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For Conservative Muslims, Goal of Isolation a Challenge

Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences
The Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences was a key part of a Saudi campaign to spread Wahhabi Islam, but now only holds Friday prayers, with sermons that are "nothing controversial," one man said. (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

Parents should be concerned if "girls start wearing makeup or waiting after school," he said. "Girls who have secret affairs hide things from their parents."

The midday prayer service over, scores of Muslim men poured out of the sprawling two-story brick building opposite a sandlot on Hilltop Road in Fairfax. Heading for their cars, they passed a bearded youth hawking materials about Islam at a folding table. Grabbing a handful of DVDs, he yelled, "Take one and share it with a non-Muslim!"

As khutbas go, Samman's was fairly typical, a man identifying himself only as Ahmed stressed to a visitor. "Now," he said, "the sermon here is no politics, nothing controversial, only talk about good morals, good behavior. We don't associate ourselves with any sect or any group."

These days, the institute is open only for Friday prayers, which draw as many as 800 worshipers. But from the time it opened in 1989 as a satellite campus of a Saudi religious university in the capital Riyadh until it was closed in January, it was a key element in the Saudi campaign to spread Wahhabi Islam, an effort intended to counter radical Shiite Islam coming out of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

The Saudi Embassy's Islamic Affairs Department, which at its peak in the late 1980s had an annual budget of $8 million and 35 to 40 staff members -- many of them with diplomatic visas -- ran the campaign. Across the country, they built mosques, distributed Korans and brought in foreign imams to lead congregations.

For many years, the Saudis distributed a widely used English edition of the Koran with commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. But in the late 1990s, they began giving out a new edition called "The Noble Koran," with commentary that reflected the Wahhabi outlook of two scholars at the University of Medina.

Many local Muslims were particularly embarrassed by commentary that disparaged Jews and Christians even though neither group is mentioned in the original Arabic. "The outcry was so great. . . . People were disgusted," said Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, head of Bethesda's Minaret of Freedom Institute, an Islamic think tank. "And it wasn't just liberals. I couldn't find an American Muslim who had anything good to say about that edition. I would call it a Wahhabi Koran."

The institute in Fairfax was a way for the Saudis to tap the talents of the brightest Muslims in the United States. Its free Arabic classes were a boon for new converts. And those who did well academically were offered full scholarships to study at Saudi universities.

Most of the institute's faculty were Saudi-born or Saudi-trained religious scholars who had a conservative Salafi or Wahhabi perspective. Sheikh Abdel Aziz Fawzan, who taught Islamic law, drew a theological lesson from the 2004 South Asia tsunami that was similar to the one evangelical Christian Jerry Falwell initially drew from the Sept. 11 attacks. The tsunami, Fawzan declared, was God's punishment for allowing resorts where "especially at Christmas, fornication and sexual perversion of all kinds are rampant."

When the U.S. government took a harder look at Saudi activity here after Sept. 11, the Fairfax institute was targeted. Sixteen faculty members were asked to leave the country in December 2003 when the State Department revoked the diplomatic visas of more than 20 Saudis involved in religious outreach.

The revocations were part of an effort to curb what U.S. officials considered intolerant religious rhetoric and ensure that all embassy staffers were engaged in legitimate diplomatic activities, U.S. and Saudi officials said at the time. A senior Saudi official added then that his government intended to "shut down the Islamic affairs section in every embassy."

In mid-2004, federal agents raided the institute, confiscating computers and documents. But no one closely associated with the facility has ever been charged with a terrorism-related crime.

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