." The Commission also sought intervention by the State Department and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
The school building at 8333 Richmond Highway, is leased from Fairfax County. That lease recently came up for renewal and was renewed for one year with an option for two one year extensions on a motion from Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerald Hyland, in whose district the school is located.
ISA's Director General Abdalla I. Al-Shabnan, who heads the school, has insisted all along that the textbooks do not contain hate and violence imbedded within the subject matter. He has also insisted that the textbooks of ISA are not those supplied by the Saudi Arabian government.
At the outset of the controversy, Hyland had a specialist in Arabic review the texts. Her report concluded that the curriculum texts did not, on their face, contain offensive language pertaining to hate, violence and religious intolerance. However, she did conclude that certain passage should be expunged because they could be misinterpreted.
Al-Shabnan submitted the curriculum texts to two independent university scholars to have them analyzed and evaluated. A report on those findings was to have been delivered to Hyland's office no later than Monday, Sept. 22. As of late afternoon Sept. 23 the report had not been delivered and phone calls to ISA and Al-Shabnan office were received by voice mail with no call back.
"We have not received the report or any explanation from the Academy as to why we have not received it," said Brett Kenney, chief aide to Hyland.
The entire matter including both the textbook issue and ISA's lease renewal was further complicated early this past summer when Al-Shabnan was arrested as a result of his failure to report a complaint from a five year-old female student that she was allegedly being sexually abused at home by her father. Virginia law requires reporting of all such accusations by school personnel.
Al-Shabnan was originally charged with two misdemeanors of failing to report and obstruction of justice. He said that he did not believe the girl and advised the parents to seek psychiatric help for her. However, he also ordered the school's computers to be purged of any report about the complaint.
In the final analysis he was fined $500 on the failure to report charge. The school also instituted an in-depth training program for all personnel on Commonwealth requirements dealing with such matters.
Following the vote to renew the lease, Fairfax County Board Chairman Gerald Connolly sent a letter to Secretary Rice asking the State Department to make a determination not only on the textbook matter but also the lease renewal. He noted that during the Board's public hearing on the lease no objections were voiced by the State Department or the Commission "regarding either the renewal or the textbooks."
A reply from the State Department stated, "No authorization from the Department to renew the lease is required. The Department has not used the Foreign Missions Act to regulate private pre-school, elementary and secondary school curricula." Actions by the State Department on Wolf's requests remain unresolved.