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It's In The Books - Or Is It?

Islamic Academy defends its Americanism and loyalty.

In this post 9/11 world "Trust but verify" often seems to have been turned 180 degrees — verify then consider trust.

That seems to be the guiding principle of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom when it comes to The Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA), 8333 Richmond Highway. In an Oct. 19 report, the Commission called for the closing of the school "until such time as the official Saudi textbooks used at the ISA are made available for comprehensive public examination in the United States."

However, most of their 26 page report is directed not at ISA but rather at the Saudi Arabian government and its policies toward religious practices that do not conform to Wahabism, a branch of Sunni Islam consider extremist by many Muslims.

The other somewhat mystifying element of the Commission's recommendation is the part requiring a "comprehensive public examination" of the textbooks in use at the Academy. As acknowledged by the school their textbooks are not issued by the Saudi government, but rather ones they have created.

"Our textbooks are not secret. We have 900 students in this school and they take those books with them everyday. How could they be secret," said Abdalla I. Al-Shabnan, director general, ISA, head of the school.

"We are educators. This is a regular school. We were shocked to see that report. No one from the Commission asked us about what we are teaching or about our textbooks," he insisted.

"Our community knows us. We have a long history here in this community," Al-Shabnan said.

ISA was first opened in 1984 in a building that was once used by the Fairfax County School System. The property is leased from the County. That lease comes up for renewal next year and Al-Shabnan fully expects it to be renewed.

"We expect to stay right here when the lease is up next year in June. They (Fairfax County) have been very fair with us in the past and we expect that to continue -- to have a very good relationship," he said. "It's like a family here."

THERE WAS some thought of moving the school a couple of years ago to a location in Loudoun County. "We decided not to build that new school because we like it here. This school is like a bridge between the two cultures," Al-Shabnan said.

That dual culture is played out in many of its teaching staff, graduates, and community/civic activities. More than 72 percent of the school's employees are American citizens, four are Canadians and two are Saudis. The teaching staff is composed of a variety of religious faiths and ethnic backgrounds that teach kindergarten through 12th grade.

Graduation rate is 100 percent, usually in a class of 45 plus, as well as acceptance at various institutions of higher education. Al-Shabnan’s daughter, a senior at ISA has been accepted at Catholic University for next year. Students come from throughout the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area. Graduates have attended universities throughout the nation.

The teaching curriculum, as well as school extracurricular activities, are very much Americanized. Following the death of civil-rights icon Rosa Parks, Al-Shabnan insisted students study not only her life but also the history of the civil rights movement in America.

"The school was literally turned into a civil rights museum. Abdalla is our bridge between the two worlds. He insists we explore all facets of American history and culture," said Rahima Abdullah, school spokesperson.

In contrast, a main thread throughout the Commission's report is the alleged intolerance of the Saudi government against other religions and cultures, including other Muslim sects. It is enforced by the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (CPVPV), according to the report.

"Permitting the public practice of only one interpretation of Islam and requiring public behavior to comply with this interpretation violates universal human rights standards and has resulted in discrimination and human rights violations," the Commission stated in its report.

AS FOR COMMUNITY SERVICE and involvement ISA boys and girls athletic teams compete in area sports, they stage a annual Model United Nations Day, students and faculty volunteer at area hospitals and elder care establishments, and, last year, Al-Shabnan's young son was a recipient of one of State Delegate Kristen Amundson's art awards.

One of the community involvement projects Al-Shabnan is most proud of is a certificate of recognition from Fort Belvoir for the academy's role in teaching Arabic to U.S. military personnel being deployed to the Middle East. That commendation graces his office library shelf.

BUT, THERE REMAINS the question of the textbooks, or, more pointedly the "text" of those books. The Commission insists the school uses books authorized by the Saudi government. Al-Shabnan insists the opposite.

"We have our own books. They have nothing to do with official Saudi government books," he stated emphatically.

The Commission fears the text "promote violence" more than they promote religious and secular intolerance. Near the end of their report the Commission states, "The Secretary of State should immediately begin diplomatic discussions with the Saudi government with the goal of having the Saudi government close the ISA until such time as the official Saudi textbooks used at the ISA are made available for comprehensive public examination."

Actually, that "comprehensive public examination" is now underway. Not only by the U.S.State Department but also by Fairfax County government, attributed primarily to the intervention of Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerald Hyland.

Hyland went to the academy to personally meet with Al-Shabnan and discuss the Commission report and textbook situation. Like Al-Shabnan, Hyland had no pre-alert to the Commission report until he read about it in the newspaper.

"We have a group of 20 people from Fairfax County, fluent in Arabic, who have volunteered to help review the books. Plus copies of all their textbooks have been sent to the State Department," Hyland said.

"They (the Academy) are absolutely reaching out to the community to do the right thing and help the community at large in many ways. When I read the Commission report I couldn't believe they hadn't even checked with the school," Hyland stated.

Neither Hyland nor the school could estimate when the County review will be complete. The textbooks are in Arabic. Students are required to be fluent in both Arabic and English, according to Al-Shabnan. There is no word on the State Department's progress either at this writing.