Virginia officials approve Islamic school construction

Thursday, March 5, 1998

Sign announcing...
Photo by AP
Sign announcing meeting about proposed Islamic school stands on site where school would be built in Ashburn Village, Va.

Editor’s note: The Associated Press reported on July 10, 2004, that the Islamic Saudi Academy had dropped plans to build a 3,500-student campus in Loudoun County. After receiving approval in 1998 to build the school on a 101.3-acre site in Ashburn, academy officials said they planned to open the school in 2000, but they pushed back the projected date several times, citing financial difficulties. Instead, county officials purchased the land from the school in 2004 for $13.5 million.

County officials in suburban Virginia have approved construction of a private Islamic school despite a small but boisterous group of citizens claiming the school will spawn terrorists.

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted 7-2 yesterday to allow the school to be built on 100 acres north of Dulles International airport near Ashburn. The board's decision came after weeks of sometimes vociferous debate about religion and about the Saudi Arabian government that funds the 3,500-student school.

The Islamic Saudi Academy was established in 1984 to educate children of Saudi nationals, children from Arab and Muslim communities and others in the Washington area. Currently the school is located in a Fairfax County, Va., facility that is too small to house its growing number of students. The school plans to enlarge its enrollment to 3,500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

When school officials announced plans to apply for a zoning permit to build the larger facility outside Ashburn, a group of citizens calling themselves Concerned About Loudoun's Future lobbied the board of supervisors to reject the school's plans. An anonymous flier was circulated to homes in the neighborhood warning residents that the school would “bring Muslim and Arab terrorists to Loudoun,” and that “thousands of Middle Eastern strangers [would be] roaming our streets while we work.”

A day before the board voted, The Washington Post stated in an editorial that opposition to the school is made up of “residents who have resorted to the worst kinds of bigotry to drum up company for their cause.”

Bob Gordon, an attorney for the Islamic school, said he was surprised by the degree of intolerance in Loudoun.

“Certainly, you could not have sat through the debate and not get the feeling that there was a component of people who did not want Islamic people in the neighborhood,” Gordon said. “As a blond-haired, blue-eyed white man it has been very easy for me in my life to believe that racism and bigotry have been largely solved. But I can't tell you how naïve I felt after listening to some of the citizens.

“For some reason, Islam seems to be a religion that is very misunderstood by a lot of Americans. We are very quick to associate the word Arab with terrorists, and that is, of course, a disservice to millions of Arabic people.”

Sandra Elam, spokeswoman for Concerned About Loudoun's Future, said her opposition against the school has nothing do with religion.

“We support the right of every person to practice their own religion,” Elam said. “The reason we are opposing the school is because of the Saudi government's terrible human-rights abuses and especially its persecution of U.S. citizens.”

Elam said her group has several strategies to fight the board's decision, a decision she says will “give the Saudi government a unhealthy stranglehold on our county and its officials.”

First, the group is collecting signatures for a petition seeking a voter referendum. Elam said that if Loudoun citizens have the chance, they will “turn this down in large numbers.” Second, the group is preparing a separate petition to recall the seven board members who voted to allow the construction. According to Elam, the board members violated the zoning ordinance by granting a special exemption to a private religious school to build in an industrial area.

Finally, Elam suggests that the board's decision might violate the First Amendment.

“The Board of Supervisors is to uphold the Constitution, including the First Amendment,” she said. “By granting a special exception to the Saudi school, a judge might decide that the board aided and abetted a foreign government's religion.”

Steven Whitener, one of the two board members to vote against construction, agreed with Elam that the board's actions violated the First Amendment.

“This is definitely a First Amendment issue,” Whitener told said. “Our Constitution is clear that government cannot meddle in religion. As a member on the board I cannot, as a person who is supposed to uphold the First Amendment, vote to support a religious school controlled by a government.”

Whitener accused school officials of distorting the issues. “The Saudi government spent a lot of money defining the issue as one of intolerance. It is unfortunate that money and public relations can sway people away from upholding the First Amendment.”

Gordon, however, said that while opposition at times appeared to drown out support for the school, he was pleased to see a wide array of citizens and organizations argue for the school's construction.

“Hundreds of people came out in favor of the school,” he said. “In a zoning case it is highly unusual to see large groups of people come out in favor of something like this. Individual citizens, the NAACP, various ministers and just a wide spectrum of people came out to say that, although the Saudi Arabian government may not be perfect, America stands for something different.

“In this country, we respect people who are getting an education and those who practice religion,” Gordon said. “In America, we stand for tolerance and diversity.”