[lg policy] Debate Erupts Over Muslim School in Virginia

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jun 11 16:35:33 UTC 2009

June 11, 2009
Debate Erupts Over Muslim School in Virginia

FAIRFAX, Va. — For years, children’s voices rang out from the
playground at the Islamic Saudi Academy in this heavily wooded
community about 20 miles west of Washington. But for the last year the
campus has been silent as academy officials seek county permission to
erect a new classroom building and move hundreds of students from a
sister campus on the other end of Fairfax County. The proposal from
the academy, which a school spokeswoman said was the only school
financed by the Saudi government in the United States, has ignited a
noisy debate and exposed anew the school’s uneasy relationship with
its neighbors.

Many residents living near the 34-acre campus along Popes Head Road, a
narrow byway connecting two busy thoroughfares, say they oppose it
because they fear it will bring more cars, school buses and flooding
of land that would be paved over for parking lots. But others object
to the academy’s curriculum, saying it espouses a fundamentalist
interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. A leaflet slipped into
mailboxes in early spring called the school “a hate training academy.”

James Lafferty, chairman of a loose coalition of individuals and
groups opposed to the school, said that its teachings sow intolerance,
and that it should not be allowed to exist, let alone expand. “We feel
that it is in reality a madrassa, a training place for young
impressionable Muslim students in some of the most extreme and most
fanatical teachings of Islam,” Mr. Lafferty said. “That concerns us
greatly.” School officials and parents say they are bewildered and
frustrated by such claims. The academy is no different from other
religious schools, they say, and educates model students who go on to
top schools, teaches Arabic to American soldiers, and no longer uses
texts that drew criticism after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Kamal S. Suliman, 46, a state traffic engineer with three daughters at
the academy, called the accusations “fear tactics and stereotyping.”
“Ideological issues do not belong in this matter,” Mr. Suliman said.
“I’m hoping that cooler heads will prevail,” and that a decision about
the expansion “will be made based on facts.”
The Fairfax County Planning Commission is to vote Thursday on the
school’s request for a zoning exemption to allow construction of the
classroom building. Regardless of the outcome, the request is voted on
by the county Board of Supervisors.

Hazel Rathbun, who has lived near the Fairfax campus since 1971, said
she worries about traffic safety and flooding on her winding road, and
called criticism of the school’s Muslim focus “hate filled” and
irrelevant. “It’s detracting from what we see as a very real issue for
us,” Ms. Rathbun said.

The Saudi government bought the property, formerly the site of a
Christian academy, in 1984. It also rents a county school building in

In the 1990s, the academy bought property in Loudoun County, about 25
miles northwest of Fairfax. Over the protest of local residents, they
planned a campus for 3,500 students through grade 12, but they
scrapped the plan in 2004. They decided to build instead on the Popes
Head Road site, where classes were held for youngsters from
pre-kindergarten through first grade.

In 2007, the academy notified the county of its building plans, and
last year, transferred the young pupils to the rented building in
Alexandria. Academy officials hope to consolidate both campuses into a
“state-of-the-art” school in Fairfax, said Abdulrahman R. Alghofaili,
the school’s director general.

Until Sept. 11, 2001, the academy drew minimal attention, but shortly
after the terrorist attacks, Israel turned away two graduates over
suspicions they were suicide bombers. One was charged with lying on
his passport application, and received a four-month prison sentence.

In 2003, the academy’s 1999 valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was
arrested in Saudi Arabia, where he had gone to study, and two years
later was convicted in Federal District Court in Alexandria of
conspiracy to commit terrorism, including a plot to assassinate
President George W. Bush. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Mr. Abu Ali’s family called the accusations “lies,” and his lawyers
say he was tortured when he was held in Saudi Arabia.

Besides, academy officials and parents contend, an entire school
should not be condemned for the actions of one or two students. They
point out that no one laid the blame for the massacre at Virginia Tech
on the high school alma mater of the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho.

Last year, the United States Commission on International Religious
Freedom, an independent, bipartisan federal agency charged with
promoting religious freedom in United States foreign policy, concluded
that texts used at the school contained “exhortations to violence” and

School officials rejected those findings, saying the commission
misinterpreted and mistranslated outdated materials. The school now
prints its own materials and no longer uses official Saudi curriculum,
said Rahima Abdullah, the academy’s education director.

“We have hundreds of students and hundreds of parents who send their
students to this place to get ideal education,” said Mr. Alghofaili,
the director general. “It doesn’t make sense that their parents would
send their kids to a place to learn how to hate or to kill others.”

The Fairfax Planning Commission chairman, Peter Murphy, said questions
about religion, politics and diplomacy were “distractions” that did
not belong in deliberations about whether the academy should be
allowed to expand.

“Whatever happens, some people are going to be happy and some people
are not going to be happy” with Thursday’s vote, Mr. Murphy said. “I’m
not basing this on happiness. I’m basing it on land-use issues.”



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list