Two of Britain's most prominent universities will set up research centers devoted to Islamic studies with support from a Saudi prince whose gifts to Harvard and Georgetown Universities in 2005 drew attention in Congress, and whose offer of $10-million to the Twin Towers Fund in New York was rebuffed.
The new British centers will be created at the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh with a $31-million endowment from a foundation established by Prince Alwaleed bin Abdul Aziz Alsaud, a member of Saudi Arabia's ruling family.
Prince Alwaleed, who received bachelor's and master's degrees from American universities, has sought to foster intercultural dialogue since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center of Islamic Studies at Cambridge and the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for the Study of Islam in the Modern World at Edinburgh will focus on projects, including research and public engagement, designed to encourage understanding between the Muslim world and the West.
Yasir Suleiman, director of the Cambridge Center, said its initial research focus once it begins operating in October will be on two major projects: one on Muslim identity in Britain and in Europe, and the other on Islam, Muslims, and the media.
The 2001 terrorist attacks, whose perpetrators were predominantly Saudis, intensified Prince Alwaleed's concerns about the state of relations between the Arab world and the West.
The prince's Kingdom Foundation has financed the creation of two centers for American studies in the Arab world, at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo.
In 2005 he donated $20-million each to Harvard and Georgetown Universities, which had won out against several other leading institutions competing for the endowments. The prince's largess toward American universities provoked criticism from U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, who charged that "Middle Eastern interests" were attempting "to indoctrinate young American students into taking a different position than our government has taken in fighting the war against terror."
But lawmakers rejected a proposal sponsored by Mr. Burton that would have required colleges that receive federal financing for foreign-language and area-studies programs to tell the government about such contributions (The Chronicle, March 30, 2006).
'Hands Off' Approach
John L. Esposito, the director of the Georgetown center, says concerns about such gifts are marginal and misguided. The Georgetown center was renamed after the prince's donation, he said, but it has been in existence since 1993.
Mr. Esposito said he occasionally hears from people who accuse him of somehow tailoring the center's agenda to suit its Saudi backers. "I tell them to look at our activities before we received this money and after," Mr. Esposito said. "I ask them, 'Do you notice any significant difference or shift?'"
Mr. Esposito said that he has had only one conversation with Prince Alwaleed since Georgetown received the endowment, and that was at his own instigation, when he offered to visit the prince to update him on the center's work.
Like Georgetown and Harvard, the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh have long traditions of scholarship of the Muslim and Arab worlds. "The University of Edinburgh has taught Arabic for 250 years, and we have had a Middle Eastern studies program for a very long time," said Young Dawkins, Edinburgh's vice principal for development and alumni. "When Prince Alwaleed decided to repeat the American experiment in the U.K.," Edinburgh was a natural academic fit, he said.
Mr. Dawkins said that he was unaware of any controversy in the United States regarding the prince's donations to American universities and that he had not heard of any concerns about the money Edinburgh was receiving.
"The point of our center will be to enhance knowledge and the current dialogue between Islamic and non-Islamic countries," he said. "We believe that, more than anything else, what is needed now is clarity, understanding, and mutual respect, and we think the University of Edinburgh is a good place for that kind of dialogue."
Mr. Suleiman, who is the chair of modern Arabic studies at Cambridge, said he knew of the criticism that had been leveled at Georgetown and Harvard, but that such reactions were "par for the course" in American politics. "One gets the impression, at least from afar, that the atmosphere in the United States is far more antagonistic, and that Middle Eastern studies has become the subject of competing agendas, and has become highly political," he said.
Mr. Suleiman said that, based on the experience of the academic centers in Beirut and Cairo and at Georgetown and Harvard, he had no reason for concern about the new centers' scholarly independence.
"We are assured from our contacts that those centers have been able to work with autonomy and freedom. At the same time, we are also assured from working with colleagues at the Kingdom Foundation, and we have an agreement that is binding on us and binding on them," he said. "The Kingdom Foundation has not interfered at all in the way research is conducted, and we know they have no agenda other than to conduct research and improve knowledge and understanding."
Prince Alwaleed's $21-billion fortune puts him among the world's 20 wealthiest people, according to Forbes magazine.
In October 2001, he presented a check for $10-million to Rudolph W. Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, for the Twin Towers Fund, a charity primarily for survivors of the uniformed rescuers who were killed in responding to the terrorist attacks. Mr. Giuliani later returned the check after learning that the prince had said that American policies in the Middle East were among the "issues that led to such a criminal attack."