Do we live in an America where it has become normal to consider it inherently suspect to be associated with Muslims and Arabs? Press reactions—including Harvard student publications that claim to be neutral as well as those that are "conservative"—to a recent gift supporting Islamic studies at Harvard suggest that this is indeed where we live. The headline of a recent article in the Crimson Magazine reads "No Strings Attached? A generous prince left Harvard a hefty sum. But might his ties to the Arab world affect this gift?"
The implication is that by accepting a gift for Islamic studies, Harvard may become beholden to the wrong sorts of people—perhaps even somehow furthering the cause of terrorism. The Harvard Salient, which is funded by the "conservative" lobby and eschews journalistic neutrality, mocks the stated purpose of the gift to promote better understanding of Islam as "blithe and childish," saying, "If Harvard shares the Prince's vision, then the House of Saud, the Iranian ayatollahs, and Moslem extremists of all stripes can breathe easily, knowing that academia's strict definition of understanding precludes any sort of critical evaluation or the issuing of any value judgments" (Feb. 6). The Salient's conclusion is that indeed the Islamic studies gift will further the cause of Islamic extremism by supporting scholarship which, for sake of cultural sensitivity, will at minimum fail to criticize it.
With all the accusation and innuendo, we might expect some evidence, or at least putative evidence, that there is a problem with this support for Islamic studies at Harvard. Of course, there is no need for evidence that Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal has ties with the Arab world, as the Crimson headline alleges. But if the imagined "strings" are really so worrisome, shouldn't we expect to learn why these "ties to the Arab world" should be a concern? In all the press articles which aim to alert us to this problem, the most "evidence" that is ever cited is that New York Congressman Anthony Weiner wrote a letter to Harvard President Lawrence Summers "insisting the prince had direct ties to terrorism by virtue of his membership in a government that preaches reactionary Islam." This is usually mentioned alongside an unsubstantiated claim that the Saudi Royalty funds Palestinian terrorists—without, however, ever linking Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal to this claim. If Congressman Weiner were onto something, then it is probably safe to suppose that the American law enforcement would have intervened—as it has done with many an Islamic charity since 9/11—before Harvard's own scrutiny of the matter came to bear.
But, nevertheless, let's unpack the accusation. Does the government of Saudi Arabia preach "reactionary Islam" and thus tie itself to "terrorism"? Setting aside the fact that al-Qaida is working to overthrow the Saudi government, let's focus only on the charge that has been made. Indeed, the official form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, commonly referred to as Wahhabism, is undoubtedly "conservative" in that it rejects what it sees as changes introduced into Islam since the time when the religion was established by the Prophet Mohammad. In this regard, the label "reactionary" applies more or less as well to Wahhabi beliefs as it does to Protestant Christianity, which rejected the Catholic Church's teachings on much the same basis. A great many U.S. leaders—not least the current president—have been sincere advocates of Protestantism, but it would hardly be fair to associate all Americans with the terrible things that some people have done in the name of their Christian beliefs—remember that Christianity has been used to justify slavery, lynchings, Crusades and many other bloody wars, Balkan ethnic cleansing, etc. There are apparently people in Saudi Arabia and its government who support terrorism, just as there are apparently people in America and in our government who support the use of torture and other measures formerly designated as war crimes, at least when they are used by the US and our allies. It would seem an absurd and intolerable innuendo to suggest on these grounds that any gift made by any American in support of scholarship is tied to torture.
Of course, it would be highly objectionable if someone giving money to Harvard were a known supporter of terrorism or anything so vile. Perhaps we should look more carefully at gifts that have been made to Harvard over the years from people who could also have supported dictatorial regimes like those in the Middle East or Latin America, or insurgent causes like Northern Irish Republicanism. In the case of Islamic studies, however, it seems as though the very idea that one supports a better understanding of Islam suggests that one is trying to do something evil.
The ubiquitous innuendo which is stirred up around the support of Islamic studies at Harvard accords with the fact that nearly half of Americans recently voiced support for systematically curtailing the civil rights of Muslims, and 85 percent of American soldiers in Iraq believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that is why we invaded Iraq. America has become ready to believe the worst of Muslims—without regard for evidence. There are many directions in which our country can be taken by this age of righteous innuendo; none are good.
John Schoeberlein '94 is the Director of Harvard's Program on Central Asia & the Caucasus and a lecturer in the department of near eastern languages and civilizations.