The news that Prince Alaweed bin Talal has given $20 million each to Georgetown and Harvard should come as no surprise. The prince, reputed to be the world's fifth wealthiest man, is a smart shopper. He is best known in the U.S., however, for a rare misstep, a gift of $10 million to the Twin Towers Fund after 9/11 that was refused by then Mayor Rudy Guiliani after the prince's ill-timed call for America to "re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause."
The prince's goals for his gift are straightforward:
"As you know, since the 9/11 events, the image of Islam has been tarnished in the West," said Alwaleed, who is chairman of the Riyadh-based Kingdom Holding Co. and has extensive business holdings in Europe and the United States. He said his gifts to Georgetown and Harvard will be used "to teach about the Islamic world to the United States."
That Islam's "image" was "tarnished" after the "9/11 events" seems a fairly minor consequence of mass murder. But the prince is surprisingly forthright in his desire to refurbish Islam's image rather than address any underlying problems, such as its occasionally homicidal loathing of non-Muslims.
In giving money to Georgetown University, the prince can be assured that he will get his money's worth. The university's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding has quickly been renamed in the prince's honor and, according the Center's director, John Esposito, "A significant part of the money will be used to beef up the think tank part of what the Center does.."
Indeed, Esposito, already an apologist for Islam's retrograde inclinations such as jihad and trumpeter of its perennial victimization by the West, makes it perfectly clear that he is the prince's man:
When asked about the comments that caused the rejection of Alwaleed's gift to New York, Esposito said: "There is nothing wrong with his expressing his opinion on American foreign policy. Clearly, it was done in a constructive way. He was expressing his enormous sympathy with the United States but also trying to give people the context in which this [terrorist attack] occurred."
Let us all celebrate context and freedom of expression, if only from critics of America. But the prince's gift, and indeed, his stated intention, will be to blunt critics of Islam in the future through education, for that is the mission statement of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, "to build stronger bridges of understanding between the Muslim world and the West as well as between Islam and Christianity. The Center's mission is to improve relations between the Muslim world and the West and enhance understanding of Muslims in the West."
Here too, Esposito is already rising to the task:
Up to now, he said, the center has not had enough resources "to respond to the tremendous demand that is out there, from the government, church and religious groups, the media and corporations to address and answer issues like, ‘What is the actual relationship between the West and the Muslim world? Is Islam compatible with modernization?' Now we can run workshops and conferences [on these subjects] both here and overseas."
Given Esposito's track-record and that of the center, not to mention the intentions of the prince, we have little doubt that the answers provided will be satisfactory. Along with Yvonne Haddad, John Voll, and other faculty members, Esposito and the newly invigorated center will be even better situated to spread a glossy vision of Islam to Americans.
A glance at the center's publications gives hints of future wisdom to come. There is Ralph Braibanti's celebration of Vatican II's soothing and apologetic words toward Islam in Nostra Aetate, Abdulaziz Sachedina's highlighting of the Quran's well-known pluralism and tolerance of other faiths, Mohamed Fathi Osman's argument regarding the Quran's "complete answers to concerns regarding global pluralism" (he is also author of Jihad: A Legitimate Struggle for Human Rights), and many others. "Abrahamic" pieties loom particularly large among the publications.
All of the center's efforts to correct misunderstandings address the West, while Islam's misunderstandings of the West and Christianity, almost too vast and profound to mention, are in fact unmentioned. And we scarcely need wonder how highlighting the ways Islam and Christianity are "alike" would play in Prince Alaweed bin Talal's home town.
But on these shores, according to Georgetown, we are to criticize American policy, not question Islam, save to delve into its mysteries and Abrahamic unity with Christianity (where Jews, much less Hindus, stand in all this is best not discussed), and generally get with the inter-faith program. It is left to others, such as center fellow Geneive Abdo, to start spelling things out, as in a recent article where she raises the threat of hostile Muslim separatism in the US if American policy toward Israel is not revised and offensive portions of the Patriot Act are not removed. And for more specific proposals we need only turn to Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies which has made the "one state" solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict a house specialty.
Usually universities, and donors, are not as transparent when it comes to the selling out, so we should be grateful to both Georgetown and its prince. Harvard at least had the good sense to announce that it would be hiring professors, supporting graduate students, and digitizing rare texts. This might be a result of having learned the hard way, having been embarrassed into returning money from Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Nahayan of the United Arab Emirates, whose Abu Dhabi-based think tank had hosted lectures on such pressing topics as whether Zionists were responsible for 9/11. Other beneficiaries of Saudi largesse, such as the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas, have escaped serious scrutiny.
But the real question is whether building stronger bridges and restoring tarnished reputations is what a university should be doing in the first place. The very concept of a "Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding," whether funded by Prince Alaweed bin Talal or not, is to evade or dissemble when it comes to the hard questions, including the relationship between the West and the Muslim world, Islam's compatibility with modernization, and democracy, and its ability to co-exist with others in a world of pluralism and tolerance. In the real world, including the Muslim world, there is impassioned debate about these questions, and about whether the essential premises of "understanding" are meaningful or not. And for Americans, knowledge of Islam is more important than restoring Islam's image.
It would be cynical to say that what is needed is a Center for Jihad Studies or a Dhimmitude Studies Program to offset the apologetics. But the world of universities is cash and carry. The prince has put down his money. The rest is up to Georgetown.
Alexander H. Joffe is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum