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School Officials Say U.S. Panel's Call for Closure Hurt Image

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007

Officials of a Northern Virginia Islamic school yesterday criticized a federal commission, saying that the panel unfairly damaged the school's reputation by recommending it be shuttered until it could prove that it is not promoting intolerance and violence through its textbooks.

Abdalla Al-Shabnan, director general of the Islamic Saudi Academy, said a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom calling upon the State Department in September to close the school had taken everyone by surprise and left those affiliated with the school shaken.

Yesterday, Al-Shabnan invited a few reporters, including one from The Washington Post, to tour the school and meet with teachers, students and parents. Officials displayed some of the textbooks used, including a few routinely used by students in Fairfax County public schools. Others, written in Arabic, are religious or language texts, academy officials said. They denied that any of the texts promote religious extremism.

"Some people believe we get our orders from the [Saudi] Embassy," Al-Shabnan said. "That is not the case. I am the one in charge. I am responsible for all the action in the school."

Parents and students say the commission's views do not describe the school they know. Dana Nicholas, assistant principal of the girls' school, said the academy uses a curriculum similar to the one used by Fairfax public schools. There are religious classes and Arabic is taught, said Nicholas, who described herself as a devout Christian. But, she added, "we are just a normal school."

Commission members said they were not persuaded by the school's invitation to reporters, nor a letter they received from Al-Shabnan on Wednesday. In the letter, dated Nov. 12, Al-Shabnan stated that the school had made its textbooks available to a Fairfax County supervisor for review. Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) said yesterday that his office had received six boxes of books from the school and that a translator from the county's library system was looking through them.

Al-Shabnan also invited commission members to come to the school to review the textbooks.

Commission Chairman Michael Cromartie said the offer was not taken up because academy officials wanted mutually acceptable scholars and translators to review the textbooks. He said the commission had repeatedly asked Saudi Embassy officials in Washington for the books but had not received them.

The commission, created by Congress under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, issues an annual report about religious freedom around the world. Its members are appointed by the White House and congressional leadership.

Officials with the commission said they had spent several years examining textbooks used by schools in Saudi Arabia, which gives the Northern Virginia academy much of its funding. Those textbooks, the commission members said, promoted violence against Christians, Jews, Shiites and polytheists.

The Islamic academy, which has two campuses in Northern Virginia, was founded in 1984 to educate children of Saudi diplomats from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. About 30 percent of the roughly 1,000 students are Saudi, school officials said. The school's governing board is led by the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Officials of the school said the materials used there are unique, obtained from Saudi Arabia but changed to meet the needs of an American student body.

Al-Shabnan said yesterday that he had turned over the school's textbooks to the Saudi Embassy. He said he expected that embassy officials would turn the textbooks over to the State Department.

Department officials and others with knowledge of the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing inquiry, said U.S. officials think the commission's recommendation to close the school was premature. 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.

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