By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
A Saudi-funded academy was granted a zoning exemption Monday that allows it to expand at its 34-acre Popes Head Road campus in Fairfax County, culminating a years-long campaign to enlarge the school at that location.
Hearings this spring and summer on the Islamic Saudi Academy's plans drew scores of speakers and brought together in opposition an uneasy alliance of neighbors and critics of the school's curriculum. Many of the neighbors fought the expansion because of traffic concerns. Some of the other opponents came from as far as Florida to speak against the school because of ideological concerns about what it teaches.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, whose permission was required for the expansion, stressed Monday that the 6 to 4 decision was based on zoning questions, not on what happens in the school's classrooms.
"The community will get an awful lot of development," said Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason). "I think [it] will improve the community."
The academy, founded in 1984, has about 1,000 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 and is the only Saudi-funded school in the United States. About 80 percent of the academy's students are U.S. citizens drawn from the region's Muslim communities. Most students attend classes at a second campus in the Alexandria section of Fairfax. The plans approved Monday allow construction of a building at the Popes Head Road site that would ultimately accommodate 500 students.
The school has been subjected to a series of high-profile examinations of its religious curriculum, which has been revised repeatedly in the recent to remove passages that extolled militant jihad and martyrdom. As recently as 2007, at least one textbook still said that the killing of adulterers and apostates was "justified."
Students, parents and teachers have maintained that the school does not teach intolerance.
"Throughout my whole time in ISA, I've never been taught to hate anyone," said Heba Rashed, 16, a junior at the school.
The school's curriculum was revised again at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year after the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned its textbooks. Critics of the academy say most of the offensive material has now been removed. But they say the textbooks clearly remain guided by Wahhabism, the fundamentalist school of Sunni Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia. They object particularly to some references to the marriage of children and say other concerns remain.
"The stuff about killing, it's not there anymore," said Ali Al-Ahmed, the head of the Institute for Gulf Affairs and a critic of the Saudi government, who obtained copies of the newest textbooks.
Al-Ahmed said references to jihad had been completely removed from the curriculum. He found that strange, he said, because the concept -- which in the Koran is described as "striving in the path of God," and is not necessarily violent -- was essential to Islam. In the past, textbooks referred to the militant form of jihad. Al-Ahmed said he would have felt better if moderate references to jihad remained.
Rashed said that her classes had not covered jihad.
Repeated calls for comment over two weeks to the office and home of the Islamic Saudi Academy's director general, Abdulrahman Alghofaili, were not returned. Last week, a reporter who visited the school's main campus was told by a woman in the office that Alghofaili had left for the day and that the reporter should call the next morning. Calls the next day went to the school's voicemail system.
Last week, the school's 1999 valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who had been convicted in 2005 of plotting with al-Qaeda to kill President George W. Bush, was resentenced to life in prison.
His family has said that the evidence used to secure his conviction was obtained by torture at the hands of Saudi security officers, and school officials have said it is unfair to judge the school based on the actions of one or two of its graduates.