The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) has its offices high up on the fifth floor of 1430 Mass. Ave. (better known as CVS). A narrow corridor leads to closet-sized rooms just big enough to fit a professor and an FM reporter. Framed, dusty posters in Arabic from the eighties line the dull white walls, and the sounds of a Middle Eastern chant play softly from a distant corner.
This is where Harvard directs students interested in studying Islam.
Compared to the open atrium and plush conference rooms of, say, the Barker Center (where some NELC professors have attic offices), NELC's space appears shabby and decrepit. And like its physical surroundings, the department itself could use an upgrade.
Funding for that improvement has arrived in the form of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud's $20 million gift announced this past November. The Saudi Arabian prince—also the world's fifth richest man—designated the donation specifically for Islamic Studies. However, despite the improvement the gift guaranteed, critics inside and outside the Harvard community—still reeling from the events of Sept. 11, 2001—said they were suspicious of his background and presumed intentions and questioned whether or not the University should accept the donation.
While Harvard has received prior gifts from other Saudi Arabian and Middle Eastern donors, there is no common formula for accepting or rejecting a gift. Rather, Harvard has chosen to evaluate the gifts, in accordance with the University's extensive gift policy, on a case-by-case basis.
Harvard has a reputation as the leading academic institution in the world. Now it has the task of living up to its reputation in an area most faculty members agree is not as developed as it could be. And so such a gift will be a great help in determining a future for Islamic studies, which will be guided by officials in the Development Office, Divinity School, and Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).
Looking a gift horse in the mouth
As far back as 1977 and as recently as 2003, Harvard received gifts designated for Islam-related projects. Although all were far less than the size of Alwaleed's promised amount, some met with similar controversy.
In 1977, the Law School accepted its first ever gift from Saudi Arabia: $300,000 from the government to establish a chair in Islamic law. In 1982, Harvard received two gifts within months of each other. The first, $600,000 tagged for the Semitic Museum's efforts at preserving photographs of Middle Eastern life, came from the Saudi royal family. The second gift, this time from a Saudi businessman, aroused controversy because some alleged that it involved an unwritten agreement conditional on the hiring of a new faculty member with ties to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The allegations were never proven.
In March of 2004, after Harvard chose to hold on his gift, the president of the United Arab Emirates rescinded his $2.5 million offer to the University. Harvard Divinity School students had been critical of a think tank to which the president had ties—they claimed that the organization propagated anti-American and anti-Semitic sentiment.
Sarah J. Friedell, director of media relations for the Alumni Affairs and Development Office, declined to reveal whether or not these controversies from the past came up in the negotiations over Alaweed's gift.
an unfair stigma?
This isn't the first time Alwaleed's generosity has been questioned and even rejected. Rudolph W. Giuliani, while mayor of New York City, rejected Alwaleed's pledge of $10 million to the Twin Towers Fund based on Alwaleed's supposedly pro-Palestinian statement in response to the attacks.
Soon after the November press release announcing the Harvard gift, New York Congressman Anthony D. Weiner wrote a letter to University President Lawrence H. Summers insisting the prince had direct ties to terrorism by virtue of his membership in a government that preaches reactionary Islam. "It seems like this money has Jewish blood on it" Harvard Students for Israel President Amy M. Zelcer '07 told The Crimson in December.
Several professors said they find accusations against the prince ludicrous. Professor of Arabic William E. Granara explains that the Saudi royal family comprises thousands of individuals, and that while Alwaleed's distant relatives may have direct ties to the PLO or even terrorism, they are simply that: distant. "Are we guilty by association?" says Granara."Is every American responsible for what happens at Abu-Gharib?"
Vice President of Alumni Affairs and Development Donella M. Rapier calls the prince, who is chairman of the Kingdom Holding Company, a "self-made man." According to Rapier, Alwaleed views himself first as billionaire, then as businessman, then as prince, as evidenced by the title of his autobiography, "Billionaire, Businessman, Prince."
With a net worth of $23.7 billion, Alwaleed is one of the world's leading philanthropists. While Islamic understanding is the motive behind many of his institutional gifts, the prince has also given $19 million toward Tsunami relief and $20 million for victims of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.
As Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies M. Shahab Ahmed jokes, "If one is to object to anything it should be that he runs Disneyland Paris."
putting the money to use
The University has outlined the major goals of The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Program for Islamic Studies, but deliberations continue as to the details of its structure and personnel. Faculty point-man Roy P. Mottahedeh, Gurney professor of history, will work along with the Office of Alumni Affairs and Development to advance the program.
Currently, Islamic Studies is mostly confined to the religious and historical aspects of the faith, and especially to Islam in the Middle East. At this point, undergrads study Islam through NELC or the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Professors like Granara and Susan G. Miller, a senior lecturer in Islamic civilizations, stress the need for a more multidisciplinary program. "This is a disgrace," says Granara. "Our field is vastly underrepresented...and increases [in funding] are very much necessary." Ahmed points to Sufism, Islamic mysticism, as a key area in which Harvard has no specialist.
According to the press release, the program will comprise four new professorships, including an endowed chair in Islamic Life and Thought named after the prince, and a new Islamic Heritage Project which will "preserve and digitize historically significant Islamic materials." Rapier explains that the gift will be paid over four years, but in terms of its allocation, "[Alwaleed] has very much left it up to us." And, despite these seemingly extensive plans, who the professors will be and which Harvard faculty they join, as well as what potential courses will be offered, is still up for debate. "It's all very sketchy," says Ahmed.
Harvard does indeed have a high degree of flexibility, especially in contrast to Georgetown University, the other winner of Alwaleed's grant. Georgetown, which is affiliated with the Jesuit order, plans to put the $20 million toward its existing Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
Professors speculate that the first professorship resulting from the program will be in the Divinity School, and that the program will have an expanded focus on Islam in Southeast Asia.
Hopefully these initial plans will increase undergraduates' understanding of Islam. Record enrollment in Arabic language (a 20% increase in the past year alone) and Foreign Cultures classes on "Islamic understanding" reflects Harvard students' awareness of Islam as a global issue and their motivation to resolve conflict. The Alwaleed program may someday offer certificates or even undergraduate degrees. If the program is sucessful, students walking through the Yard might not stare so blankly at the prayer-callers in front of Widener during future Islamic Awareness Weeks.