The State Department has no authority to close a Saudi-supported school criticized for violent teachings, a spokesman said Tuesday, despite an official request for guidance from the Northern Virginia county that leases space for the school’s main campus.
The department will “respond as appropriate” to Fairfax County supervisors, spokesman Rob McInturff said.
“We work with the Saudi government … to revise educational materials in Saudi Arabia, but this is a private school in the U.S.,” Mr. McInturff said. “We don’t monitor their activities or anything like that.”
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly sent a letter Monday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, requesting that her department provide “specific direction” on the county’s lease with the Islamic Saudi Academy in light of a federal commission’s findings this month.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found textbooks used at the 900-student private school included passages that blame the Jews for “discord” and say it is permissible for a Muslim to kill those who have left the faith, an adulterer or someone who has killed a Muslim intentionally, according to the panel.
The findings spurred calls for a public review of the textbooks and criticism of the county board, which voted unanimously in May, prior to the commission’s report, to continue leasing property for the school’s main campus in Alexandria through next June.
Mr. Connolly, a Democrat running for Congress in the 11th District, said the county’s lease is expressly “contingent upon and subject to the approval of the United States Department of State.”
“As a local government entity, Fairfax County is not capable of determining whether textbooks, written in Arabic, contain language that promotes violence or religious intolerance, or is otherwise offensive to the interests of the United States,” Mr. Connolly wrote.
Mr. McInturff confirmed that the department received the letter but had not yet reviewed it.
The federal panel last year recommended that State Department officials explore the possibility of closing the school under the Foreign Missions Act after failing to obtain the current textbooks and noting that official Saudi texts in the past have included language encouraging violence.
“My understanding at this point is that this doesn’t come under State Department jurisdiction,” Mr. McInturff said. “It would have to be credentialed by the State Department as an embassy or as a consulate. That to my knowledge has not happened to this school.”
However, the commission contends the act could give the secretary of state authority to take action to close the school. The act defines a foreign mission in part as “any mission to or agency or entity in the United States which is … substantially owned or effectively controlled by a foreign government.”
State officials would have authority over the school for reasons that include its apparent financial backing from the Saudi government and the fact its board chairman is Saudi Ambassador Adel A. Al-Jubeir, commission spokeswoman Judith Ingram said.
“That’s the crux of the disagreement,” she said.
The commission focused its recent review on 17 textbooks used during the past school year and obtained from independent sources.
The Saudi government has turned over textbooks to the State Department, which has not made the books public and cited a prior agreement with Saudi officials that books would be revised in time for the start of the next school year.
Academy officials said the federal panel’s report is “erroneous,” “contains mistranslated and misinterpreted texts” and focused on books that are no longer in use.
Rahima Abdullah, chairman of the school’s education department, said officials did not know the county was going to send a letter to the State Department but that the school is looking forward to hearing the department’s input.
“Just as Fairfax County is waiting to hear what the State Department says, so are we,” Ms. Abdullah said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Connolly’s letter noted the commission’s textbook review came to light after the board renewed the academy’s lease.
But his request for State Department input was criticized as a flip-flop by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which accused Mr. Connolly of “buckling under political pressure” after he accused critics of the academy of “slander” at the May public hearing.
Mr. Connolly, who faces Republican Keith S. Fimian in the November general election, could not be reached for comment.
Fairfax County began leasing the former Walt Whitman Intermediate School at 8333 Richmond Highway in Alexandria for the academy’s use Jan. 1, 1989. The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia leases the space for operation of the academy.
There have been five addendums to the lease, county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said. The most recent extension, approved by the board May 19, will generate $2.2 million in rent for the county and contains an option to extend the lease for two additional one-year periods upon approval by both parties.
The county’s call for State Department intervention follows its own small-scale review of the Saudi school’s textbooks in October. A Fairfax County employee familiar with Arabic voluntarily reviewed textbooks provided by the school, but no written report was produced, Ms. Fitzgerald said.
At the board’s May 19 meeting, Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland - a Democrat who represents the Mount Vernon district, where the school is located - said the review did not give him the impression that hate was being taught at the academy.
But he said if a later review produced a different finding, “then certainly we would have to relook at the lease and decide what best to do.”