The Saudi Grants to Harvard and Georgetown

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Nidra Poller is a writer and translator. She is a member of the Board of Directors of SPME

Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud has endowed two American universities, Harvard and Georgetown, with grants of $20 million each for the ostensibly laudable purpose of funding Islamic studies and Muslim-Christian understanding. In return, the universities have granted invaluable prestige to Prince Alwaleed, whose name will be attached to an endowed chair at Harvard and to the expanded Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown. Long after the funds have been exhausted, the name of Prince Alwaleed will be inextricably associated with the history and tradition of these prestigious universities. We do not believe that such an association is compatible with academic values in a democratic society.

Whether or not the prince exerts direct control over the use of his donation by influencing criteria for hiring and the nature of research conducted in these endowed Centers, Harvard and Georgetown have established a dangerous precedent by accepting funding from a benefactor whose clearly stated motives are inconsistent with the values of academic freedom and academic integrity.

Prince Alwaleed has declared his intention to restore the good image of Islam which, he claims, has been „tarnished” since 9/11. Further, he has promised to achieve this goal through grants to think tanks, foundations, and universities. How can universities dedicated to the unfettered search for truth conceivably guarantee that the Centers endowed by the prince will freely and critically investigate the sources and causes of conflict between Islam and Others, when the Prince has explicitly predetermined the outcome of this research?

In October 2001, then New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani returned a ten million dollar check offered to the Twin Towers Fund by Prince Alwaleed. The reasons for Mayor Giuliani’s refusal are still valid: the donation was coupled with a public statement implicitly blaming U. S. policy for the brutal extermination of 3,000 civilians on American soil. Prince Alwaleed enjoined the administration to „address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack.” And, it might be added, he offered no clues to an eventual „American” understanding of the participation of 15 Saudi subjects in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

John Esposito, director of the endowed Center, was recently challenged to comment on his benefactor’s interpretation of the underlying causes of 9/11, in the context of Prince Alwaleed’s gift to Georgetown University. Professor Esposito defended the prince’s right to express his opinion, and explained: “He was trying to give people the context in which this occurred.” We fear that this method of giving the “context” or, more precisely, the “cause” of terrorist attacks against Americans will be largely explored at the Center.

In April 2002, Prince Alwaleed organized a telethon and raised $100 million for the Palestinian Fund in support of the “Al-Quds intifada.” Prince Alwaleed personally donated $27 million to the fund, which finances the families of Palestinian martyrs (or shahids). Will Islamic Studies programs at Harvard and Georgetown help students understand how the wholesale murder of American or Israeli citizens can be justified as acts of resistance?

In apparent support of such principles, Georgetown University will host a conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM is the American branch of the Palestinian ISM) in February 2006. By contrast, an anti-terrorism conference planned at the Georgetown University Marriott Hotel earlier this year was cancelled on the grounds that it would provoke mass protest from Muslim students and create a security problem for the university. PSM/ISM conference organizers, who systematically justify the murder of Israeli citizens as „resistance,” have announced their intention to promote a boycott of the „apartheid state” of Israel at the Georgetown conference.

What, then, will be the possibilities for faculty and students at the Prince Alwaleed-endowed Islamic Studies Centers to pursue Muslim-Christian understanding with their counterparts in “non-apartheid” Saudi Arabia, where Jews must not set foot, Christians dare not own Bibles, homosexuality is punishable by death, and female scholars will be draped in abaya and forbidden to circulate without male escort?

If academic freedom at Harvard and Georgetown is a one-way street, what is to be said about the status of universities in Saudi Arabia? As a member of the ruling House of Saud, Prince Alwaleed bears some responsibility for the conditions of his subjects and their institutes of higher learning. In the words of Dr. Faisal Sanai of the Saudi Armed Forces Hospital (Arab News December 20, 2005): „While Saudi Arabia can claim to be one of the most charitable nations of the world, it is sadly lacking in this equally important national responsibility. Philanthropy begins at home, and towards this an awareness campaign needs to be fostered in order to reclaim this responsibility”. Science’s role in society needs to be continually elucidated, not just in the media but, also in educational establishments and civic institutions. Resources should be mobilized in order to erect the appropriate scientific infrastructure.

In an apparent gesture of reciprocity, the prince has announced his intention to further understanding of American society by donating $15 million dollars each to the American Universities of Beirut and Cairo. Another laudable intention. Has he then publicly dissociated himself from the resounding words of Saudi-government Sheikh Saad al-Buraik, pronounced during live coverage of the telethon organized by Prince Alwaleed in „Support of the Al Quds Intifada?”

„I am against America until this life ends, until the Day of Judgment, I am against America even if the stone liquefies. She is the root of all evils Muslim Brothers in Palestine, do not have any mercy, neither compassion on the Jews, their blood, their money, their flesh. Their women are yours to take, legitimately. God made them yours. Why don’t you enslave their women? Why don’t you wage jihad?

Why don’t you pillage them?”

Before conferring on Prince Alwaleed the great honor of an endowed chair at Harvard and an endowed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown, we would have expected administrators to ask themselves whether these gifts were genuinely intended to foster greater understanding of Islam’s precepts and policies throughout the ages, as well as the nature of the conflicts that torment the Middle East or, rather, to allow the benefactor to burnish his credentials so as to associate the prestige of Harvard and Georgetown with future apologia for attacks against American civilians.

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East is an international organization of nearly 725 faculty members from over 200 colleges and universities, committed to academic freedom, academic integrity, and peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. We believe that academic institutions can promote peaceful resolution of conflict through teaching and scholarship pursued with scrupulous respect for academic integrity. However, when universities become sounding boards for deeply prejudiced third parties, the search for truth is jeopardized and the honor of faculty and students is compromised.

The Saudi Grants to Harvard and Georgetown

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Nidra Poller

Author, Paris, France



  • The Middle East conflict as seen from Europe and particularly France:
  • French policy
  • media coverage
  • public opinion
  • Jewish community reaction






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