Its most virulent critics have dubbed it "Terror High," and 12 U.S. senators and a federal commission want to shut it down. The teachers, administrators and...
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Its most virulent critics have dubbed it “Terror High,” and 12 U.S. senators and a federal commission want to shut it down.
The teachers, administrators and some 900 students at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Fairfax County, Va., have heard the name for years: after the Sept. 11 attacks and a few years later, when a class valedictorian admitted he had joined al-Qaida.
The school is on the defensive again, with a report issued last month by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom saying the academy should be closed pending a review of its curriculum and textbooks.
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Abdalla al-Shabnan, the school’s director general, said criticism is based on preconceived notions of the Saudi educational system.
The school, serving grades K-12 on campuses in Fairfax and Alexandria, receives financial support from the Saudi government, and its textbooks are based on Saudi curriculum. Critics say the Saudis propagate a severe version of Islam in their schools.
Al-Shabnan said the school significantly modified those textbooks to remove passages deemed intolerant of other religions.
Among the changes, officials removed from teachers’ versions of first-grade textbooks an excerpt instructing teachers to explain “that all religions, other than Islam, are false, including that of the Jews, Christians and all others.”
At an open house this month, al-Shabnan seemed weary of the criticism.
“I didn’t think we’d have to do this,” he said of the open house. “Our neighbors know us. They know the job we are doing.”
Many people familiar with the school said the accusations are unfounded. Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald Hyland, whose district includes the academy, has defended it and arranged for the county to review the textbooks to put questions to rest.
Schools that regularly compete against the academy in interscholastic sports — many of them small, private Christian schools — are among the academy’s strongest defenders.
Robert Mead, soccer coach at Bryant Alternative High School, a public school in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, said the academy’s reputation has been unfairly marred by people who haven’t bothered to visit the school.
“We’ve never had one altercation” with the academy’s players on the soccer field, Mead said. “My guys are hostile. Their guys keep fights from breaking out.”
The academy opened in 1984 and stayed out of the spotlight until the Sept. 11 attacks. Criticisms were revived in 2005, when a former valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was charged with joining al-Qaida while attending college in Saudi Arabia.
He was convicted on several charges, including plotting to assassinate President Bush, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Most recently, the religious-freedom commission — an independent federal agency created by Congress — issued its report, saying it was rebuffed in efforts to obtain textbooks to verify claims they had been changed.
The commission recommended that the academy be closed until it could review the textbooks to ensure they do not promote intolerance.
Since the commission’s report, the academy has given copies of its books to the Saudi Embassy, which provided them to the State Department. The commission is waiting to get the books.
On Nov. 15, a dozen U.S. senators, including Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., wrote the State Department urging it to act on the commission’s recommendations. On Tuesday, Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Steve Israel, D-N.Y., introduced legislation to write the commission’s recommendations regarding the academy into law.
Michael Cromartie, the commission’s chairman, said he does not question the character of the student body or the faculty, most of whom are Christian. The commission is focused specifically on the textbooks and has legitimate concerns given the problems that have been endemic in the Saudi curriculum, he said.
“It’s not about whether the students are civil to their opponents on a ballfield. It’s about the textbooks,” Cromartie said.