After a public hearing this week that combined curriculum, land-development concerns and bias, Virginia Fairfax County supervisors decided to wait until August to vote on a proposal to expand the campus of the Islamic Saudi Academy, a Saudi-owned college preparatory school.
Founded in 1984, the Islamic Saudi Academy seeks to "enable students to excel academically while maintaining the values of Islam and proficiency with the Arabic language."
Under the development plan, the school would add four buildings, expanding its campus on 34 wooded acres to accommodate 500 students. To reduce traffic congestion on the road, the plan will require all students to ride buses to school.
Over 50 people spoke at the ISA public hearing this week, expressing concerns over everything from the school's curriculum, to its septic system, to the traffic the expansion would add to the neighborhood. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2007 report that the school taught religious intolerance sparked some of the curriculum-based concerns.
In response, the ISA hired two independent scholastic lawyers to critic their educational materials. After a thorough investigation, they found nothing incorrect with ISA's educational material.
Reaction to the hearing was predictable.
"Depending on whom you ask, the Islamic Saudi Academy is a radical school teaching a hate-filled version of Islam, a caring place to get a top-notch multicultural education or the latest in a string of traffic threats for residents of Popes Head Road," noted the Fairfax County Times.
Fox News, however, reported: "A holy war is brewing in Virginia, where a controversial Islamic school is seeking permission to expand its campus and a group of residents is going all out to stop it."
Critics of the plan, said Fox, "point to former students of the school who have been convicted in a plot to assassinate former President Bush, and more recently, arrested for trying to board an airplane with a seven-inch kitchen knife."
Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, the school's valedictorian in 1999, was convicted in November 2005 of joining Al Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush. He was later sentenced to 30 years in prison, said Fox.
Raed Abdul-Rahman Al-Saif, who reportedly graduated from the school in 2003, was arrested last month at a Florida airport when he allegedly tried to board a plane while in possession of a seven-inch kitchen knife, noted Fox News.
Numerous teachers, students and parents have tried to paint a very different picture, of a normal American high school that teaches tolerance, promotes community service and prepares students to go on to Ivy League universities. They said it is unfair to label the whole school based on the actions of one or two graduates.
But opponents call the school "the enemy of everything this country stands for" and a "radical training camp."
They claim that the school teaches a radical version of Islam and cite as evidence the actions of two graduates of the academy who were later linked to terrorist activities.
While some speakers called the school a breeding ground for terrorists, those defending it said it's simply not true. "We follow the laws of the US, Virginia and the county," Rahima Abdullah, coordinator and director of education for the Academy, told reporters.
"It is insulting to us, as parents, educators and US 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."
Teacher Malak Abou-Hargah said the opposition is "based on lack of knowledge" about the ISA.
Reem Al-Hussain, a 2007 ISA graduate and a GMU medical technology student, said she "felt stabbed" by the harsh criticism of the ISA.
"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 good heartedness. I've never heard anyone talk about the things talked about here tonight."
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."
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.
Juliet Othman, who has a student at ISA 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.
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," he said. "They are the threat to our nation, sending us back to darkness." The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors deferred its decision on the expansion until Aug. 3.