State Dept. Urged to Shut Saudi School in Fairfax

By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 19, 2007

A federal panel yesterday urged the State Department to shut down a Saudi government-supported private school in Northern Virginia unless it can prove it is not teaching religious intolerance.

In a report released yesterday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom criticized what it called the promotion of religious extremism in Saudi-run schools around the world, including in the kingdom. It leveled particular criticism at the Islamic Saudi Academy, which operates two campuses in Fairfax County, expressing "significant concerns" that the school is promoting a brand of religious intolerance that could prove a danger to the United States.

The commission does not specifically criticize the school's teaching materials; it said Saudi officials would not make them available. But it said it is concerned about the textbooks used in the school because those used by schools in Saudi Arabia promote violence against Christians, Jews, Shias and polytheists.

The panel's recommendations prompted a sharp response from school administrators and a Saudi government representative yesterday. They angrily denied that they are teaching radical Islam and said that the commission never asked to speak with any school staff members and never asked to see any materials.

"I think they went to Saudi Arabia and saw some curriculum there and thought we are teaching the same curriculum," said Acting Director-General Abdulrahman Alghofaili, who also is principal of the boys' high school. "And the fact is that we are teaching another curriculum. We are teaching an American curriculum."

Panel members said they attempted to get access to the school's textbooks and curriculum through the Saudi government but were unsuccessful.

"We've made every effort to get this information," commission member Felice D. Gaer said.

As evidence of the type of material it believes is being taught at the school, it cited a 2006 analysis of Saudi textbooks by the Center for Religious Freedom and Institute for Gulf Affairs. One ninth-grade textbook taught teenagers that violence toward Jews, Christians and others is sanctioned by God. A 12th-grade textbook, the 2006 report says, reads "the hour [of judgment] will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them."

But Alghofaili said that school officials revised their curriculum last summer, eliminating material considered controversial in the United States.

Administrators took textbooks sent from Saudi Arabia, ripped out pages deemed inappropriate and in some cases added material, said Alghofaili and David Kovalik, the education director who was involved in the curriculum changes.

John Whitehead, founder of the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, which focuses on religious freedom cases, said he is skeptical of the U.S. government judging the intent and content of a religious school's curriculum.

"This is real troublesome stuff," he said. "Religion has a history of saying intolerant things. That's why they're protected."

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