Mon, Nov 26, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Virginia's `Terror High' comes under fire, again


Its most virulent critics have dubbed it "Terror High" and 12 US senators and a federal commission want to shut it down.

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

Now the school is on the defensive again, with a report issued last month by the US 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 the criticism is based not on evidence, but on preconceived notions of the Saudi educational system.

The school, serving grades kindergarten through grade 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. While there are other Islamic high schools in the US, the academy is the only one with this kind of a relationship to Saudi Arabia.

But al-Shabnan said the school significantly modified those textbooks to remove passages said to be 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 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 at 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 under way.

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 school in the Alexandria section of Fairfax county, said the academy's reputation has been unfairly marred by people who have not 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."

The controversy surrounding the school has been mirrored elsewhere in the US.

In New York, the Khalil Gibran International Academy -- a public school named after a Lebanese-Christian poet who wrote about peace -- quietly opened its doors in September following criticism that it would indoctrinate its young students in a manner akin to the hardline madrasah, or religious schools, in some parts of the Muslim world.

The school -- the first Arabic-themed public school in the US -- was forced to change venue before it opened. A new head was also appointed after its first principal, a Muslim of Yemeni descent, resigned amid complaints about her refusal to condemn a youth group's use of the word "Intifada," which commonly refers to the Palestinian uprising against Israel. The new principal is a Jewish woman who does not speak Arabic.

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