Changing the Way Saudis Learn
Inside Saudi Arabia, debate about how to reform the education system began after the 2003-06 al-Qaida attacks there that killed nearly 200 people.
Outside Saudi Arabia, of course, it all started with 9/11.
When it became clear that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, critics in America looked to Saudi schools and asked if they taught the kind of hatred espoused by the hijackers.
The most vocal of these critics was the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory board founded by the U.S. Congress in the late 1990s to combat the persecution of Christians and Jews in countries like Sudan, China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. (A founding member of the commission was Elliot Abrams, a neoconservative who served on George W. Bush's National Security Council, where he was in charge of promoting advancing democracy abroad.)
One of the commission's prime targets was the Islamic Saudi Academy, located just outside Washington, D.C., which uses the same curriculum and textbooks as those inside the kingdom. The ISA is funded, in part, by the Saudi Embassy in Washington and is one of more than a dozen such government-supported schools worldwide.
In late 2001, two former ISA students were forbidden to enter Israel on suspicion they were suicide bombers. One was jailed for four months for lying on his passport application. In 2003, a former ISA valedictorian was arrested in Saudi Arabia for plotting to assassinate President George W. Bush. He was sentenced to life in prison by a U.S. Court of Appeals last month.
As these cases surfaced, the Commission on International Religious Freedom focused on ISA's textbooks, claiming that the Wahhabi-salafi ideology taught hatred of—and violence toward—non-Muslims. The Saudi Embassy eventually ordered changes to be made to the ISA curriculum, and the school "worked day and night" to revise its textbooks, according to the Washington Post.
But that wasn't enough for the commission. In 2007, it issued a scathing report urging the State Department to close the school unless further revisions were made. But neither federal nor local officials found the material in ISA's textbooks offensive enough to warrant the school's closing, and an editorial in the Post suggested the commission was jumping to conclusions, without a full review of the textbooks and how they were used in the school.
Either way, ISA revised its textbooks again this year—this time replacing words like kaffir, which is often translated as infidel, with more neutral phrases like non-Muslim.
The main campus of the school is situated on a two-lane thoroughfare in Alexandria, Va. Teachers and administrators maintain there is nothing wrong with one religion stating its supremacy over another—especially in a private American school.
"Seventy percent of the teachers here are American. We have Christians, Jews, and atheists—and we have Muslims," says Abdulrahman al Ghofaili, the director-general of ISA.
"They teach my children. How can I teach my children to hate non-Muslims while at the same time entrust those non-Muslim teachers with my children?"
Still, local residents complain.
A recent proposal by the ISA to expand to a larger campus in Fairfax, Va., was met by angry leaflets in residents' mailboxes calling it a "hate training academy." One resident told the New York Times that the school "should not be allowed to exist, let alone expand."
Nonetheless, Fairfax County planners recently approved the expansion. Now the vote will go to county supervisors.
On a recent evening, I meet three former ISA students at a housing complex near the school's main campus. The alumni are now university students; all are completing graduate programs in Virginia.
Saudi native Maryam Assakkaf says ISA students were always able to question and discuss the textbooks with their teachers—while back home in Saudi Arabia, students were more likely to be told to memorize exactly what's in the books.
She concedes that the basic curriculum did have some passages and references that, taken out of context, could have been misconstrued by extremists. But that was never a problem at ISA. "We always had it in some kind of context."
Hadania Al Mazyed, another former ISA student, says those who took the passages out of context were in the minority. "Look at the majority. ... [T]he majority are not violent. And we're all taught from the same books!"
Al Mazyed, who is studying to be an educator herself, says she would like to see the Saudi curriculum be more "outward-looking."
"Is there room for improvement? Absolutely," she says. But should this improvement be "driven by an outside force"—such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom or suburban Virginians who lack an understanding of Islam? "No, no, no. I don't think so."
Kelly McEvers is based in Riyadh and covers the Middle East for National Public Radio. Reporting for this story was supported by the International Center for Journalists.