The current school year at the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA) in Virginia began with fewer textbooks after US pressure groups accused the school of inciting violence through its curriculum, a development that raises concerns about the future of Islamic education at the institute.
Hundreds of pages were purged from textbooks taught at the academy. While students used to study four texts in their Islamic studies — exegesis of the Qur'an (tafsir), monotheism (tawhid), Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) (Hadith) — they currently only study one, an amalgamation of selected texts from the above four.
"Last year we noticed that pages were being removed. This year, however, we got new books," said Abduljabbar Totonji, an ISA student in 12th grade who is concerned that the changes would be detrimental to the Islamic education given to students.
ISA was founded in 1984 to provide Muslim students in the United States with education in Islam and Arabic, identical to what is provided in Saudi schools. One of 19 such schools owned by the Saudi government worldwide, ISA in Virginia is the only one that no longer uses the Saudi Ministry of Education's official textbooks.
Pressure to revise Saudi textbooks mounted in 2006 after a joint report from the Center for Religious Freedom and the Institute for Gulf Affairs (IGA) expressed concerns, contradicting the then Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Turki Al-Faisal's claim that "intolerant material" had been purged from textbooks.
The report further scrutinized the concept of Jihad as mentioned in the textbooks. "It is my conclusion that there is a direct correlation between the Saudi curriculum and the highest number of suicide bombers out of Saudi Arabia, both in 9/11 and in Iraq," said coauthor of the report Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi national and founder of IGA.
While Al-Ahmed concurs that Jihad is an integral part of Islam, he believes the concept is misconstrued in Saudi textbooks. "Jihad in Islam is taught as an aggressive form of violence, not a defensive form of violence," he said, adding that while war and patriotism is part of the greater concept of Jihad, Saudi texts should elaborate on the concept of "Jihad against one's self, the struggle for self improvement and self restraint and discipline."
Escalating the matter further, the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which is a US government agency that was founded in 1998 to monitor violations of freedom of religion by foreign governments, published a report last summer calling for the academy's closure. USCIRF expressed concern that ISA incites violence against non-Muslims.
While many private religious schools throughout the US — some of which are Christian — have been criticized by the US media for inciting hatred and intolerance, the USCIRF is mainly concerned about the ISA because it is funded and governed by the Saudi Embassy in the US. "If this was a private school and the Saudi government had nothing to do with it, it would have nothing to do with us," said Dwight Bashir, senior policy analyst at USCIRF who explained that the commission's mandate is to look at the violations of foreign countries, not at private entities or at what is happening within the US.
In its report, USCIRF listed examples of what it called "problematic passages," which violate international human rights and serve to "embolden radical Islamists who seek to perpetuate acts of terrorism" on Americans and others around the world.
To support its argument, the report quoted an excerpt from a 12th grade tafsir book that includes a Qur'anic verse prohibiting the killing of people with the authors' commentary that it is permissible for a Muslim to kill an apostate, an adulterer, or someone who murders a Muslim.
USCIRF insists its criticism is not for the Qur'an. "None of what we have said has anything to do with the Qur'an," said Bashir, "as a matter of fact, the passages that we cited are all interpretations or text written by the authors, not anything directly from the Qur'an."
Meanwhile, ISA's Director General Abdulrahman Al-Ghofaili denies changing textbooks in response to the furor, insisting the textbooks were altered to make them more suitable for Muslim students living in the US.
"I understand that there were a lot of pressure from the media and from the USCIRF and also from some congressmen but we do not give much attention to these entities," said Al-Ghofaili, who insisted the textbooks did not incite violence or hatred.
"Some organizations that incite violence interpret verses in their own way," said Al-Ghofaili, adding that the academy is not responsible for other people's interpretations, whether they are fundamentalist or liberal.
Nevertheless, Al-Ghofaili revealed that the academy removed any material that could even mistakenly be interpreted as violent. "There is no reference to killing or violence or even any reference that could be interpreted as violent or hateful," he said.
Dr. Dawood Abdulrahman, head of the Islamic Studies Department at the academy and the man behind the revision of textbooks, also confirmed that texts perceived to be offensive were removed. "We tried to remove any sensitive material that others believed to be offensive," he said.
It is this approach of eliminating material that remains a problem with IGA's Al-Ahmed, who recently reviewed the new books. "The word Jihad has disappeared completely and that is a disturbing development," he said, adding that the right approach would be to explain Jihad within the historical contexts rather than eliminating it totally from textbooks.
"It is troubling when they teach Jihad as violence against the other and it is equally disturbing if you don't say anything about it," said Al-Ahmed.
Former students at the academy are also disturbed about the changes. "Every religion has their rules and has their extremists so I don't know why everyone has come so hard on [Islam]," said Dania Al-Bermani, a former student at the academy. Al-Bermani said that instead of changing texts, further explanation should be provided to avoid misinterpretation.
"A lot of the things seemed like, if you look at it literally, it might have been interpreted in the way that the West is interpreting it now, but we always had it in some kind of context," said Maryam Assakkaf, another former ISA student.
"If they actually believe that these books were teaching violence then look at the majority. The majority are taught from these books and the majority are not violent," said Hadania Almazyed, another former student.