Virginia's Islamic Academy on Shaky Legal Ground
An investigation by Pajamas Media has found that more trouble may be on the horizon for the Islamic Saudi Academy and the Saudi Embassy.
PJM first reported on the academy --a school sponsored by the Saudi Embassy-- two weeks ago, when law enforcement authorities raided it looking for evidence that the school's director, Abdullah Al-Shabnan, had covered up sex abuse allegations by a 5-year old student. The raid occurred just three days after the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors had renewed the school's lease despite evidence that the school continued to use textbooks promoting violence and religious hatred.
Since then Abdullah Al-Shabnan has been charged with failing to report the child abuse allegations and obstruction of justice. A protest was held last week in front of the academy and it received considerable local media coverage, including from the Washington Post. That coverage no doubt played a role earlier this week when in a stunning about-face the Fairfax Board of Supervisors sent a letter to the State Department asking them to determine whether the lease should be renewed or not in light of the report earlier this month by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that reviewed the academy's textbooks and found that incendiary and hateful passages had not been removed.
The school has issued a press release claiming that the passages have been "mistranslated and misinterpreted," and saying that the "textbooks are no longer at use at the Academy." That contradicts statements made last week by school officials to the media that textbooks will be rewritten and reissued before the beginning of school. Why would the textbooks need to be rewritten if those under scrutiny are no longer in use?
The textbooks are not the only elements of the school that don't hold up under scrutiny.
Virtually all of the establishment media press reports have wrongly claimed that the school operates independently of the embassy as a private entity. Even Tom Casey, the State Department's deputy spokesman, made this error during his June 24 daily press briefing:
QUESTION: I understand that you've received a letter from the -- from Fairfax County asking you whether you could give an opinion on the lease of the Saudi school in Alexandria and whether the county should extend that lease, which I am told it's worth $2.2 million a year. But -- just, I mean, do you expect to pronounce yourselves on that? Is that something that you --
MR. CASEY: Well, I think it's something we've just gotten. We'll certainly take a look at it and see what kind of response would be appropriate, but I -- you know, it's not something we've had a chance to really look through. As you know, this is a school that is incorporated and overseen through the county there. It's not an institution that we have any sort of formal role in accrediting or managing. But certainly, we'll take a look at the letter and if there's some thoughts or advice that we can offer, we'll certainly do it.
And State Department spokesman Nichole Thompson has also said:
This is a private school. It is not a part of the Saudi embassy. It is not part of a diplomatic mission.
These claims by State Department officials make clear their position that the Islamic Saudi Academy has maintained a separate corporate identity from the Saudi Embassy. But a review of the corporate records on file with the Virginia State Corporation Commission finds that the Islamic Saudi Academy’s corporate charter was terminated by the state on December 27, 2004. There is no indication from state records that the incorporation has been revived or renewed, and the last corporate report the school has filed with the state of Virginia that we could find was 2004 -- the same year its corporate charter was terminated. A check of corporations in neighboring District of Columbia and Maryland found nothing for the academy.
And statements made about the school’s alleged independence from the Saudi Embassy also appear to be unfounded. When USCIRF reviewed the academy's corporate documents, it found that the school was using the Federal Employee Identification Number (EIN) of the "Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia." And in its October 2007 report, USCIRF made the following observations regarding the relationship between the Islamic Saudi Academy and the Saudi Embassy:
- It is the only school in the United States that is operated with the direct authority of the Saudi embassy. Twenty such academies are operated by the government of Saudi Arabia in foreign capital cities around the world.
- It operates on two northern Virginia properties owned or leased by the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, with the leased property being leased by "the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia d/b/a (doing business as) the Islamic Saudi Academy."
- The Saudi ambassador to the United States is the chairman of the school's board of directors, which, according to the Academy's web site, "oversees the educational and administrative operation" and "provides direction and guidance to every aspect of" the school's operations.
- The school is funded by the government of Saudi Arabia.
- On numerous occasions, Saudi Embassy officials have spoken to the press on the ISA's behalf-including in response to inquiries about its curriculum.
- According to the Academy's brochure, posted on its own web site, the ISA uses Saudi government "curriculum, syllabus, and materials."
As the academy has forfeited its Virginia incorporation and is now operating as a d/b/a of the embassy, and considering that the school is funded by the embassy, operates on property owned and leased by the embassy, the embassy speaks publicly on its behalf, and it uses Saudi government curriculum, it seems impossible to conclude anything but that it is solely an entity of the Saudi government controlled entirely by the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC -- a position directly in opposition to the present claims of the State Department.
