Va. county enrages foes, OKs move for Saudi school Furor over its relocation to D.C. suburb sparks accusations of bigotry

March 06, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After a wrenching debate that stirred accusations of bigotry and xenophobia, an Islamic academy won approval this week to relocate and expand to a sprawling new campus in the Northern Virginia suburb of Ashburn.

But even with this victory, the school remains under attack by residents seeking to have the matter put to a county referendum. They also are threatening to circulate a petition to begin recall proceedings against seven of the nine Loudon County supervisors who voted in favor of the school.

The Islamic Saudi Academy won a zoning exemption Wednesday that enables it to more than double its size and relocate to Ashburn from Alexandria, Va.

With 3,500 students, it will be the country's largest Islamic academy and the only one financed by the Saudi Arabian government.

During debate, some residents received anonymous fliers warning that the school would invite "foreigners from Muslim terrorist countries" and fill Ashburn with "Middle Eastern strangers roaming the streets."

Mainstream opponents faulted the Saudi government's human-rights record and argued that the school was a potential target for terrorist attacks. And others complained that the tax-exempt school would cost the county too much money and would attract excessive traffic.

Supporters argued that the school is constitutionally allowed to exist and was a victim of prejudice against Middle Easterners. They accused their opponents of thinly veiled racism.

Now the community is trying to heal after nearly four months of bruising debate.

"Because the Saudi government was attached to it, all this anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment was allowed to spew out," said resident Carol Chahine. "It was very upsetting."

A group called Concerned for Loudon's Future still wants to block the school, using the referendum process. "We consider this a boycott of the Saudi government because of their terrible human rights record, especially against U.S. citizens," said Sandra Elam, one of the group's 100 members.

Supervisor Helen A. Marcum said the county is now left with a black eye.

"The county kind of got a bad rap," said Marcum, adding that she voted against the school for land-use reasons. "It was neighbor against neighbor and church against church."

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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