In 2005, Saudi prince Alwaleed Bin Talal donated $20 million dollars each to Harvard and Georgetown Universities. In the years since, Georgetown has earned considerably more press for its use of the prince's largesse, through which it renamed an extant center founded in 1993 as the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU). This is due in no small part to the efforts of the center's director, John Louis Esposito, America's foremost apologist for ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam. The result of the Saudi-Esposito lash-up has been the emergence of ACMCU as an academic institution that promotes vigorously the "Palestinian narrative" and hostility to Israel.
Harvard's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program has developed at a much slower pace, and as a result, it has received considerably less media attention. Its director, Ali Asani, is an Indian Muslim from Kenya. As described on its website, the Harvard product of Alwaleed's philanthropy "funds four new professorships promoting scholarship and teaching about contemporary Islamic life and thought and Islam beyond the Middle East." Yet only one chair had been filled as of the end of 2011, with Malika Zeghal, who was trained in France, serving as Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal professor in contemporary Islamic thought/life since 2009.
Zeghal is formally affiliated with Harvard's Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies. She was, to say the least, unprepared for the rise of Islamist politics in the Arab states over the past year. In a Harvard event in February 2011, she downplayed the role of radical movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab upheavals, stating, in the words of the Harvard Crimson:
That the unrest should be seen as a nationalist revolution, rather than as a religious one like the 1979 Iranian Revolution. ... "If the Islamists come back -- and they have started to come back -- they will have to participate in a democratic transition as any other movement," Zeghal said.
Unfortunately, she was wrong: Islamists have used the Arab uprisings of 2010-11 for a power-grab, disregarding a "democratic transition."
Harvard also runs a Center for Middle East Studies (CMES), which includes an Outreach Center directed by one Paul Beran. The Outreach Center has been "awarded National Resource Center status by the US Department of Education's Title VI program and serves educators, students and the general public on topics related to the Middle East region."
Beran, who received his doctorate in international studies at Northeastern University in Boston, teaches "'Introduction to the Conflict in Israel and the Occupied Territories' (GOVT E 1960/W) and 'Introduction to Middle East Politics' (GOVT E 1970/W) at the Harvard University Extension School, and directs the Egypt Forum, a program of training for K-12 educators on Middle East region studies and Egypt." He is also a member of the "Global Education Advisory Council for the Elementary and Secondary Education Department of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," through which he influences the treatment of Middle East issues in the state's public schools.
A Presbyterian, Beran has been prominent in agitation for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel within that Christian denomination. In a December 11, 2005 speech to a "Teach-In And Organizing Conference" at Harvard on "Israel/Palestine: Where Do We Go From Here?," Beran declared:
Until now, those who acted as if 'Israel is always right' enjoyed a near monopoly over U.S. attitudes. Calls for divestment, however, have the potential to become the Achilles heel for pro-Israel perceptions in the U.S. ... [A]n angle with which to view such campaigns is that they carry the potential to be effective tools for waging a non-violent guerilla struggle [against Israel]. ... The first step for divestment campaigns is to have a broad base of cross-community support on which to fall back when the Zionist backlash against the campaigns commences. ... [C]ampaigns for divestment must be ready to fight.
On the same occasion, Beran referred contemptuously to the Anti-Defamation League, a leading American Jewish civil rights organization, as "that modicum of high browed Zionism."
Through the CMES Outreach Program Beran has mimicked ACMCU, the Harvard Islamic Studies Program, and other academic facilities in the West by embracing uncritically the claims of democratization in the Arab turmoil beginning in 2010, while continuing to focus negatively on Israel and its policies. Its roster of "Teaching Resources" proclaims breathlessly that teachers may "[e]xplore the Arab Transformation through Outreach Center presentations, lesson plans and teaching resources, articles, videos, artifacts and more!"
But the CMES Outreach Program inventory of broader "resources" includes material that is both objectionable and absurdly trivializing in its approach to Middle East issues.
For example, it offers as an item in its "Library Highlights Catalogue" the 2001 Iranian-made film Kandahar, directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, in which David Belfield, alias Dawud Salahuddin, Hassan Tantai (in his film credit), and Hassan Abdulrahman, is a star. Problem: Belfield, an African-American Muslim, confessed in an interview with ABC News 20/20 broadcast in 1996, and reaffirmed in a 2005 New Yorker profile and a New York Times interview in 2009, that he had assassinated Ali Akbar Tabatabai. A former employee of the Iranian Embassy in Washington under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Tabatabai was slain on his doorstep in Bethesda, Md., in 1980. Belfield committed the act as a paid mercenary of the new Iranian regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and he remains a fugitive from American justice.
CMES also commemorates the 2007 "Boston Palestine Film Festival" at the Harvard Law School, which screened "USA v. Al-Arian," a documentary supporting Sami Al-Arian, who pled guilty to conspiracy to provide services to the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and "Occupation 101," by Sufyan and Abdallah Omeish. The latter, we are told, "details life under Israeli military rule, the US role in the conflict, and the major obstacles to a viable peace." Other films at the event attacked Israel's security wall and alleged Israeli abuse of water resources.
The CMES Program's "Teaching Resources" are clearly aimed at young people, with such items as "Teaching About the Middle East Through Comics and Graphic Novels," "Teaching About the Middle East Through Hip-Hop" -- i.e., "rap music" -- and "Graffiti, Street Art, and Political Protest."
Under the rubric of "Curriculum Guides, Publications, and Fact Sheets," the program offers a list of "Young-Adult Literature on Israel Palestine," all "available from the Outreach Center." Of the six books included therein, four explicitly justify Palestinian violence against Israel, beginning with the unambiguously-titled A Stone in My Hand, by Cathryn Clinton (Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2002; grades 5-10). This book is described as follows:
Set in Gaza City during the first intifada in 1988, this is the story of 11-year old Malaak and her family. Malaak shows resilience through immeasurable losses. Written by an American author, this historical fiction attempts to portray the realities of the Israeli occupation in Gaza from a Palestinian perspective.
Other titles in the "Young Adult" list include Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood, by Ibtisam Barakat (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007; grades 4-10), and If You Could Be My Friend: Letters of Mervet Akram Sha'Ban and Galit Fink, by Litsa Boudalika (New York: Orchard Books, 1998; grades 6-10). The latter consists of a "collection of letters written from 1988 to 1991 during the time of the first intifada ... correspondence between a Palestinian girl living in a refugee camp in the West Bank and an Israeli girl living in Jerusalem." The list also recommends Samir and Yonatan, by Daniella Carmi (New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000; grades 4-8), in which "[a] Palestinian boy comes to terms with the death of his younger brother, killed by an Israeli soldier."
Materials for public school use additionally feature "Teaching Sense Making Around Israel/Palestine: Power Point Introduction," a propaganda presentation signed by Beran himself. This "teaching aid" identifies "Five Problems" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "Refugees[,] Borders[,] Resources[,] Jerusalem[,] Settlements." "Palestinians as terrorists" is identified as an "unsophisticated" view, while "Israel is hegemon" figures as a "sophisticated" approach.
The same catalogue entices teachers with a Gaza Fact Sheet that endorses the Israeli pro-Arab group B'tselem but neglects mention of the terrorist Hamas movement, which controls the territory. The Outreach Center's search engine turns up lectures and readings by or drawn from the Israel-bashing discourse of Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappé, and Edward Said.
It is clear that Harvard CMES and its director, Paul Beran, are committed to the adoption of a one-sided, anti-Israel, and pro-Arab introduction to Middle East issues for American schoolchildren. In its "subtler" way, the Harvard approach is as bad as or worse than that pursued by John Esposito at Georgetown.
Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.