Our investigation also found that at no time has the Islamic Saudi Academy ever filed an IRS Form 990, which is required of every tax exempt organization, including private schools. And according to IRS Publication 78, at no time has the school ever requested or received a tax exemption letter from the IRS. Nor, apparently, has it ever filed corporate taxes with the US government as would be required if it were an entity independent from the Saudi embassy, as it has no recognized tax exemption. Because of privacy laws, detailed information about any possible IRS Form 1120 or Virginia Tax Form 500 filings for the school are limited and could only be obtained through a congressional or other official governmental inquiry.
If the school was a separate corporation as State Department officials have repeatedly claimed, it would have to have an active corporate charter (which it doesn’t appear to have since December 2004), and it would either have to file IRS Form 990s if it were operating as a tax exempt organization, or file tax returns if it were operating for-profit. That has not happened in either case according to our investigation. Rather, all evidence indicates that the Saudi Embassy is in full corporate control of the school, and it is operating entirely under its agency, which makes the school subject to the Foreign Missions Act and under the authority of the State Department. If it isn’t part of the Saudi Embassy, it seems that the academy is operating illegally.
This new evidence doesn’t give much leeway to the State Department to shirk the matter. However, it is understandable why State Department officials are eager to take a pass on this diplomatic and public relations conundrum. But there is no indication that the controversy surrounding the Islamic Saudi Academy is going to subside anytime soon.
As Congressional Quarterly observed in an article on Wednesday, the Islamic Saudi Academy has now become a campaign issue for the chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, Gerry Connolly, who is running as the Democratic Party candidate for Virginia's 11th Congressional District, where the school is located. The National Republican Campaign Committee issued a press release this week accusing Connolly of flip-flopping on the issue of the school: he had publicly charged opponents of the academy's lease renewal of "slander" for continuing to raise questions about the school's curriculum. Later, he and his colleagues admitted in a letter to the State Department that they were not qualified to judge the matter.
Connolly's Republican challenger, Keith Fimian, has criticized Connolly on the issue, telling CQ that the criticisms of the academy's texts were well-known and should have been taken into consideration before renewing the school's lease.
That same CQ article also quotes Rep. Frank Wolf, ranking member of the House State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, calling for a congressional investigation into the matter. According to a follow-up CQ article published on Thursday, Wolf has sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging State to do a complete translation of the school’s textbooks. In a blunt assessment, Wolf appears to have handwritten on the letter to Rice, “The State Department is not doing its duty."
One issue that the committee may want to look into is the alleged report prepared by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approving the school's textbooks. While such a report was repeatedly invoked in the Board's renewal of the school's lease, the Board's own spokesman, Merni Fitzgerald, told the Washington Times this week that no written report was ever issued and that the review was conducted by "a Fairfax County employee familiar with Arabic." As CQ observes:
The board conducted its own study of the textbooks last year at the request of Supervisor Gerald Hyland, whose district encompasses the academy, according to the Associated Press.
Although Hyland and the county did not release the results of what they had found, Hyland said at the meeting in which the vote was taken that, "I would be less than frank if I didn't tell you that the curriculum does contain references to the Quran, which, if taken out of context and read literally, would cause some concern."
If the report was not written, on what basis did Supervisor Hyland and others make their statements?
The Islamic Saudi Academy controversy has also gone international, with Al-Jazeera wading into the fray with a June 17 video report (translated by MEMRI), claiming that opposition to the school is being led by congressmen "known for their great hostility towards Arabs and Muslims" and charging the school's critics of violations of religious freedom -- a particularly hypocritical charge, as the Saudi Kingdom enforces a draconian policy of religious apartheid prohibiting any religious expression except Islam in its borders and bans under the penalty of death anyone but Muslims from entering or even approaching the cities of Medina and Mecca.
Meanwhile, despite its protests that its texts are being "mistranslated and misinterpreted" by the USCIRF, the Islamic Saudi Academy and the State Department continue to refuse to turn over the school's textbooks to the commission (the USCIRF had independently obtained copies of the texts for its recent report). It would seem that many questions could be resolved by providing such. That, however, doesn't seem likely at the moment, and it might take a congressional investigation for the commission to accomplish.
In response to the Fairfax Board of Supervisors passing the issue off to the State Department, Wednesday's Washington Times article appears to signal that State is attempting to distance itself from the issue, claiming a lack of authority. But the information regarding the school's loss of its corporate charter and its operation as an arm of the Saudi Embassy clearly points to the fact that the school falls under the Foreign Missions Act -- and thus is an issue that the State Department cannot escape responsibility for and must act on.