Lesson in anti-Arab anger Academy: A Saudi-backed school's attempt to move to a small Virginia community has stirred up a rancorous debate.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ASHBURN, Va. - The chain restaurants, suburban subdivisions and strip malls of this Northern Virginia community hardly seem the likely target of an Arab threat.

Yet many here see the integrity of their neighborhoods under fire as an Islamic school seeks to move into their midst. The school, funded by the government of Saudi Arabia, has stirred a rancorous debate in this Loudon County community of 8,600.

On one side are those who say the academy will be a good neighbor and is being unjustly politicized by anti-Arab opponents. On the other are critics who call the academy an agent of an abhorrent Saudi government that should be barred on principle alone.

The resulting feud has divided the community against itself.

"There is so much anger and bitterness, it's terrible," said Joseph Cicippio, a former hostage in Lebanon and nearby resident. "Here we are, in America, and we're saying these horrible things about people who want to open a school. It hurts to see this."

In recent months, local leaders have received anti-Arab hate mail. Some residents have received fliers warning of a "Saudi invasion" that would turn the community into a "training academy" for "foreigners from Muslim Terrorist Countries." The school, the fliers intoned ominously, would fill Ashburn with "Middle Eastern strangers roaming the streets."

Such turmoil is nothing new for the Islamic Saudi Academy. Two years ago, the school came under attack when it tried to move from Alexandria to Montgomery County. Then as now, critics condemned the school over Saudi Arabia's record of human rights abuses. Just last week, opponents added a new argument, asserting that their community should not welcome a school backed by a government that would not fully cooperate with the United States in a showdown with Iraq.

More than the school's location is at issue. The Alexandria-based academy also wants to more than double its size, to become the nation's largest Islamic school. Of the country's 185 Islamic academies, this is the only one paid for entirely by a foreign government.

Some folks believe Ashburn should not support such an effort.

"The last thing we need in Loudon County is an institution run by a repressive government," Sandra Elam said at a heated six-hour public hearing last week. "Would we let the Soviet Communists build a facility here in the 1950s? Never. And we should not let the Saudi government build a facility here in the 1990s."

Supporters of the school say they are disgusted by such arguments. At the hearing, one Ashburn resident referred to his town as "Bigotsville." Recalling a hated Nazi figure, another resident said that the anti-Arab bigotry is so open it "would make Goebbels blush." Many argued that attempts to block the academy were unconstitutional.

Retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Persian Gulf war leader, and President Clinton have named the school in calling for cultural tolerance. So have Washington activists.

"Denying the school is un-American," said Omar Kamhieh of the Washington-based American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "This is how the African-Americans were treated in the 1960s. Racism and bigotry are behind these objections."

Such opposition is familiar for Islamic schools, where children receive a Muslim religious education and Arabic lessons with a standard curriculum. Those schools, where boys and girls learn separately, are bastions of Islamic culture and easy targets for anti-Arab sentiment.

From the surface, the debate over the Virginia school is merely a zoning matter. The county Board of Supervisors must grant an exception to the school so it can build its 102-acre campus on land designated for industrial use. A vote is scheduled for next month.

But in this school's experience, local politics are never simple. In 1995, residents of Poolesville stopped the academy's move to western Montgomery County, after rejecting a $5 million "gesture of goodwill" offered by the Saudis.

Now, as then, the campaign against the school has centered in part on the Saudi government's record on religious freedom. Critics also say that the school would create traffic congestion and cost the county money because of its tax-exempt status.

The fight has evoked images of God and country. This month, critics led by the conservative Christian Fellowship Church staged an "I Love America!" rally. They railed against alleged abuses by Saudis of Christians, Jews and Shiite Muslims. The church's leader, the Rev. James Ahlemann, has said it is his duty from God to oppose the school's move.

The new school would accommodate 3,500 students - it now serves 1,200 - and would include a mosque and possibly a dormitory for 800 students. Appeasing critics, the school has vowed that the once or twice-daily calls to prayer will not be audible off campus grounds. The campus would feature a dome and a minaret, decorative features of the Islamic faith.

The academy, proposed for a site near Dulles International Airport, mostly serves the children of Middle Eastern embassy workers. Students are told not to discuss politics; Kuwaiti children, after all, sit side by side with Iraqis. About 55 percent are U.S. citizens.

At this week's hearing, Robert Gordon, a lawyer for the academy's developer, tried to assure more than 200 residents that the school would not put up barbed wire. (Earlier, Gordon shot down rumors that the academy would feature an underground bunker and armed guards.) Nevertheless, he could not quiet the critics.

In the hearing room, emotions were raw. Mocking laughter erupted when Steve Whitener, a board member, wondered how many Iraqis would be in the school, and asked "What's the point of a minaret?" One resident, calling the Saudis anti-Christian, angrily held up a Swiss Army knife and said her brother and his wife were once detained by Saudi authorities who objected to the cross insignia on its handle.

During the hearing, an academy principal, Sulaiman Al-Fraih, remained quiet, holding tightly onto prayer beads.

"These untrue claims, they hurt," Al-Fraih, head of the boys' school, said in an interview. "We are trying to raise good citizens with multicultural ideas. Our reaction to these accusations is pain."

Now, Al-Fraih is on a public relations campaign for the school.

Showing a reporter through the academy's Alexandria campus, he described the children as typical Americans. He repeatedly asked the students for a show of hands to prove how many U.S. citizens were there - about half said they were - and added that few youngsters were fluent in Arabic.

Trying to give the school a boost, he asked a class of second-graders to explain to a visitor, "Why do you love the school so much?" (One boy's answer: "Sometimes we get chips.")

Yet while some youngsters appear unfazed, some older graduates are feeling the strain.

Manal Omar, a 22-year-old academy graduate, had been working in Baghdad for the United Nations but was called home two weeks ago because of the Iraqi crisis. Omar, a U.S. citizen, had told colleagues in Iraq that her country is tolerant of Muslims.

"Then I came back here," she said, "and I'm asked whether I'm an American or not. In a foreign country, I'm treated as an American, but back in my home country, it's like I am a second-class citizen."

Pub Date: 2/24/98

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