Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria is an outpost of militant Islam, say critics who point out that the school’s 1999 valedictorian is charged with joining al Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush.

Two other persons connected to the academy also have been linked to terrorism-related cases, and a U.S. senator has asked the Justice Department to investigate the school.

But the academy’s teachers, students and administrators say suspicion of the school ? serving nearly 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade at two campuses just beyond the Capital Beltway ? is based on misperceptions.

Female students recently celebrated their induction into the National Honor Society. Most but not all of them wore a hijab, the head scarf that some Muslims believe is required for females.

Essays and artwork share space on the walls with pictures of the Saudi royal family. One essay was about the TV show “Fear Factor.”

The school was founded in 1984, primarily to serve children of the Saudi diplomatic corps. Today, the student body is more diverse, with nearly three dozen countries represented, but much of the funding still comes from the Saudi government.

In recent years, the academy has been at the center of debate over the religious curriculum in Saudi schools and whether it fosters radicalism. Those questions resurfaced when the former valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was charged in February. He pleaded not guilty and argued that Saudi authorities extracted a false confession from him through torture.

School officials are frustrated about some perceptions of the school, saying two-thirds of the teachers are American and non-Muslim. They also say promoting a specific strain of Islam would be impossible because students come from across the Muslim world.

School officials also say the religious curriculum shows no favoritism, though critics say the Saudi curriculum is biased against Shi’ites.

Abdalla I. Al-Shabnan, the school’s director general, acknowledged some of the religious curriculum that comes from Saudi Arabia needs to be modified. “If there is anything … that we feel is offensive, we ask the teachers not to teach that kind of subject here,” he said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has asked the Justice Department to investigate the school, saying that Abu Ali is not the only former academy student to engage in questionable activities.

A federal indictment in Chicago last year named a former treasurer of the school, Ismael Selim Elbarasse, as a high-ranking official within the militant group Hamas, though Mr. Elbarasse is not charged with a crime. Mohamed Osman Idris, an academy graduate, pleaded guilty in 2002 to lying on a passport application, following an investigation into whether he was supporting Hamas. The Justice Department told Mr. Schumer it could not comment on whether the academy itself was under investigation.

Abdullah Hijazi, a senior from Mitchellville, Md., said he and other students have not been exposed to extremism, adding: “We never really reach that depth in Islamic studies. Shi’ites and Sunnis, they differ about little things.”

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