Critics of Saudi Academy Say Textbooks Promote Intolerance

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008

Some textbooks used by an Islamic school in Fairfax County contain language intolerant of Jews and other groups as well as passages that could be construed as advocating violence, according to two reviews of the materials.

Abdalla I. Al-Shabnan, director-general of the Islamic Saudi Academy, said he doubts that such language is in the textbooks but said he would remove offending material if found. He would not say whether he had read passages that might be considered offensive. The academy's books were revised over the summer, he said, and students have never been taught material advocating hate.

"We would never teach such things," he said. "If there is anything wrong in the books, just tell me, and we will fix them. No problem."

One review of academy textbooks was undertaken for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which recommended in October that the State Department close the school until it proves that it is not teaching a type of religious intolerance potentially dangerous to the United States.

Commission member Nina Shea said the panel is concerned that Saudi Arabia is using its educational system, and connections to schools worldwide, to export intolerant and militant religious teachings. The school's board of directors is headed by the Saudi ambassador, and Shea has called the school an extension of the Saudi Embassy.

"We are very concerned, on a partial review of the Saudi Academy textbooks, [about] some passages that instruct that 'jihad' is 'the pinnacle of Islam,' that speak about impunity for murders of 'polytheists' or non-Wahhabis, that legitimize the murder of Muslim 'apostates' and that state the lives of only those non-Muslims living or working under Muslim rule are inviolable," Shea said.

"There are denunciations of specific religious groups as evil or enemies . . . and there is blatant anti-Semitism, blaming the Jews for even divisions within Islam," she said.

In addition to Jews, Bahais and Shiite and Sufi Muslims are among those denounced in some academy texts, according to reviews of the books.

Al-Shabnan said the school, which receives funding from the Saudi Embassy, operates independently of the embassy. He also said the school had given a set of textbooks to Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), who has a county employee translating them.

"We decide what the students learn," Al-Shabnan said. "We are not trying to hide" anything.

Parents of academy students said that they do not think their children are learning intolerance and that many religious schools sometimes teach material intolerant of nonbelievers. Constitutional lawyers say there is no legal restraint against teaching intolerance in nongovernmental schools.

"They picked up on one issue [of intolerance of nonbelievers] that is not unique to Islamic schools," said Rizwan Ahmad, a parent.

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