Politics & Policy

Virginia Is for Radicals?

A troubling school.

The Islamic Saudi Academy — a private school owned and operated by the government of Saudi Arabia in the Washington, D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia — is more than just a religious school. While its math, science, and English curricula all conform to American standards, its religion curriculum is the same as the one imposed on all schools in Saudi Arabia. For years, that curriculum has been the target of legitimate criticism for its use of textbooks that promote jihad and justify violence against Christians and Jews.

The U.S. government can’t do much about schools over there. The State Department has urged the Saudis many times to remove the justifications for violence found in its religious textbooks, yet this diplomacy has not yielded substantive results. Last year, Freedom House and the Institute for Gulf Studies released a study based on an analysis of textbooks used during that school year, which found that the books still contained numerous passages propagating hatred toward the Jews and teaching jihad against unbelievers as a fundamental Muslim virtue.

But what about the ISA — the school the Saudis operate over here? In a study released last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom — a watchdog group created by Congress eight years ago — recommended that if the Saudis could not at least clean up the textbooks in use at the ISA, the State Department should close the school pursuant to its powers under the Foreign Missions Act.

Nobody expected Foggy Bottom to take swift and certain action. Nevertheless, it was disappointing to see early signs that the State Department intends to ignore the commission’s findings. The official pushback came in the form of a leak to the Washington Post, published in Monday’s edition:

But State officials and others with knowledge of the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing inquiry, said U.S. officials believe the commission was premature in asking that the school, supported by the Saudi government, be closed. They said the State Department was proceeding cautiously, speaking with Saudi officials about issues of religious tolerance and school curriculum, to avoid creating a crisis.

Short version: The State Department wants to give the Saudis more time. In 2006, the Saudis promised that they would revise their textbooks and change their religious curriculum, but they said it would take a couple of years. A State Department spokesman tells National Review Online that while the department is officially “still looking at the [commission’s] report,” the Saudis have said they won’t be ready until 2008. That’s just how the State Department sees it.

USCIRF Commissioner Nina Shea, who wrote and edited the 2006 Freedom House study, sees it differently. She notes that Saudi officials have claimed dozens of times since the Sept. 11 attacks (and prior to 2006) that (A) their schools and textbooks do not teach hatred and violence, or (B) they have already “removed materials that are inciteful or intolerant towards people of other faiths,” or (C) they’re still working on it.

In the 2006 Freedom House study, Shea says, “I noted how the Saudis had said they needed one to two years, three years, even up to ten years” to remove objectionable material from their religious curriculum in the wake of 9/11 — after the discovery that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Now the Saudis say they need until 2008 to finish the process, and anonymous State Department officials are chastising the commission in the Washington Post for rushing their cautious proceedings.

The commission, of course, is not asking the Saudis to reform their entire educational system overnight. It is simply asking that they start by reforming the one school they operate in Northern Virginia, and it is asking for the State Department either to verify that the school is complying or to shut it down.

The school, for its part, argued (in the pages of the Washington Post) that it solved the problem last summer by ripping the offending pages from the religion textbooks of all of its students. School administrators also complained that the commission did not even bother to ask for copies of the textbooks, prompting the Washington Post editorial board to call the commission’s efforts “half-hearted.”

As the commissioners explained in an article on FoxNews.com (available to the Washington Post editorial board via Google), they could not contact the school administrators directly, because to do so would have exceeded their mandate. However, they could and did contact the Saudi government and ask for copies of the textbooks (the Saudi ambassador is the school’s chairman), and they say they got no cooperation. And suppose the school had given the commission a set of books with some pages ripped out: What would that prove?

For now, let’s just accept the premise that a foreign government should not be exposing students in America to a religious curriculum that even a panel of Saudi royal advisers has concluded “encourages violence toward others, and misguides the pupils into believing that in order to safeguard their own religion, they must violently repress and even physically eliminate the ‘other.’” How do we verify that such a curriculum is not being taught in schools operated by that foreign government?

One way to do it would be to ask the foreign government to provide unaltered copies of all its teaching materials for public review or else close down its school. The State Department is the only government agency with the authority to enforce such a policy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem interested in this solution, and the only alternative it’s offering is more assurances that Saudi Arabia will get around to removing the hate from its textbooks — eventually.

— Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.


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