For nearly 25 years, the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA), the Virginia school founded by royal decree of Saudi King Fahd in 1984, immersed students of its Islamic-studies curriculum in the same Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that is taught in Saudi Arabia and in Saudi-funded madrassas around the world. That curriculum includes praise for militant jihad to “spread the faith” and permission for the killing of various categories of “unbelievers,” as well as other endorsements of religious intolerance.
Now, as it seeks permission from Fairfax County to expand its operations, ISA claims that, over the last school year, it replaced the Saudi religious curriculum with a more moderate one.
Through private channels, we were able to acquire ISA’s Islamic-studies textbooks, all marked for use in the first semester of the 2008-09 school year. Compared to the original Saudi Education Ministry versions, these new Arabic-language textbooks — one slim, single volume for each grade — are indeed redacted and condensed.
We wish we could celebrate the deletions we helped catalyze, but we are not persuaded that the problem is solved. The books contain no significant discussion of jihad and make few references to the religious “other.” The silence is deafening. It raises the question — a question ISA has yet to answer — of what supplemental material the academy is using.
Jihad is a central tenet of Islam and is raised multiple times in the Koran. Saudi textbooks describe jihad as “the summit of Islam” and “one of the most magnificent acts of obedience to God,” and endorse its militant form for both defensive and aggressive purposes.
ISA’s new texts, however, make no mention of militant jihad, not even as a defensive measure. And they make only a single passing reference to the alternative view of jihad. (Buried toward the end of a twelfth-grade text is a two-line reference to the “greater jihad” — the obligation “to do jihad against Satan, selfish desire and capriciousness.”) At a time when many Muslim radicals proclaim the merits of militant jihad, ignoring the issue almost completely will not suffice to orient students toward the peaceful interpretation. One must wonder whether the books were even intended to do such a thing.
When it comes to relating to other people, ISA’s new texts reject critical thinking. “The human mind is incapable of rendering appropriate judgments as a result of its inability to grasp truths, goals, and purposes,” states one book. Based on this assumption, the books provide exhaustive guidance for public and private behavior, detailing, for example, how to entertain other Muslims: Hospitality is obligatory for “one day and one night,” food should be placed on “a sheet on the ground,” and so forth.
This dogmatic approach makes it more than unusual that ISA’s books omit all instruction on relating to non-Muslims. While the new texts raise the Koranic injunction against religious coercion, they are silent on how Muslims should treat Jews, “apostates,” “polytheists,” “adulterers,” and “homosexuals” — all of whom ISA’s old texts taught it was permissible to kill. Nor do the books indicate how one should view Shiites, non-Wahhabi Sunnis, Baha’is, and Ahmadiya, all of whom ISA’s former curriculum cast as enemies within; or Jews and Christians, who, it had taught, were to be hated; or Americans, who, it stated, were continuing the Crusades by promoting women’s rights and sponsoring universities in Beirut and Cairo.
The question is not whether ISA supplements these new textbooks with other material, but what these other materials contain. There is evidence that the school, over the past school year, did in fact continue to use some extremist supplemental resources.
ISA’s website for 2008-09 stated that the school “follows the Islamic Studies curriculum which has been set forth by the Kingdom.” As the first resource on its “Useful Links” webpage, ISA linked to the Saudi Education Ministry site, where the noxious curriculum is posted in full. Those books, according to the Ministry, are electronically formatted to facilitate copying, cutting, and pasting. This underscores the problem of a piecemeal approach to Saudi educational reform.
Even the new texts themselves reference several extreme Islamic authorities. For example, the new twelfth-grade book directs students to Ibn Taymiyyah for resolving moral questions. A 14th-century author, Ibn Taymiyyah extolled the militant jihad we call “terror.” His fatwas were found in a recent study by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center to be “by far the most popular texts for modern Jihadis.” Renowned religion scholar Philip Jenkins wrote that Osama bin Laden cites Ibn Taymiyyah as a “special hero.”
In addition, it’s important to note that on matters besides jihad, the books still largely reflect Wahhabi orthodoxy. For example, ISA’s new texts endorse marriages between adults and pre-pubescent children, teach that women should not be judges or exercise “greater governorship,” and starkly divide the world into believers and unbelievers.
Since 9/11, ISA officials — including the various Saudi ambassadors who have served as ISA chairmen — have annually given assurances of curriculum reform and annually broken their promises. They’ve had help: The school’s accreditation by the Southern Association for Colleges and Schools was seriously flawed, since the association’s “volunteer” evaluators did not know Arabic and therefore never read the Islamic-studies curriculum. ISA’s brandishing of a recent letter by two American academic consultants to the school, giving their approval for the sanitized Wahhabi textbooks, only deepens the school’s reputation for deception.
The State Department reached an understanding with Riyadh in 2006 that, within two years, Saudi Arabia would remove intolerant passages from all its educational materials both within the Kingdom and abroad, including in its network of 20 international schools of which ISA is a part. Under new legislation initiated by Virginia congressman Frank Wolf, State must now follow up. It should do so with an informed assessment of what ISA teaches, especially about jihad and the religious other — in both semesters, in Arabic as well as English, and in all educational and resource material. And until an independent, professional, and thorough process verifies reform, Fairfax County should reject the Academy’s request to expand.
– Nina Shea is director of the Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute and serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Ali al-Ahmed is a Saudi expert and directs the Gulf Institute, a Washington-based policy research center. Views expressed herein are their own.