Behind the Veil at the Islamic Saudi Academy
by Jerry Gordon and Isabelle Cruz (Aug. 2008)
Last month we chronicled in a New English Review article the nearly 25 year saga of citizen opposition to the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA), a Royal Saudi Embassy sponsored private school with two campuses located in Fairfax County, Virginia. The ISA is one of 20 such Saudi funded schools around the world with ties to the Kingdom’s Ministry of Education that espouses the strict Islamic doctrine of Wahhabism.
When the US Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report on its review of 17 textbooks used in the Islamic Studies program at the embattled ISA on June 11th, a fuse was lit that resulted in a protest outside the main Alexandria, Virginia Campus on June 17th. The group of 15 protesters who rallied outside the ISA had signs that said:
Honk to Stop Islamic Terrorism;
This Saudi school is Anti-Semitic and Anti-Christian.
Andrea Lafferty, executive director of Traditional Values Coalition organized the ISA protest with participation by the United American Committee, Virginia Chapter, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Security Policy (CSP).
They’re free to come here and worship, but they are not free to come here and teach hate.
Christine Brim of the CSP said:
They don’t have a First Amendment right in this country to incite violence against other groups.
Rahima Abdullah, the ISA education director replied to these allegations:
That’s absolutely not true. What we teach here is love and tolerance.
We have new books now and the ones the commission is talking about have been out of use for some time, and were misinterpreted, then.
A spokesman for ISA, a U.S. history teacher, David Kovalick, was shown this excerpt from an ISA textbook:
The Jews conspired against Islam and its people. A sly, wicked person who sinfully and deceitfully professed Islam infiltrated (the Muslims).
Kovalick’s response was:
Well, that is very anti-Semitic and uh, wow, no, but those don’t exist in our books.
An Al Jazeera report on the protest at the ISA noted this comment from Abd Al-Rahman Al-Ghufayli, principal of the Boys’ School: “We have nothing to hide. That’s why we invited them there and tried to discuss things with them, but I’m sad to say, they did not accept our invitation. This suggests that the commission has a certain agenda, which it is trying to implement.”
Then there were these additional observations from an Al Jazeera interview with ISA administrators and faculty inside the School during the June 17th protest:
Reporter: “The local authority of Fairfax County, where the academy is located, has challenged the threats of closure. It determined that the allegations are invalid, and it approved the religious curricula after examining them. The non-Muslim teachers also expressed disgust and frustration at the allegations.”
Kate Schneider, English teacher: “The thing that frustrates me so much about these accusations is that first, they are not true, and second, it is so completely opposite from the truth. This school teaches faith and the same basic values we want all our children to have.”
Another non-Muslim faculty member was quoted in a Washington Post report parroting the same line:
School administrators said teachers were told to keep any inflammatory material out of the classroom. “I taught for 15 years,” said Dana Nicholas, assistant principal of the girls’ school. “I would not have stayed if I thought that my students that were coming into my classroom and dealing with me every day, as a Christian, as a woman, if they were being taught this kind of thing in the Islamic class.”
However, the realities about what prevails inside the ISA are 180 degrees away from these faculty comments quoted in Al Jazeera, the Washington Times and the Washington Post.
Following the June 17th protests, we were contacted by former ISA faculty members who consented to present views on the atmosphere that pervades the Saudi Embassy sponsored school in Fairfax County, Virginia.
The comments by these confidential sources reveal a pervasive attitude towards non-Muslims that reflects Saudi autocracy and Wahhabi xenophobic doctrine.
According to the source, approximately 20 % of the ISA students were children from the Saudi and other Muslim diplomatic legations in Washington, DC. The school was very much under the control of the Saudis and had Arab Muslim long term faculty who had been there since the school’s founding in the mid-1980s. At the beginning of the school year, all of the teachers were informed that the ISA was an arm of the Saudi government.
The sources indicated that the majority of students were American Muslim children. The instructors were concerned male students would travel to the Middle East after graduation, ‘go over the edge’ and become Jihadists, just like 1999 ISA valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, now in prison for thirty years for the attempted assassination of President Bush.
