Summer 1998, Vol. 1, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 1


Quick Links

to other articles
in this issue:
Promise Keepers

Religion and the Post-Welfare State

Charitable Choice

McCaughey Babies

The Pope in Cuba

Patriarch's Visist

Religion in a Cold Climate

Clinton Scandal


Islam in Virginia: More Tolerant than Thou
by Christian Jacobson

When the Board of Super-visors of Loudoun County, Virginia, approved the Saudi Arabian government’s proposal to build an Islamic school last spring, it quickly ended a zoning dispute that the national news media had seized upon to demonstrate their commitment to religious tolerance and freedom at the height of last winter’s war scare over Iraq.

The Saudi Islamic Academy, established 14 years ago to school Saudi nationals in the United States, has a student body of 1,200-about half of them U.S. citizens-who are taught Arabic and Islamic studies in addition to Virginia’s certified curriculum. Having outgrown its current facility in Fairfax County, the Academy tried unsuccessfully to relocate to Montgomery County, Maryland, then shifted its efforts to a 100-acre site in Ashburn, Virginia that had been zoned for commercial use. School planners had anticipated some resistance, and early debates-covered by the local media-focused on issues of zoning use, traffic, and the tax revenue that would be lost as a result of the school’s tax-exempt status. Then, as tensions in the Persian Gulf increased, an anonymous flyer circulated among Loudoun residents, warning that the school would attract "Muslim and Arab terrorists" and bring "thousands of Middle Eastern strangers roaming our streets." A February 15 article in the Richmond Times Dispatch reported that the flyer "forced to the surface an unsettling undercurrent of fear about the proposal, escalating a mildly interesting land-use struggle into a tale rife with international overtones and charges of bigotry."

On February 16, ABC News reported the story immediately following its top-of-the-news wrap-up of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s embassy to Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein: "In times of crisis in the Middle East or the Persian Gulf, the Muslim community in this country comes under increased, and often unwarranted scrutiny. And passions are running particularly high right now in a Northern Virginia community over something as seemingly innocent as a school."

Supporters saw the school as a boost to the local economy and a much needed celebration of diversity in the fast growing but still mostly white community. Along with the anonymous flyer, Reverend James Ahlemann of the Christian Fellowship Church became the most quoted source on the other side. Figuring prominently in reporting by CNN, National Public Radio, and USA Today, Ahlemann grounded his opposition to the school on Saudi Arabia’s poor human-rights record and its intolerance of non-Sunni Muslims. Against his criticisms of the Saudi government, the reportage cited a 1997 State Department report on human rights, which, as USA Today put it, "says that though the Saudi government does not permit public non-Muslim religious activities, the government does allow private worship of other faiths." According to the media, the true religious bigots were the school’s opponents, not the Saudi Arabians. A March 3 editorial in the Roanoke Times & World News urged Americans to "unlink the words ‘Islam’ and ‘terror’ or risk destroying one of this country’s basic freedoms: the freedom of every citizen to practice the religion of one’s choice." The right to establish an Islamic school is afforded, the coverage emphasized, by the same religious freedoms that allow parochial Catholic and Jewish schools to be established.

Fears of Islamic terrorism and a Saudi invasion of Loudoun County pointed to the issue that David Finkel, writing in the Washington Post Magazine, contended was "Ashburn itself, which like so many American suburbs these days, is trying to figure out how much diversity it can tolerate." The Wall Street Journal’s Tony Horwitz similarly declared, "The enemy here isn’t Iraq, and the battleground isn’t the Arabian desert-it’s the fate of a sod farm down the road," the debate over which "reveals...the breadth of American notions of tolerance."

The fact that there was actually little opposition to bringing the Saudi Islamic Academy to Loudoun County did not matter. As images of the crisis in Iraq bombarded the evening news and daily papers, the news media, anxious to emphasize their own lack of anti-Muslim bigotry seized upon the zoning dispute to hammer home the message that religious intolerance was un-American and jeopardized the principle of religious freedom upon which the United States was founded.

Throughout the dispute, most of the Loudoun County supervisors considered the vote a mere formality, and on March 4 they approved the school’s zoning exemption seven to two.

Christian Jacobson, member of Trinity College's Class of 1998, was editorial assistant for Religion in the News, and has studied Islam as a religion major at Trinity.