By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009
A controversial private school for Muslim children is seeking to expand a campus in Fairfax County, a proposal that has made reluctant partners of neighbors concerned with the impact on traffic and water quality and critics who oppose what they say is the school's radical agenda.
The Islamic Saudi Academy has asked the county for permission to build a state-of-the-art building on one of its two campuses, a 34-acre property near Fairfax City. The increased capacity could draw as many as 200 additional students to the 750-student campus each day, which has sparked concern among neighbors.
But at a public hearing last week, mundane neighborhood concerns were overshadowed by a longstanding dispute over the school's teachings and the perception that it promotes intolerance of other cultures.
"The hearing started off on the wrong foot," said Sherry Keramidas, president of the Beech Ridge Civic Association. "It took away from the sense that the community around the school was approaching this because of the environmental concerns and the traffic."
The school, which serves pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students, is funded by the Saudi Arabia Embassy. Students learn Arabic and religion along with general subjects including math, English and social studies. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the school has been the subject of intense scrutiny, in part because of unfounded anti-Arab suspicions but also because of course material that troubled some elected leaders.
In 2007, a congressionally appointed panel found that some of the school's textbooks included language intolerant of other religions as well as passages that could be construed as advocating violence. A Washington Post review found inflammatory references as recently as 2006.
School officials, who say they do not teach hate or intolerance, have since adjusted the course materials. Lynne J. Strobel, an attorney for the school, said at Wednesday's hearing that the matter before the county is strictly an issue of land use. And in connection with the transportation and environmental concerns, she said, the school "has tried very hard . . . to make sure we carefully examine all the issues associated with this proposal."
But questions about the school's teachings have lingered. Last week, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking for further review after the Associated Press reported that the new textbooks still contain questionable material.
In addition, a federal jury in 2005 convicted one of the academy's graduates, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, of joining an al-Qaida conspiracy to kill George W. Bush. It was one fact critics seized on Wednesday in an attempt to persuade the county to reject the school's expansion plans.
"The Islamic Saudi Academy's purpose is to train young and innocent Muslim children to hate and wage war into the future against our children," James Lafferty, a spokesman for the Traditional Values Coalition, a church lobbying group, said during the hearing.
His remarks prompted heckles and boos from teachers, parents and other supporters of the school.
"Don't you sometimes have people who get in trouble with the law who graduate from school who go to churches?" asked Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in an interview. "It is guilt by association, and I hope the commissioners will see that this is pure hate propaganda and driven by a political agenda."
Residents who opposed the plan on the basis of the possible impact on the neighborhood said they felt their concerns were drowned out during the tense meeting.
The school wants to consolidate some of its activities on its Fairfax City area campus and might abandon its campus off Route 1 in the Mount Vernon area, which they lease from the county. They plan to erect a 100,000-square-foot building on the Fairfax campus, which requires county approval.
School officials have promised to maintain more than half of the property as open space and have made additional concessions to county planners, who recommended approval. The Planning Commission and the county Board of Supervisors are expected to decide on the request later this year.
Residents opposed to the school's plan attended the hearing with petitions, statistics and impassioned speeches about their vanishing tranquillity. They brought photos of accidents they said took place on Popes Head Road when drivers took a curve too fast. They said their concerns have nothing to do with what is taught at the school.
"I have no issues whatsoever with the religion that the people practice, their ethnicity," said Hazel Rathbun. "That is totally irrelevant."
Some academy parents were skeptical of those concerns, as the school has been in place since 1984. Before that, the site housed a Christian school. Both that school and the Saudi academy have at times had permission to house as many as 600 students. The academy has pledged to keep its student body to a maximum of 500 students -- about 200 more than it has ever had.
"If this was a Christian school, I guarantee this wouldn't be happening," said Sana Bakir, whose daughter is in eighth grade at the academy.