U.S. 'Studying' Islamic School Report

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007

Saudi Embassy officials say no U.S. authorities have contacted them about a federal commission's recommendation last month to close an Islamic school in Northern Virginia accused of promoting intolerance and violence.

State Department officials say publicly that they are "studying" the Oct. 19 report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which includes a recommendation that the Islamic Saudi Academy be shuttered until it can prove it is not teaching religious extremism.

But State officials and others with knowledge of the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing inquiry, said U.S. officials believe the commission was premature in asking that the school, supported by the Saudi government, be closed. They said the State Department was proceeding cautiously, speaking with Saudi officials about issues of religious tolerance and school curriculum, to avoid creating a crisis.

The school, whose main campus is in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, remains open.

Commission members said their non-binding recommendation was made after careful study and a number of failed efforts to review a comprehensive set of textbooks from the Saudi government.

They said they were less concerned about intolerance than whether school officials are promoting violence.

A report last year by the nonprofit organization Freedom House showed that textbooks used in Saudi Arabia contained an ideology of hatred toward Christians, Jews and Muslims who do not follow Wahabism, a branch of Sunni Islam seen by many Muslims as extremist in its views toward women and non-followers. Osama bin Laden is perhaps the best-known follower of that branch.

An earlier review of textbooks at the Virginia academy was critical of some parts, and a 2003 report produced in Saudi Arabia by a former Saudi judge showed that parts of Saudi textbooks promoted violence against non-Wahabis.

Saudi officials say the books have since been revised. And officials at the Virginia school said they have created their own textbooks, in part by ripping out pages from books obtained from Saudi Arabia.

The criticism of the Virginia school reflects the delicate nature of U.S.-Saudi relations, according to academic scholars. It also casts light on the line the federal government must straddle as it tries to determine the difference between teachings that are intolerant and those that are violent and illegal.

"The challenge with Islamic schools is first of all the language barrier," said Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar for religious freedom at the nonprofit First Amendment Center in Arlington County. "The reason there is so much controversy is that nobody knows what is being taught.

"Even if they were teaching things that sound to the outsider like it is hateful, the question is, 'Are they teaching people to break the law and go and attack other people?' " Haynes said. "Those are the kinds of things they may not do. That's the line."

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