Textbooks? What textbooks?

TeachingIslam.jpgSometimes it's surprising how little institutional memory the mainstream media has. Take this story from the New York Times, explaining a debate over a building plan by a Muslim school in Northern Virginia. Reporter Theo Emery explains that Islamic Saudi Academy officials in Fairfax, Virginia, are seeking permission to erect a new classroom building and move hundreds of students from another campus. But some neighbors are opposed because of congestion. Other neighbors have a different basis of opposition altogether:

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.

Kamal S. Suliman, 46, a state traffic engineer with three daughters at the academy, called the accusations "fear tactics and stereotyping."

I know the "he said, he said" model of journalism is quite popular. But this story glosses over the main reason why people are concerned about what's being taught at the school.

Let's go all the way back to, um, last June for the Associated Press story on the matter:

Textbooks at a private Islamic school in northern Virginia teach students that it is permissible for Muslims to kill adulterers and converts from Islam, according to a federal investigation released Wednesday.

Other passages in the school's textbooks state that "the Jews conspired against Islam and its people" and that Muslims are permitted to take the lives and property of those deemed "polytheists."

Now if you read that story, academy officials also had said they no longer used troubling texts. But the commission found that while some of the offending portions had been removed, various permissions for violence against Jews and apostates remained. It's just odd, frankly, to have an entire story about the academy without mentioning the central issue -- the grave concern over the textbooks.

From a September discussion in the Washington Post, Nina Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom had more to say:

The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education publishes and disseminates teachings that Muslims are to hate and treat as "enemies" other religious believers, including other, non-Wahhabi Muslims. Those were our findings in a 2006 study of Saudi government textbooks. And despite the media outcry that followed, our most recent investigation shows that Saudi textbooks, now available on the Saudi Ministry of Education website, have not been cleaned up. The same violent and intolerant lessons remain.

A 2008 review found similar results. Not that the presence of violent and intolerant lessons should necessarily impact a zoning vote, but at least the central argument should be included.

The Times story does include one other angle of opposition to the school -- the track record of some of its graduates -- but does so with more "he said, he said" and moral equivalency: luv-islam1

Until Sept. 11, 2001, the academy drew minimal attention, but shortly after the terrorist attacks, Israel turned away two graduates over suspicions they were suicide bombers. One was charged with lying on his passport application, and received a four-month prison sentence.

In 2003, the academy's 1999 valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was arrested in Saudi Arabia, where he had gone to study, and two years later was convicted in Federal District Court in Alexandria of conspiracy to commit terrorism, including a plot to assassinate President George W. Bush. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Mr. Abu Ali's family called the accusations "lies," and his lawyers say he was tortured when he was held in Saudi Arabia.

Besides, academy officials and parents contend, an entire school should not be condemned for the actions of one or two students. They point out that no one laid the blame for the massacre at Virginia Tech on the high school alma mater of the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho.

This is just such a shallow approach to the legitimate debate over Wahhahbism and violence. But wait, right at the end we get a brief mention of the texts:

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.

Now, apart from the conflicting explanations of the academy's education director, I think most people would assume it odd that this academy in Northern Virginia would be the sole school -- out of tens of thousands run by the Saudi government -- not to use Saudi curriculum. Not to mention that the school has had a history of declining to turn over all of its texts to congressional investigators. Why not mention this? It's not like this is a new story.

But most importantly, how about just go to the Saudi Academy's web site where they claim, contra Abdullah, to be using official Saudi curriculum?

The Islamic Saudi Academy is a subsidiary of the Ministry of Education for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Hence, it follows the Islamic Studies curriculum which has been set forth by the Kingdom.

The Islamic Studies curriculum is one of the most important subjects taught at the Academy, as it aims to build a strong Muslim student population with strong morals and values. These morals and values will produce young men and women who will succeed in this life and in the Hereafter.

Emphasis mine. I found that using teh Google, which took all of 5 seconds or so. It's just odd that the academy wasn't asked some more questions about these textbooks.

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