Thursday, June 11, 2009

Opposition to a Saudi school in Virginia

Here is a case where we have to see through biases from both ends of the spectrum. The issue is the expansion of a Islamic school in Fairfax county, VA, financed primarily by Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, opposition to the school may be motivated by straightforward anti-Muslim sentiment - prominent in certain quarters of the population (though Fairfax county would not necessarily fall in this category). On the other hand, there is a real possibility that the school curriculum is rooted in the Middle Ages and no student should be exposed to such regressive education.

But others object to the academy’s curriculum, saying it espouses a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. A leaflet slipped into mailboxes in early spring called the school “a hate training academy.”

James Lafferty, chairman of a loose coalition of individuals and groups opposed to the school, said that its teachings sow intolerance, and that it should not be allowed to exist, let alone expand.

“We feel that it is in reality a madrassa, a training place for young impressionable Muslim students in some of the most extreme and most fanatical teachings of Islam,” Mr. Lafferty said. “That concerns us greatly.”

School officials and parents say they are bewildered and frustrated by such claims. The academy is no different from other religious schools, they say, and educates model students who go on to top schools, teaches Arabic to American soldiers, and no longer uses texts that drew criticism after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
While I'm skeptical of their changes, I would like to see some specific examples regarding the offensive curriculum. At the same time, this does not look encouraging:

Last year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan federal agency charged with promoting religious freedom in United States foreign policy, concluded that texts used at the school contained “exhortations to violence” and intolerance.

School officials rejected those findings, saying the commission misinterpreted and mistranslated outdated materials. The school now prints its own materials and no longer uses official Saudi curriculum, said Rahima Abdullah, the academy’s education director.

Read the full article here.

I went and looked at this report from 2008 and it provides specific examples of offensive material in the curriculum. In addition, it seems that there has been a reluctance on the part of Saudi government to release all the textbooks:

Nevertheless, although it was unable to obtain the entire collection, the Commission managed to acquire and review 17 ISA textbooks in use during this school year from other, independent sources, including a congressional office. While the texts represent just a small fraction of the books used in this Saudi government school, the Commission’s review confirmed that these texts do, in fact, include some extremely troubling passages that do not conform to international human rights norms. The Commission calls once again for the full public release of all the Arabic-language textbooks used at the ISA.

So is there offensive material in the textbooks? Hmm....yes - definitely.

The most problematic texts involve passages that are not directly from the Koran but rather contain the Saudi government’s particular interpretation of Koranic and other Islamic texts. Some passages clearly exhort the readers to commit acts of violence, as can be seen in the following two examples:

  • In a twelfth-grade Tafsir (Koranic interpretation) textbook, the authors state that it is permissible for a Muslim to kill an apostate (a convert from Islam), an adulterer, or someone who has murdered a believer intentionally: “He (praised is He) prohibits killing the soul that God has forbidden (to kill) unless for just cause…” Just cause is then defined in the text as “unbelief after belief, adultery, and killing an inviolable believer intentionally.” (Tafsir, Arabic/Sharia, 123)

  • A twelfth-grade Tawhid (monotheism) textbook states that “[m]ajor polytheism makes blood and wealth permissible,” which in Islamic legal terms means that a Muslim can take the life and property of someone believed to be guilty of this alleged transgression with impunity. (Tawhid, Arabic/Sharia, 15) Under the Saudi interpretation of Islam, “major polytheists” include Shi’a and Sufi Muslims, who visit the shrines of their saints to ask for intercession with God on their behalf, as well as Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists.
At least Saudis have a big-tent policy: Polytheists include many Muslims also. And here are just couple of more examples:
These other statements vilify adherents of the Ahmadi, Baha’i, and Jewish religions, as well as of Shi’a Islam. This is despite the fact that the Saudi government is obligated as a member of the United Nations and a state party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and other relevant treaties to guarantee the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The statements include the following:
  • “Today, Qadyanis [Ahmadis] are one of the greatest strongholds for spreading aberration, deviation, and heresy in the name of religion, even from within Islamic countries. Thus, the Qadyani [Ahmadi] movement has become a force of destruction and internal corruption today in the Islamic world…” (“Aspects of Muslim Political and Cultural History,” Eleventh Grade, Administrative/Social Track, Sharia/Arabic Track, 99)

