Islamic School Revises Disputed Books [on Islamic Saudi Academy]

Posted: 3/14/2009 9:37:00 PM
Author: Matthew Barakat

Islamic School Revises Disputed Books [on Islamic Saudi Academy]
by Matthew Barakat
Associated Press
March 13, 2009

An Islamic school in Northern Virginia with close ties to the Saudi government has revised its religious textbooks in an effort to end years of criticism that the school fosters hatred and intolerance.

While the Islamic Saudi Academy deleted some of the most contentious passages from the texts, copies provided to the Associated Press show that enough sensitive material remains to arm critics who claim the books show intolerance toward those who do not follow strict interpretations of Islam.

The academy, which teaches nearly 900 students in grades kindergarten through 12th at its Alexandria campus, developed new Islamic studies textbooks for all grades after a 2008 congressional report called portions of the previous editions troubling. The school provided AP copies of the new textbooks, which revise language on hot-button issues such as requiring women to cover their heads and how Muslims should relate to people of other religions.

School officials say the books are part of the school's effort to promote universal values of tolerance and kindness, and modernize some of the lessons.

They've had to make similar defenses before.

The school was founded in 1984 and largely stayed out of the spotlight until the Sept. 11 attacks, which focused attention on the Saudi educational system. In December 2001, two former academy students, Mohammed El-Yacoubi and Mohammed Osman Idris, were denied entry into Israel when authorities there found Mr. El-Yacoubi carrying what the FBI believed was a suicide note linked to a planned martyrdom operation in Israel.

In 2005, a former academy valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was convicted in federal court of joining al Qaeda while attending college in Saudi Arabia and plotting to assassinate then-President George W. Bush.

Last year, the school's then-director, Abdalla al-Shabnan, was convicted of failing to report a suspected case of child sex abuse.

Last year also was when the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report saying the school's textbooks contained several troubling passages, including one saying it is permissible for Muslims to kill adulterers and converts from Islam and another saying "the Jews conspired against Islam and its people."

The new books don't contain those passages. AP reviewed them with assistance from Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, who has criticized the academy and the books used there and in schools in Saudi Arabia.

While the academy's books borrow extensively from those used in the Saudi system, they also revise and delete certain words and passages. For instance, the books used in Saudi Arabia say women must cover their face and body to conform with Islam's tenets. The academy's textbooks, though, only talk about covering the body. Words such as "kaffir," which is often translated as "infidel," have been replaced with more neutral words such as "non-Muslim."

However, some sensitive sections survived the revisions. One of the few references to Christians and Jews, or "People of the Book," disparages scholars in those faiths for rejecting the truth of Islam.

"Scholars of the People of the Book know that Islam is the true path because they find it in their books," an 11th-grade textbook reads. "But they shy away out of ignorance and stubbornness. And God knows their deeds and will judge them."

The school's director, Abdulrahman Alghofaili, said Judaism, Christianity and Islam all claim to "set themselves apart as singular representatives of divine truth and the path to salvation."

The passage in the textbook, he said, is no different from the First Commandment, which states, "You shall have no other gods before me."

Mr. al-Ahmed, whose group monitors politics and education in the Persian Gulf, said the revised texts now being used at the academy make some small improvements in tone.

But he said it's clear from the books that the core ideology behind them - a puritanical strain of Islam known as Wahhabism that is dominant within Saudi Arabia - remains intact.

"It shows they have no intention of real reform," Mr. al-Ahmed said.