Islamic school in Virginia defends itself against 'Terror High' label

Sunday, November 25, 2007
Abdalla al-Shabnan, director general of the Islamic Saudi Academy, sat in a conference room Thursday at the school in Alexandria, Va., with a table stacked with textbooks. The school has come under fire from several senators and a federal commission who want to see the school close its doors. (Michael Williamson ~ The Washington Post)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Its most virulent critics have dubbed it "Terror High," and 12 U.S. senators and a federal commission want to shut it down.

The teachers, administrators and some 900 students at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Fairfax County have heard the allegations for years -- after the Sept. 11 attacks and then a few years later when a class valedictorian admitted he had joined al-Qaida.

Now the school is on the defensive again, with a report issued last month by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom saying the academy should be closed, pending a review of its curriculum and textbooks.

Abdalla al-Shabnan, the school's director general, says criticism of the school is based not on evidence, but on preconceived notions of the Saudi educational system.

The school, serving grades K-12 on campuses in Fairfax and Alexandria, receives financial support from the Saudi government, and its textbooks are based on Saudi curriculum. Critics say the Saudis propagate a severe version of Islam in their schools.

But al-Shabnan said the school significantly modified those textbooks to remove passages deemed intolerant of other religions. Among the changes, officials removed from teachers' versions of first-grade textbooks an excerpt instructing teachers to explain "that all religions, other than Islam, are false, including that of the Jews, Christians and all others."

At an open house earlier this month in which the school invited reporters to tour the school and meet students and faculty, al-Shabnan seemed weary of the criticism.

"I didn't think we'd have to do this," he said of the open house. "Our neighbors know us. They know the job we are doing."

Indeed, many people familiar with the school say the accusations are unfounded. Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald Hyland, whose district includes the academy, has defended it and arranged for the county to review the textbooks to put questions to rest. That review is underway. The academy's Alexandria campus is leased from Fairfax County.

Schools that regularly compete against the academy in interscholastic sports -- many of them small, private Christian schools -- are among the academy's strongest defenders.

Robert Mead, soccer coach at Bryant Alternative High School, a public school in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, said the academy's reputation has been unfairly marred by people who haven't even bothered to visit the school.

"We've never had one altercation" with the academy's players on the soccer field, Mead said. "My guys are hostile. Their guys keep fights from breaking out."

At the open house, seniors said they worry that news accounts will hurt their college applications. Most students said they were shocked that the government panel had recommended closing the school.

Omar Talib, a senior, said the school caters to students from across the Muslim world, not just Saudis. It makes no judgments on other religions or against Shiite Islam, as some critics have contended.

"I have four children at this school. I've never heard them say 'Mom, today we learned we should kill the Jews,'" said Malika Chughtai of Vienna. "If I heard that kind of talk, I would not have them here."

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