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A private school in Northern Virginia's Fairfax County wants to expand to serve more students and it needs the county's approval, not a big deal - usually. But this school is Islamic and funded by the government of Saudi Arabia. So what began as a local land-use issue has grown into a broader discussion of the school, its teachings and the relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in this country.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay has the story.

JAMIE TARABAY: This story begins last summer, and to hear Pat Herrity tell it, this is a story about traffic.

Mr. PAT HERRITY (Supervisor, Springfield District): You can't drive Popes Head Road. You can't look at Pope's Head Road. I couldn't imagine putting another car per six seconds on the Popes Head Road.

TARABAY: We're standing at the front of the driveway with a white picket gate. Beyond the driveway, up a hill, past the security guard, shaded by tall trees is the ISA, the Islamic Saudi Academy.

In August, the county's Board of Supervisors approved the academy's bid to expand its campus and double the number of students who come here, to about 500. This gate is the only entry and exit point.

Mr. HERRITY: They say they want them to use this exit up here, come down this way, but they have to make a left-hand turn into here. Guess which way the commuters are coming in the morning?

TARABAY: Herrity is the supervisor for the Springfield District. He voted against the bid. This is his area. He graduated from a local high school, and the people who live here are his constituents.

As we're talking, Beth Parker, who's lived next door for 33 years, is driving by. But she pulls over when she spots Herrity. She complains that since the academy got its approval, no one's cut the grass.

Ms. BETH PARKER: Look at the maintenance of the place. I cannot tell you what we've gone through ever since they've owned it to try to get them to maintain the fence to where it's relevant to the neighborhood, keeping the land mowed and neat looking. And they did it all during this process and once they got it, you can see what it looks like now.

TARABAY: She's mad that politics got in the way of what she says is strictly a land use issue. But scratch the surface and it becomes very clear very quickly that this is about more than traffic.

Mr. JOHN COSGROVE: Wahhabist Sharia compliant institution...

TARABAY: This is what happened when the board met to discuss the academy's application. People lined up for hours to speak at public hearings.

Mr. COSGROVE: And what are the results of the health department's action item from the last planning commission about an assessment in the septic system?

TARABAY: That's John Cosgrove who began his speaking time asking about the septic system at the campus. He ended it with this.

Mr. COSGROVE: 'Cause I submit no Catholic textbook has anything near the venom and demonstrated incitement to murder as these Islamic Saudi textbooks. Rather than rushing to congratulate them for what they've removed, why don't we ask them the fundamental question of what was it doing there for 20 years in the first place?

Unidentified Woman: Thank you, Mr. Cosgrove.

(Soundbite of applause)

TARABAY: This went on for hours, people first bringing up traffic issues, then invariably turning the talk towards religion. People traveled from other states to speak. Conservative Christian groups got involved - and to put the people who send their kids to the school on the defensive. People like Rezan Fayez, whose seven-year-old son goes there.

Ms. REZAN FAYEZ: He can speak, read and write Arabic almost as well as he can English. He's learning Islamic studies, understanding of respect between Muslims and non-Muslims. If we were breeding terrorists, if there was any little tinge of truth to anything that these people have been saying before, you would be hearing about it because of the students.

TARABAY: Iman Kandeel, a former ISA student and MIT graduate also spoke up.

Ms. IMAN KANDEEL: In addition to the strong background in math and science that I got at ISA, the greatest lessons that I've learned at ISA are those of community service and giving back. We are not taught to enforce Shariah law. We are not taught to destroy the Constitution.

TARABAY: But there are issues. A former valedictorian is serving a life sentence, convicted of plotting to assassinate President Bush. A former principal was arrested because instead of reporting a complaint from one of his students about sexual abuse at home, he deleted the report and returned the child to her father. And there are the textbooks.

Mr. ALI AHMED (Gulf Institute): These are ideological materials and that are indoctrinating young students in hatred.

TARABAY: Ali Ahmed, a Saudi dissident works for the Gulf Institute. He's been studying the ISA's curriculum for nearly 10 years. He flips through one of the Islamic studies textbooks.

Mr. AHMED: This is 10th grade. If you are not a believer in their interpretation of the religion, you are not protected. Your blood, your honor, your property is up for grabs and that explains the suicide bombing a lot. Because how do you convince somebody to walk into a crowded market and blow themselves up? Because these people, their life worth is zero.

TARABAY: In 2007, a bipartisan federal commission on international religious freedom called for the school to be shut while the government examined its textbooks. It was concerned the school promoted religious intolerance and violence against people who aren't Muslim. The school responded by erasing paragraphs from textbooks.

The ISA had initially agreed to let NPR visit its campus, but cancelled at the last minute. An email said the school administrators were tired of all the media coverage and didn't want any more, especially since they got the approval to expand.

So, for now, the controversy continues and so does the pressure on local politicians. Michael Frey is on the Board of Supervisors. He voted yes and says he still cops heat for that. One man came up to him at a local supermarket on a Sunday morning after Frey had taken his dog for a walk.

Mr. MICHAEL FREY (Supervisor, Sully District): He said I can't believe that you voted that way and you call yourself a conservative. He tried to get a little aggressive. And I said, first of all, let me just say I don't believe that anybody who wants local government to be reading texts and making decisions on schools based on what they teach is a conservative. I said, to me that is one of the biggest intrusions you could possibly imagine.

TARABAY: The State Department agrees. Conservative Christian groups who've lobbied for the school to be closed say because it's funded by the Saudi government, the State Department should intervene. But the State Department says it's a private school, not a foreign mission and it has no role in accrediting or managing the ISA.

Frey points out that two Christian schools also filed applications to expand last year. No one questioned their textbooks.

Mr. FREY: How do I know that this Christian school isn't teaching hatred against non-Christians? I said, I didn't read their texts, but if you want me to start to base land-use decisions on those - terribly, terribly slippery slope.

TARABAY: For now, Fairfax County's waiting for the school to submit its site plans. Before expansion can even begin at the academy, the county will have to install left and right turns into the driveway from Popes Head Road, so that two-lane, winding country road will get a little wider.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.

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