When it comes to Islamic Saudi Academy textbooks, forget trust — just verify

For years, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, the Institute for Gulf Affairs, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and various Washington Post journalists have been documenting the fact that the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA) in northern Virginia —

a school founded, funded, and controlled by the Saudi embassy — was teaching religious hatred and violence. More precisely, the Saudi Academy used Saudi Ministry of Education textbooks that sanction what is known in the United States as murder against Jews, adulterers, homosexuals, and converts from Islam, and that encourage Muslims to break various other American laws. The Saudi Academy is now putting out the word that its textbooks have been "revised." Should we declare victory and move on? Not so fast.

The Associated Press, which ran a story this week headlined "Saudi Academy in Virginia Revises Islamic History Books," relies on quotes from three individuals who give the academies new textbooks a Good Housekeeping seal of approval: Academy director Abdulrahman Alghofaili, Brown University visiting fellow Eleanor Doumato, and University of North Carolina anthropology professor Gregory Starrett. As AP makes clear, all three were paid by the Islamic Saudi Academy to review the textbooks.

A fourth commentator quoted in the AP report, Ali Ahmed, who is the president of the Gulf Institute and who is not funded by the Saudis, gives a somewhat different assessment. As the AP reporter paraphrases, "The revised texts now being used at ISA 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."

Ever since September 11, 2001, there has been a highly funded publicity campaign by the Saudi embassy to persuade Americans that the Academy’s textbooks have been completely revised. Saudi ads in American political magazines, speeches by various Saudi ambassadors and foreign ministers before the Council on Foreign Relations, a national speaking tour by the Saudi ambassador — all have spoken along the lines one of those ambassadors, Turki al-Faisal, took when he told a Town Hall meeting in Los Angeles in 2006: "The Kingdom has reviewed all of its education practices and materials, and has removed any element that is inconsistent with the needs of a modern education. Not only have we eliminated what might be perceived as intolerance from old textbooks that were in our system, we have implemented a comprehensive internal revision and modernization plan." A number of prominent Americans — Charles Freeman, for example — have repeated such claims, despite our annual reports that show this is far from true.

At this point, forget trust; we must verify.

The AP story reports that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, a large regional educational accrediting agency, was conducting a review of the Saudi Academy curriculum. Unfortunately the Association may not be up to the task. In 2005, it accredited the Academy, not knowing — since it did not have the capacity to translate the texts from Arabic — that the school countenanced religiously motivated killing. Although the accrediting association now says it has improved its procedures, it still relies on volunteers to do its inspections.

The State Department, which had been requested to sponsor a textbook review by Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, which oversees its budget, refused to get involved.

In the light of these institutional failures, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Mr. Ahmed, and outside expert translators are currently working on a thorough, independent review of the Academy’s new textbooks, which will be released later this spring.

Readers may recall ["Teaching Terror"] that the Saudi curriculum has been blamed — including by a growing number of Saudi commentators — for helping to form the ideology underlying such jihadi terrorists as Osama bin Laden, the 11 Saudi members of the 9/11 hijacking team, the Saudi Gitmo detainees (who formed the largest contingent there, after persons from Afghanistan), the Saudi suicide bombers in Iraq (who formed the largest such foreign contingent), the Pakistani Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba and its network of radical schools that trained the Mumbai terrorists ["Tread Softly"], and even a former valedictorian of the Saudi Academy itself, to name but a few.

What the Islamic Saudi Academy teaches is important. This Saudi government entity in our midst is now educating some 1,000 students and has said that its mission is to be "the premier educational institution" for the American Muslim community.

No less than our national security and way of life are at stake.

— Nina Shea is the director of the Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute.

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