Islamic School Faces Local Opposition
After a contentious, four-year struggle, a private Islamic school financed by the Saudi Arabian government may finally receive approval this week to build a new campus.
But first the Islamic Saudi Academy will have to overcome opposition from residents in a Virginia county who say they don't want a Saudi-backed school in their community.
"My great concern is that the Saudi Arabian government is paying for it," said the Rev. James Ahlemann, the senior pastor of the Christian Fellowship Church in Ashburn, Va., and one of the most vocal opponent of the school's plans.
Mr. Ahlemann, whose church is located a mile from the proposed school site, says Saudi Arabia persecutes Christians and Jews who live in that country.
"I'm not fighting Arab-Americans who want to build a school," Mr. Ahlemann said. "I don't want a government like Saudi Arabia doing it."
But officials with the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington say the policies of their government and the purpose of the school have nothing to do with each other.
"This is a school. Whatever our policies, we should look at this as simply a school," said Nail Al-Jubeir, the deputy director of information with the embassy.
"It's just a school with a really great reputation," agreed Robert Gordon, a lawyer representing the school in a zoning application to the Loudoun County, Va., board of supervisors. "It's very difficult to find anything wrong with this application."
The Islamic Saudi Academy, now located in Mount Vernon, Va., a suburb of Washington, was built 14 years ago to educate the children of Saudi diplomats and those with official business in the United States.
Half the 1,300 students are U.S. citizens, 40 percent are Saudi citizens, and the rest are citizens of 28 other countries. Many of the U.S. students attend the school because they want to observe Islamic religious traditions, said Michael Kauffman, the school's business manager.
Boys and girls attend classes separately. Some classes are taught in Arabic.
"The school has none of the problems of public schools," Mr. Al-Jubeir said. "There have been no incidents of drugs, violence, or pregnancy, and last year 100 percent of its graduates went on to college."
The academy has more than 1,000 students on a waiting list. The Saudi government has budgeted $50 million to build a new campus that could accommodate 3,500 students.
In 1994, the school sought out the town of Poolesville, Md., in a rural area of the Washington suburbs, to build a 1 million-square-foot complex on 525 acres. A year later, residents rejected the plan, forcing school officials to look for a new site. ("Small Town Wary of Islamic School's Big Plans," Nov. 30, 1994.)
Much of the debate in Poolesville concerned how the school's construction and operation would affect the town's inadequate water and sewage systems.
But Paul E. Kuhlman, a town commissioner at the time, said xenophobia also was a factor.
"The opposition was mostly bigotry," he said.
Land-use issues and charges of bigotry are also clouding the school's plans in Loudoun County, a fast-growing outer suburb of the nation's capital.
The Islamic Saudi Academy wants to build on land zoned for light industrial and office use. A school is a permitted use under county zoning law, but it requires a special exception from the nine-member board of supervisors to gain tax-exempt status.
Joan Rokus, a Republican from the town of Leesburg who is the vice chairwoman of the board, expects the application to pass. A vote was scheduled for March 4.
"We cannot overlook sentiment," Ms. Rokus said. But she added that supervisors would base their vote on land-use issues.
Some residents feel that commercial space should be used by a business that would add to the county's tax revenues.
Mr. Al-Jubeir said the school would be a major asset to the county. Faculty members, parents, and students would likely use facilities in the area and move into local neighborhoods, bringing money to the economy.
Ms. Rokus, who has been on the board of supervisors for six years, said she cannot remember another case in which residents opposed a project because of its tax status.
"This has been a nasty application, very divisive," she said.
At an emotional public hearing before the board last month, some residents said they were embarrassed by the anti-Saudi rhetoric, according to local news accounts.
"I live in Bigotsville, formerly Ashburn," resident Ray Chamberlain was quoted by The Washington Post as saying.
Mr. Ahlemann, whose church membership includes 1,500 families, said in an interview last week that his position has been misrepresented.
"I certainly am not a bigot," he said. "My congregation is comprised of every shade and color."
Mr. Ahlemann's church was built on land zoned for commercial use and received a special exception from the county board. It is the same exception that the Islamic Saudi Academy now seeks.
"I expect the approval [of the school]," Mr. Ahlemann said. "I have from the very beginning. I felt like a voice needed to be heard to oppose the horrific acts of that government."