I get it that the campaigns have started and it’s officially silly season. But this year it really got off with a bang, with an attack from a national blog on the Democratic candidate for the 11th CD.
Ok, it’s only nutcase Michelle Malkin, linking to my favorite Virginia demagogue, Greg Leticque. But it gives you an indication of just how hotly contested Northern Virginia is going to be nationally. Unfortunately, a Virginia semi-Democratic blogger, who has broken some good posts nationally a few times, signed on to what is essentially a far right circle jerk.
Before launching in, I should probably let you know a couple of things about me in the interest of full disclosure. On the one hand, I have a long history of criticizing the excesses of extreme Islam, especially of the Wahabbi variety, and of pointing out the problems with radical Islam in countries like Saudi Arabia. This is just one example. But I also pride myself on my defense of religious liberty for even the most obscure sects, such as this one.
With that in mind, here goes.
Malkin, Leticque and NLS have all carried stories about the Islamic Saudi Academy, located in Fairfax County. The school is problematic for a number of reasons which I will get into later. But their attacks on Gerry Connolly were launched because the Fairfax Board of Supervisors renewed the lease for the school, as reported here, by the Washington Post’s Focus on Fairfax back in May.
Connolly did not act unilaterally. The entire board voted on this. But the issue is larger than just defending Gerry Connolly or the other supervisors. It also involves speaking up against religious bigotry and the demonizing of a whole group of people. That’s why it takes precedence over anything else I will write this week.
First off, let me admit that the Islamic Saudi Academy is problematic on a number of grounds. It is the nature of demagoguery that there is often an element of truth to what is said. And what Malkin, Leticque and, because he linked to them, Tribbett, are alleging has some veracity to it. Whenever there is truth to a charge, it must be acknowledged and respected.
The academy is a Muslim private school, funded by the government of Saudi Arabia, which leases land from the Fairfax County government. Because of that it is fair to scrutinize what they teach. Because of the fact that they are funded by a foreign government, they are also subject to monitoring and oversight by the federal government. And U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found problems with the school’s textbooks and teaching materials, which came from Saudi Arabia. They recommended that the State Department close the school.
Some of the problems they found include lessons that encourage intolerance and hatred for non Muslims, especially anti-Semitism, and encouragement of violence toward non Muslims.
The school, however, claimed they were not using the same textbooks that are used in Saudi Arabia. They had altered them to remove material offensive and unacceptable in the West. The problem, however, is that the Commission was not given access to the material and couldn’t verify that claim. That’s why they made their recommendation. That’s an important distinction. The Commission did not find offensive hate material; they just couldn’t verify its absence. And the Saudis have too long a history of teaching intolerance to simply believe them without that verification.
However, before renewing the lease, Fairfax did do their due diligence. According to the Washington Post article
Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), whose district includes the Saudi-backed school, said he reviewed the academy's materials with the help of an Arabic translator. After Hyland found no reason for serious concern, he and other board members agreed Monday to extend the lease of the school, which has about 1,000 students from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.In addition, non Muslim teachers at the school have said
"We had no indication they are teaching terrorists, or are teaching students to hate and kill," Hyland said. "The bottom line," he said, is that the textbooks used at the Fairfax school "are not the same" as those used in Saudi Arabia.
Hyland said, however, that the issue was one of religious tolerance. "There's a great reluctance on the part of the board to be judgmental as to people's religions," he said
American-born teachers who are Christian and work at the school told officials they have seen no evidence of religious intolerance.Surprisingly, at the hearing on the vote to renew the lease, John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute spoke in defense of the school. Whitehead and the Rutherford Institute, ironically, are usually heroes of the Christian right. The Rutherford Institute is widely known and respected for its passionate defense of First Amendment rights of churches and Christian individuals and usually fights for their rights against the secular establishment. And here is what the Post reported.
Civic associations in the area testified in support of the lease extension, saying that the school, which has operated there since 1989, has been a good neighbor and maintains the grounds well.
John Whitehead, founder of the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, which focuses on religious freedom cases, said he is skeptical of the U.S. government judging the intent and content of a religious school's curriculum.Personally, I still find the academy problematic and believe that it needs scrutiny, both from the State Department (remember, it’s funded by a foreign government, so that is legal) and from Fairfax County, which still holds the lease. And the lease comes up for renewal annually, so that oversight is both doable and necessary.
"This is real troublesome stuff," he said. "Religion has a history of saying intolerant things. That's why they're protected."
Having said that, academic and religious freedom are important concepts in our society. They never trump hatred and intolerance, of course. But if a branch of the government can interfere with the religious liberty or academic freedom of one minority, then none of us are safe.
It’s a delicate balance in this case. But it’s worth the effort. Among other reasons is because Islam in the U.S. stands at a crossroads. There are many Muslims who wish to become part of the U.S. They desire to participate in our culture. They want to be good citizens and good neighbors. If we build a moat and draw up the bridge, we run the risk of marginalizing them and creating the very radicalism that we are trying so hard to prevent. If, instead, we engage them in dialogue, encourage them to join us, and challenge intolerance and hatred while welcoming their positive contributions, we will do more to protect both our freedom and security than we will if we demonize and demagogue them.
Therefore, I applaud Gerry Connolly and the members of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors for taking the long sighted approach and not giving in to the very fear and intolerance we are trying to fight in the first place.