Prince Al Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, the world's 19th richest man with a net worth of $21 billion, recently gave a £16 million donation to the University of Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh to launch two research centers for Islamic studies. The signing ceremony was attended by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the chancellor of both universities.
The universities rank among the foremost institutions offering research on Islamic and Middle Eastern studies in the world.
Two years ago Prince Al Waleed donated $40 million to America's Georgetown and Harvard Universities for the expansion of their Islamic studies programs. In each instance Al Waleed has indicated that the centers are designed for constructive and critical awareness of the role Islam plays across the globe. As he noted: "It is paramount for both Islam and the West to reach mutual ground for pro-active dialogue, respect, acceptance and tolerance."
Presumably deeper understanding will emerge from these programs with their emphasis on "mutual understanding and cross cultural dialogue between Islam and the West."
But here is the rub. In all of these programs critical awareness is a one way street. The West is supposed to understand Islam, but what remains unsaid is that Islam is not obliged to understand the West. "Mutual understanding" is a high-sounding phrase that is exercised only in the breach. If tolerance is mutual as the Saudi benefactor contends, then he should put money into Muslim universities in the Middle East for an appreciation of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
It is already clear that British universities tolerate and promote Islamic studies. But where is there evidence of the reverse? Without reciprocity this emphasis on cross cultural dialogue is a sham. Western students are supposed to understand and appreciate Islamic traditions, while the Judeo-Christian tradition is trashed as polytheistic or misguided or worse. In fact, tolerance and Islam are largely incompatible.
It therefore seems most likely that Prince Al Waleed is donating his money to proselytize, to encourage students to gravitate to his faith. While the study of Islam is and can certainly be a serious source of scholarship, one wonders whether that will be the case in these two recent instances or whether the British universities are merely the equivalents of Middle East Studies programs compromised by Saudi money and influence.
It is also worth asking once Prince Al Waleed has left his footprint on the major British and American universities, whether he will turn to the less well known institutions that he can buy off for a mere pittance. He has already left his mark at Griffith College in Australia.
Money talks to academics in a most alluring way and Saudis have the money. The extent to which Middle East Studies programs have been compromised across the United States has prompted Bernard Lewis, the doyen of Islamic studies, and Fouad Ajami to launch their own Middle East Studies Association.
The Saudi plan to use universities as a launching pad to promote religious fervor is transparent. Obviously many scholars simply want to engage in and encourage Islamic scholarship, but that isn't the motive of all scholars nor is it always the motive of Saudi benefactors.