A Saudi-funded academy was granted a zoning exemption Monday that allows it to expand its 34-acre Popes Head Road campus in Fairfax County, culminating a years-long campaign to enlarge the school at that location.
Hearings this spring and summer on the Islamic Saudi Academy's plans drew scores of speakers and brought together in opposition an uneasy alliance of the school's neighbors, many of who fought the expansion because of traffic concerns, and activists, some of whom came from as far as Florida and Pennsylvania to speak against the school because of ideological concerns about the school's curriculum. One supervisor joked that she had received e-mails and calls from every state except Alaska.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, whose permission was required for the expansion, stressed Monday that their 6 to 4 decision was based on zoning questions, not on what happens inside the school's classrooms.
"The community will get an awful lot of development," said Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason). "I think [it] will improve the community."
Some supervisors disagreed.
"We will not only be changing the very nature and character of the area, we will also be putting the lives of our citizens . . . at risk" if the expansion were to go through, said Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), who represents the area where the campus is.
The academy, founded in 1984, has about 1,000 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 and is the only Saudi-funded school in the United States. About 80 percent of the academy's students are U.S. citizens drawn from the region's Muslim communities. The bulk of the students attend classes at a second campus in the Alexandria section of Fairfax.
The plans approved Monday will allow construction of a building on the Popes Head Road site that would ultimately accommodate 500 students. Some supervisors expressed concern that the existing septic system would not be adequate to handle the increased load and worried that the increased traffic on the twisting, two-lane road would be dangerous, but those concerns were not enough to torpedo the plan.
The school has been subjected to a series of high-profile examinations of its religious curriculum, which has been revised repeatedly in the past several years to remove passages that extolled militant jihad and martyrdom. As recently as 2007, at least one textbook still said that the killing of adulterers and apostates was "justified."
Students, parents and teachers have maintained that the school does not teach intolerance.
"Throughout my whole time in ISA, I've never been taught to hate anyone," said Heba Rashed, 16, a junior at the school.
The school's curriculum was again revised at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year after the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned its textbooks. Critics of the academy say that this time, most of the offensive material has been removed, although they say that the textbooks clearly remained guided by Wahhabism, the fundamentalist school of Sunni Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia. They object particularly to some references to the marriage of children and say that other concerns remain.
"The stuff about killing, it's not there anymore," said Ali Al-Ahmed, the head of the Institute for Gulf Affairs and a critic of the Saudi government who obtained copies of the newest textbooks. He said that references to jihad had been completely removed from the curriculum, something he found strange because he said that the concept -- which in the Koran is described as "striving in the path of God" and is not necessarily violent -- was essential to Islam. Textbooks had in the past referred to the militant form of jihad, and Al-Ahmed said that he would have felt better if moderate references to jihad remained.
Rashed said that her classes had not covered jihad. Repeated calls for comment over the past two weeks to the office and home of the Islamic Saudi Academy's director general, Abdulrahman Alghofaili, were not returned. Last week, a reporter who visited the school's main campus was told by a woman in the office that Alghofaili was not in the office and that the reporter should call Alghofaili's secretary the following morning. Calls the next day went to the school's voicemail system.
"We have hundreds of students and hundreds of parents who send their students to this place to get ideal education," Alghofaili told the New York Times in June. "It doesn't make sense that their parents would send their kids to a place to learn how to hate or to kill others."
Last week, the school's 1999 valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who had been convicted in 2005 of plotting with al-Qaeda to kill President George W. Bush, was resentenced to life in prison.
His family has said that the evidence used to secure his conviction was obtained by torture at the hands of Saudi security officers, and school officials have said in the past that it is unfair to judge the school based on the actions of one or two of its graduates.