x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Saudi textbooks enter political fray

Textbooks used by the Islamic Saudi Academy in Virginia have become a campaign issue in a congressional election.

Christine Brim protests against textbooks being used by the Islamic Saudi Academy, located in Alexandria, Virginia. The books include a passage that says apostates - those who leave Islam - and adulterers may be permissibly killed under Islamic law.
Christine Brim protests against textbooks being used by the Islamic Saudi Academy, located in Alexandria, Virginia. The books include a passage that says apostates - those who leave Islam - and adulterers may be permissibly killed under Islamic law.

Saudi Arabia is becoming a campaign issue in the congressional election in Virginia's 11th District - and it is not about oil. At issue is whether textbooks used by Virginia's Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA) teach "religious intolerance". The ISA, founded in 1984, has more than 1,000 students. Because the land on which the school's campuses are located is leased by the local county government to the ISA, the county board of supervisors has been under some pressure not to renew the lease as a way of forcing the school out of northern Virginia.

This is a side issue, to be sure, but it may become an important one in a race that will be hotly contested both because the incumbent is not running and because there is a chance that the seat could switch from Republican to Democratic control. And so, it was not surprising when the Republican in the race seized upon this issue. He is making an effort to use it against his Democratic opponent who, as county supervisor, supported the ISA's lease.

The primary mover behind the attacks on the ISA is the US Commission on Interreligious Freedom (USCRIF) - a neocon creation, strongly biased against Islam. Not content with pressuring the local government, the USCRIF has also called for the US state department to regulate the academy's textbooks under the Foreign Missions Act. To date, the state department has said it is unsure whether the Foreign Missions Act applies and that, in any case, assurances have been given by ISA officials that the offensive materials will be out of the textbooks by this fall.

Oh, by the way, "Saudi Oil" will still be used as an issue, even where it makes no sense. Lee Terry, a Repulican congressman from Nebraska, recently sent out a mailing touting a plan to increase domestic oil production and expand alternative fuel technologies. All well and good, except the cover of the mailer shows a picture of the Saudi delegation at the Opec summit of November 2007 with the slogan "We won't have to beg them ever again for oil".

The great irony in this particular photo choice was that the November summit, convened to discuss the effect of the oil industry on the environment, was dominated by a charge led by Iran and Venezuela to change all their currency reserves to something other than the depreciating dollar. While Mr Terry sought to portray Saudi Arabia the enemy of the United States on oil, the fact is that at this meeting Saudi Arabia, in fighting to keep Opec currency reserves in dollars, substantially helped maintain the value of the dollar at the expense of its own economy. One might have thought that Mr Terry, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, would have known better - but then, he is only a member of the US Congress.

Want more evidence why the most recent Zogby International poll shows the public approval rating for the US Congress down to 14 per cent (with 83 per cent disapproval)? A review of some recent activity makes it all clear.

In January, the Department of Homeland Security issued a thoughtful memo, "Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims". The memo defined Islamic terms and noted that misusing them was both hurtful to Muslims and could do damage to much-needed efforts at dialogue. Along comes the "crusader" (and I use the term judiciously), Peter Hoekstra, a Republican congressman from Michigan, with an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization bill designed to "bar the use of funds to prohibit the use of the words or phrases 'jihadist', 'jihad', 'Islamo-fascism', 'caliphate', 'Islamist', or 'Islamic terrorist' by ? the Federal Government." The amendment passed 248-180, striking a blow for freedom of speech or dumbness (take your pick).

Also this month, the US Congress passed the State Department Authorization bill, which provides not only the funds for its operation but also all of the various US foreign aid programmes. As in every year since the Oslo Accords, the bill places a number of conditions on any aid to the Palestinians, some burdensome and some downright bizarre.

Take Section 647, which, according to a summary provided by Americans for Peace Now, stipulates that "no funds appropriated in this Act may be used to create any US government office in Jerusalem to conduct business with the Palestinian Authority or any successor to the Palestinian Authority. The section also states that "meetings between US officials and PA officials should take place in location other than Jerusalem".

A poll recently conducted by Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications for J Street, the new pro-peace, pro-Israel lobbying group, demonstrates just how balanced American Jewish opinion is on a wide variety of Middle East issues, despite the efforts of more hardline elements of the pro-Israel lobby. For example, a majority of American Jews consider Israeli settlement activity "a real obstacle to peace"; believe Israeli military actions that target terrorists but kill civilians "create more terrorism"; believe that the country of Israel should negotiate even with its worst enemies; and that the country of Israel should withdraw from the Golan Heights, and "most of the West Bank and dismantle settlements" in exchange for full peace.

More than 80 per cent of American Jews would support the United States government "exerting pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians to make compromises necessary for peace". @Email:jzogby@thenational.ae