The administrators were ‘extremely arrogant’ and practiced the religiously sanctioned tradition of lying to non-Muslims (taqiyya) and enjoyed pulling the wool over the eyes of the infidels. An atmosphere of deception was at the heart of everything that they did. There was an attitude among administrators of “Don’t tell the Americans” regarding Wahhabi Jihadi doctrine. Whenever Saudi representatives came to the ISA, they would have nothing to do with the non-Muslim faculty. Non-Muslim faculty were allowed to attend general faculty meetings, but when there was something that the Muslim faculty did not want them to hear, the Muslim instructors would disappear and non-Muslim instructors would hear rumors of meetings. If the non-Muslim faculty asked about those meetings, the Muslim leadership at the school would tell them that it was going to be in Arabic anyway so they need not attend. There was an atmosphere of exclusion and oppression.
Classroom maps of the Middle East did not depict Israel on them.
There was an incident involving a Christian woman instructor. Her daughter had attended ISA. The daughter would come home in tears because she had been taught to hate Jews and that Christians were awful. The daughter had missed several days of school because she didn’t want to hear the hateful scorn. The girl became the object of a scurrilous campaign by Muslim girls in her class who spread rumors that her Christian mother had an illicit affair and was pregnant. When the girl’s mother heard of this, she approached the head of faculty and requested a denial of the allegations and an apology; none were given. The woman taught at ISA for a brief period and when the school year ended, resigned. According to the sources, to add insult to injury, the same Dana Nicholas who said she couldn’t have taught at the school if students ”were being taught this kind of thing in the Islamic class,” knew directly about the persecution of the Christian woman instructor and also helped to white wash the incident.
The sources noted that the turnover for non-Muslim teachers was huge, while some non-Muslim teachers wanted to leave but stayed because they needed the job. Not only American non-Muslims but other people who were considered lower in status by the Saudi administrators, including Pakistanis, Kurds and even Shia Muslims, suffered at the school. The sources described how the students “got away with murder.” An interesting side note is that many Muslim students from the Middle East came to the school for one or two semesters and in the English as a Second Language (ESL) classes received credits for English so that they could go on to an American university, whether they could speak English or not. All the students passed, no matter what their proficiency level. Students could not be failed or reprimanded. There is evidence that students’ grades were changed to allow them to pass and even the students told the teachers they couldn’t do anything about it.
Another telling incident involved a non-Muslim teacher who taught second and third grade students and apparently was liked by them. One day, after the children had returned from their Muslim Studies class, when the instructor walked into the classroom, the students were talking about how they hated Christians and that they were going to kill them. The teacher overheard this and said, “I’m a Christian”. The students said that they wouldn’t kill the instructor, but would kill all the rest of Christians. This should come as no surprise since the head of the Muslim Religion Department is himself a Wahhabist. The teacher who heard the students say these things resigned his position and left the school.
One last point to ponder, the sources said that it doesn’t matter if the textbooks are changed because the instructors teaching the Wahhabi doctrine know it by heart and teach it year after year. Even if the textbooks were to finally have the hateful Wahhabist and Islamic supremacy language removed, it would do nothing to change those teachers who have been filling young Muslim heads with this hate-filled xenophobic doctrine. While Rahima Abdullah may assure us that the books are new and were misinterpreted originally, our sources have experienced the Saudi agenda of teaching anything but “love and tolerance.”
It is the atmosphere of exclusion and hate directed at non-Muslim ISA faculty that raises serious questions about the tolerant, non-discriminatory representations by faculty and the School’s administrators. The ISA is an arm of the Saudi government Ministry of Education. Given the recent revelations of the second Saudi text book study, “Update: Saudi Arabia’s Curriculum of Intolerance,” released by the Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom on July 17th, perhaps it is time for Congressman Frank Wolf and others on the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to demand that the ISA be shut down. Certainly, the ISA accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is seriously in question, and if xenophobic hate is taught there, should be withdrawn.
As attested by the comments of these knowledgeable sources, things are not quite what the Saudis allege behind the veil of taqiyya at the ISA.