Emotions ran high Monday night when the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors heard testimony regarding the Islamic Saudi Academy's proposal to enlarge its school in Fairfax Station. Those on both sides of the issue made impassioned pleas during a nearly four-hour public hearing marked by wild cheering — mainly from opponents –—plus boos and heckling of those speaking in favor, and even threats toward any supervisors who approve the plan.
"Intolerance and incorrect treatment of girls is taught in the textbooks, and allegiance to Islamic law over U.S. law," said Faith McDonnell of Annandale. "If [the expansion's] approved, then individual supervisors open themselves up to charges of malfeasance and treason."
Other speakers called the school a breeding ground for terrorists. But those defending it said it's simply not true. "We follow the laws of the U.S., Virginia and the county," said Rahima Abdullah, IB coordinator and director of education for the Academy. "It is insulting to us, as parents, educators and U.S. citizens, to say we'd put our children in any school not teaching good citizenship and academic excellence. We've produced doctors, lawyers, Peace Corps representatives, and we teach the traditional values that we all value as Americans."
Since 1984, the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA) has run a school for some 300 pre-kindergarten through first grade students on 34 acres at Route 123 and Popes Head Road. It now wants to expand its facility to include the students in grades two through 12 currently at its Mount Vernon District campus, but it needs a special-exception permit from Fairfax County before it could do so.
"The purpose is to consolidate both campuses," said land-use attorney Lynne Strobel, representing the school. "But the applicant will limit enrollment to 500 students."
Three, one-story buildings already on site would remain, and an 8,976-square-foot structure would be replaced by a new, two-story, 103,000-square-foot building to accommodate the additional gym, classrooms, library and auditorium needed for the older students.
AT THE START of Monday's packed public hearing, Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said he'd defer the Board's decision until Aug. 3 to keep the record open for further public comment. But, he told the crowd, "This application must be — and will be — decided on land-use issues including the [county's] Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance and the relevant testimony of individuals."
Strobel said the site-plan process and construction could take two years, so the ISA may keep using its Mount Vernon campus until then. "The Islamic Saudi Academy is no more, no less, than a private school of general education," she said. "It promotes respect and understanding between Muslims and Americans, and over 95 percent of its students attend American universities, including Princeton, GMU and UVA."
The first speaker was James Lafferty, chairman of the Virginia Anti-Shariah Task Force. Alleging that the ISA is "raising the next generation of terrorists," he said his group believes "the ISA not only teaches, but practices, Shariah law, allocating rights according to religion and gender. Islamic males have rights; females don't." He said the curriculum is anti Jews and Christians and advocates stoning for wrongdoing, and he urged the supervisors to "protect our citizens and country" from "hate speech."
Andrea Lafferty, of Washington, D.C.'s Traditional Values Coalition, said a majority of the 9/11 hijackers "were educated in Saudi schools with the same textbooks used at this school."
Denise Lee of the national organization Act for America, said those speaking for the expansion at the March 18 Planning Commission public hearing "were treated with kid gloves, and those against it were summarily dismissed." She also charged that the ISA "puts dollars into Fairfax County coffers, so that's why the county favors it."
Maryland's Jeffrey Imm of REAL (Responsibility for Equality and Liberty) said the Saudi government is "against human rights for women, non-Muslims and other sects of Islam" and such hatred "has no place in educational institutions in Fairfax County."
Arlington's Randy McDaniels said the ISA follows "the most radical style of Islam and teaches race and religious superiority … to destroy western civilization from within." He told the supervisors it's their "responsibility and duty" to deny the school's expansion.
Jerod Powers took things a step further. At the podium, he turned his back on the supervisors, raised his arms and told the audience, "Because the Board already said it's only going to decide this on land-use issues, it is our duty to overthrow such government."
But teacher Malak Abou-Hargah said the opposition is "based on lack of knowledge" about the ISA.
Oakton's Razan Fayez, parent of an ISA second-grader, said the students don't fight with each other, but respect their teachers and receive "a great education in a moral and safe environment. My son is learning understanding and compassion between Muslims and non-Muslims. We've been a positive influence in Fairfax County and productive members of society."
Parent Oksana Elariny of McLean said the ISA doesn't teach hate, and 2007 grad Reem Al-Hussain, a GMU medical technology student, said she "felt stabbed" by the harsh criticism of the ISA she heard March 18.
"To see all our efforts go unrecognized is a shame," she said. "We rebuilt homes for [Hurricane] Katrina victims and raised money for American charities. There are always those who'll turn a speck of bad into an ocean of hate. My religion has been hijacked by extremists, but do we judge the Christian religion by Hitler?"
Richard McCarthy, who's taught AP geography at the ISA for four years, said he's worked closely with the social studies department to develop programs "comparable with public-school programs. This is a fine school with wonderful children. I can vouch for their goodheartedness. I've never heard anyone talk about the things talked about here tonight."
Vienna's William Gray said Barack Obama's election as president signified that American "would no longer judge people or groups by their faith, color, culture or religion." He also noted that the ISA would comply with 40 county conditions restricting the use of its campus, "none of which would be agreed to by Fairfax County Public Schools," to minimize the impact on the neighborhood.
Springfield's Jo Ann Metzger complained that, in the 1980s, the board denied an expansion application to Fairfax Christian Academy on the same spot. "It seems to me like religious discrimination," she told the supervisors. "I'd hate to be voting for this school, if I were you."
Little Rocky Run's Douglas Mahn said a former school valedictorian was voted by his peers "most likely to be martyred," and the overall picture of ISA is "frightening."
Resident Michael Haines said the school teaches that "Shariah law overrules the U.S. Constitution."
But Herndon's Iman Kandil said the math and science she received there enabled her to graduate from MIT. "At ISA, I was taught community service and giving back," she said. "We're not taught Shariah law, but a strong commitment to our country that we all share, the United States of America."
Parent Juliet Othman said, "No one who's attacked the school has been willing to tour it and learn about it to dispel this intolerance. Our school follows an English-based curriculum set by Fairfax County and contains students and teachers of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds."
ISA teacher Katherine Cox Chenard called it an "exemplary" institution, and student Mohammed Kandil, last year's student body president and basketball team captain, noted the school's recent sportsmanship award. "ISA students are normal kids and normal American citizens," Kandil said.
Student Dalia Desouky said the school teaches acceptance and love and participates in the model U.N. "If ISA had taught anything to do with hate, injustice or racism, I'd have been the first to leave," Desouky said.
McLean's Iman Al-Bashrawi urged the Board not to believe the negative words of the opposition. "They mocked us and applauded themselves and showed their own hatred and intolerance," she said. "They are the threat to our nation, sending us back to darkness."