  • “It [Baha’ism] is one of the destructive esoteric sects in the modern age... It has become clear that Babism [the precursor to Baha’ism], Baha’ism, and Qadyanism [Ahmadism] represent wayward forces inside the Islamic world that seek to strike it from within and weaken it. They are colonial pillars in our Islamic countries and among the true obstacles to a renaissance.” (“Aspects of Muslim Political and Cultural History,” Eleventh Grade, 99-100)

  • “The cause of the discord: The Jews conspired against Islam and its people. A sly, wicked person who sinfully and deceitfully professed Islam infiltrated (the Muslims). He was ‘Abd Allah b. Saba’ (from the Jews of Yemen). [___]* began spewing his malice and venom against the third of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, ‘Uthman (may God be pleased with him), and falsely accused him.” (Tawhid, Administrative/Social Sciences Track, 67)
    (*The word or words here were obscured by correction fluid.)
This is crazy stuff. I don't remember this kind of stuff in 11th/12th grades in Pakistan. We were of course more interested in the sciences - and we never took other subjects seriously. But in the 1990's the curriculum did take a more anti-India stance.

Back to the Saudi Academy in Virginia: Now...there are claims that the Academy has modified some of these passages. I'm not sure how serious are these revisions. Even so - there is no excuse whatsoever to have such material in textbooks prior to 2007.

Read the report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom here. By the way, this is all in a Saudi school in the US - so one can only imagine what is being taught in Saudi Arabia itself (also see an earlier post: Saudi Arabia - Boldly marching back in time). In case, you are still not impressed, here is a BBC segment on a Saudi school in England (I had posted it earlier - but here is it again in this context). They also show specific examples and allow the Director of the Saudi school to defend the textbooks used there (about 4 minutes into the segment). It is quite painful to watch - but it provides an insight on the cluelessness of these school administrators.


Don said...

So, how would this school get its own Saudi texts to bowdlerize (or not) if they aren't released internationally? Any way we could do something similar to get a few Saudi textbooks ourselves?

Salman Hameed said...

I don't know. But there is got to be an easier way to get Saudi textbooks. Also we would have to get the translated in a reliable way. By the way, the report stated that the State Department now has the textbooks. May be we can write to Hillary :)

Martin Riexinger said...

We have already the same problem in Germany:,,994052,00.html

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

I watched the BBC piece. Around 7:00 in that video the woman is asked if she'll repudiate the claim that anyone who doesn't practice Islam will go to hell. While that claim is not part of the standard Islamic doctrine (AFAIR) it is an exclusivist approach some religions/sects (including kinds of Christianity) do seem to have. Are we going to have governments interfere and prevent such teachings from reaching kids? Even outside of formal schooling? Is that the idea? Can you imagine a Sunday school teacher being grilled by questions like "will you repudiate the view that salvation is only through Jesus"?

Disliking what the Saudi establishment is up to is a fine thing, IMHO. It is also OK -- and inevitable -- to apply public pressure to schools and other purveyors of teachings that are offensive. The problems begin if government interference is advocated. For better or worse, at least in the US, offensive stuff is left alone by the government. Is that going to change now?

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I remember growing up in an Irish farming community here in the Midwest where we had to put our hand on our hearts and promise "before" God to protect our country. What do they mean by "protect?, by sword or what? That did change by law later in my life, and I think that keeping God, government and education separate is probably a good idea in general.

I did learn some interesting facts from the Islamic scholars here at Harvard:

And, as an artist and reader of the "da Vinci" material, the fact that many people think Mona Lisa and Mary Magdalene are Black or Muslim or Arabic makes sense after learning about this scientific fact:

Hopefully the important (and largely deleted or left out) parts of our history from Africa and the Middle East can be taught here in the USA and in Europe without advocating any religious violence. Moors and Muslims brought the golden age to Europe - though this has been resented and purposely forgotten thousands of years later. Re-education of the facts is so important, maybe something could be done to make it "safer" to the US government. Afterall, we all need to learn this forgotten history - Muslim or not.
Thanks for your interesting post.

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