When does a prominent philanthropist's donation constitute a threat to impartial scholarship and when is it a source of political grandstanding?
These questions are being debated in the news media, in advocacy publications, on campus, in the blogosphere and and elsewhere over a $20 million donation from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
The prince's donation, the second largest in the school's history, according to Georgetown's student newspaper The Hoya, is already a few years old, but it lately has led to questions over whether the university has softened its scholarship on Saudi Arabia.
The issue was recently thrust into the public spotlight after Rep. Frank R. Wolf , R-Va., wrote a letter to university President John J. DeGioia on Feb. 14 questioning the center's use of the donation, which in turn was based on questions raised in an article in The Washington Times. Wolf's letter highlights the concerns that arise at a time when the media's shaping of the public dialogue is as high-stakes and heated as ever.
The congressman set his sights on what some critics consider a glaring inconsistency of U.S. foreign policy — America's friendly dealings with a country that Wolf said has contributed to the spread of anti-American propaganda, religious intolerance and human rights violations through the financing of madrassas and other fundamentalist Islamic schools.
Critics of the kingdom need look no farther than the attacks of 9/11 to cite evidence of the country's mixed attitude toward the United States; 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis, as are many of the foreign fighters battling U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wolf raised a number of concerns in his letter.
"Despite agreements reached between the Saudi government and the U.S. to improve religious freedom and human rights in Saudi Arabia," he wrote, "the Saudi government's promises remain unfulfilled." These human rights failures include permitting textbooks with inflammatory language about other religions, curtailing civil liberties and political activism, and restricting religious expression to a strictly fundamentalist, Wahhabist view.
In addition, there have been reports since 9/11 of persons and institutions affiliated with the Saudi government of supporting Islamic militants and extremists, Wolf wrote.
Given these facts, why shouldn't universities — and in particular departments of Middle Eastern studies — make Saudi's spotty human rights and terrorism record a main focus of their academic research? This is the essential question posed by Wolf's letter.
"Specifically, I would like to know if the center has produced any analysis critical of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example, in the fields of human rights, religious freedom, freedom of expression, women's rights, minority rights, protections of foreign workers, due process, and the rule of law," the congressman wrote.
Wolf also asked whether the center examined Saudi links to extremism and terrorism, including the relationship between the country's public education system and government-backed clerical establishment and the rise of anti-American attitudes, extremism and violence in the Muslim world; and, he wanted to know, does the center's scholarship delve into any critical study of the country's textbooks, which were cited by the State Department and U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, among others, for spreading extreme intolerance?
DeGioia's response expressed his confidence in the center's impartiality and integrity — academic standards the university applies whenever it discusses gifts with potential donors, the university president wrote, because those standards lie at the core of Georgetown's academic mission.
Alwaleed supported the center because of his interest in inter-religious and intercultural understanding, DeGioia wrote, and because of the values the prince shares with the center, that "Christian and Muslim communities can and must learn a great deal about each other in our increasingly independent world."
The university president pointed out that Alwaleed, a global business leader and philanthropist, made another $20 million donation to Harvard University for the creation of its Muslim studies program and also has funded centers at the American University of Beirut and the American University of Cairo to support American studies programs as well as an expansion of the Muslim art collection at the Louvre.
In addition, the subjects taught by center scholars broadly address terrorism and human rights, although these topics are not organized specifically to a particular country, he said.
For example, John Voll, a longtime faculty member who holds one of the professorships endowed by the prince's gift, has not shied away from characterizing Wahhabism as being on the fundamentalist, literalist extreme of Islam, DeGioia wrote; Professor Amira Sonbol, moreover, has written extensively about human rights, women and Islam, whereas the center's director, John Esposito, has produced more than 35 books across a range of subjects dealing with Islam, including more than one multi-volume set of Oxford encyclopedias on the Islamic world and a book "Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, which was among eight books (two by Esposito) assigned by Maj. Gen. John Vines, the former commander of multinational forces in Iraq, to his top staff members.
The list of high-level officials seeking the center's expertise include those at the departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and European and Asian governments.
"Clearly, many high-level government officials have recognized the high quality of the Center's scholarship and have confidence that it maintains its integrity and impartiality," DeGioia wrote. "Those requests came both before and after Prince Alwaleed's generous support."
Voll said he thought the suggestion that the center has altered its scholarly output based on the prince's endowment was politically motivated.
"I have a very, relatively limited and quick response to that — in that my experience with this sort of inquiry has only been confirmed by the congressman's moving forward with it — and that is, there's an awful lot of ‘let us wave the flag of asking the true, really important questions,' and then there is virtually nothing done to follow up," Voll said.
Voll added that DeGioia's letter called attention to his work on Wahhabism, but Wolf never contacted him to ask him about it, nor did the congressman write a letter to Harvard's president about its receipt of a donation from Alwaleed.
Esposito said he would have expected Wolf to perform greater due diligence before sending the letter to DeGioia in the first place.
"It was a private letter to the president, and then it was leaked to the press right away," Esposito said. "If there was a genuine concern, why wouldn't you check" with the university first before sending the letter.
Dan Scandling, a spokesperson for Wolf, countered that the congressman wrote the university because he is an alumnus, not because of politics.
"Politics have absolutely nothing to do with it," Scandling said. "The congressman is a graduate of Georgetown, and he contacted the president of the university, and we let the president of the university know that the letter was coming."
In addition, Wolf has a long record of dealing with terrorism and international issues in his roles as the former chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, as a current member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and as the author of legislation that created the National Commission on Terrorism, also known as the Bremer Commission, in 1999, Scandling said.
"So to say that politics is driving this is ludicrous," he said.
Matt Korade can be reached at email@example.com.