McLEAN, Va. – A private Islamic school supported by the Saudi government should be shut down until the U.S. government can ensure the school is not fostering radical Islam, a federal panel recommends.
In a report released Thursday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom broadly criticized what it calls a lack of religious freedom in Saudi society and promotion of religious extremism at Saudi schools.
Particular criticism is leveled at the Islamic Saudi Academy, a private school serving nearly 1,000 students in grades K-12 at two campuses in northern Virginia's Fairfax County.
The commission's report says the academy hews closely to the curriculum used at Saudi schools, which they criticize for promoting hatred of and intolerance against Jews, Christians and Shiite Muslims.
"Significant concerns remain about whether what is being taught at the ISA promotes religious intolerance and may adversely affect the interests of the United States," the report states.
The commission, a creation of Congress, has no power to implement policy on its own. Instead, it makes recommendations to other agencies.
The commission does not offer specific criticism of the academy's teachings beyond its concerns that it too closely mimics a typical Saudi education.
The report recommends that the State Department prevail on the Saudi government to shut the school down until the school's textbooks can be reviewed and procedures are put in place to ensure the school's independence form the Saudi Embassy.
Messages left Wednesday with the State Department and the Saudi Embassy were not immediately returned.
Several advocacy groups in recent years have cited examples of inflammatory statements in religious textbooks in Saudi Arabia, including claims that a ninth-grade textbook reads that the hour of judgment will not come "until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them."
Saudi officials said they have worked in recent years to reform the textbooks and the curriculum, but critics say progress has been insufficient.
The school's director-general, Abdalla I. Al-Shabnan, said Wednesday that he had not seen the report. He said the academy has adjusted its curriculum in recent years and removed some of the inflammatory language that had been included in the Saudi text. The school's curriculum may now serve as a model for the Saudi government to use in continuing its reform of Saudi schools, he said.
"There is nothing in our curriculum against any religion," Al-Shabnan said.
He also said he is willing to show the school's curriculum and textbooks to anybody who wants to see them, and he expressed disappointment that the commission did not request materials directly from the school.
"We have an open policy," he said.
He also pointed out that many of the school's teachers are Christian and Jewish.
The commission based its findings in part on a the work of a delegation that traveled to Saudi Arabia this year. The commission asked embassy officials to review the textbooks used in Saudi schools generally and at the Islamic Saudi Academy specifically but did not receive a response.
Commission spokeswoman Judith Ingram said the commission did not request to speak to academy officials because that went beyond the commission's mandate.
The report also criticizes the school's administrative structure, saying it is little more than an offshoot of the Saudi Embassy, with the Saudi ambassador to the United States serving as chairman of the school's board of directors. The structure "raises serious concerns about whether it is in violation of a U.S. law restricting the activities of foreign embassies."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, critics questioned the nature of the religious education at the Saudi academy. The school again found itself in the spotlight in 2005, when a former class valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was charged with joining al-Qaida while attending college in Saudi Arabia and plotting to assassinate President Bush.
Abu Ali was convicted in federal court and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He is appealing his conviction.