"Saudi Buys Yale A New Sharia Law Center." the Daily Caller's headline on Sept. 14, pointed to the new Abdallah S. Kamel Center for the Study of Islamic Law and Civilization at Yale Law School, an initiative that President Peter Salovey, GRD '86, announced on Sept. 8, after Kamel donated $10 million for its creation.
The Center will educate students about Islam and the Middle East through a new lecture series on Islamic law and civilization, fellowships for advanced studies, and tenured professorships in Islamic law. On Oct. 20, the Center will hold a lecture on women in Islam, entitled "Ethics, Gender, and the Islamic Legal Project" given by Marion Holmes Katz, a visiting professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from NYU.
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, with a projected 2.76 billion members by 2050 according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Knowledge about Islam is becoming increasingly important in a time where many people accept mischaracterizations of the religion by the media. The educational resources that the Center for Islamic Law provides will allow Yale students to become more knowledgeable about the region.
The announcement has been met with criticism directed at the donor and his alleged ties to the Saudi government, which calls into question the donation behind the Center. Although its financial origins are contentious, the Center will put the Law School and University as a whole in more direct conversation not only with current global events, but also with a legal system and culture crucial to a foundational understanding of the world.
Yale is not the first university to offer support for the study of Islamic law and civilization. In 1991, Harvard officially created an Islamic Legal Studies program in response to increasing student interest in Islamic law—Harvard's program opened as the First Gulf War broke out in Iraq. Emory University has an established Islam and Human Rights program as well, which brings scholars and professors of Islamic law to the university. It has held conferences since 2001, the same year that Al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center.
Earlier this week, I sat down with Sterling Emeritus Professor of Law Owen Fiss, co-director of the new Law Center. Along with his colleague and co-director Anthony Kronman, LAW '75, GRD '72, Fiss noted that the Yale program will distinguish itself from those at other universities. "One important difference between the law center at Yale and those at other schools is that at those schools, studies in Islamic law and civilization only tend to be of interest to a small and esoteric group of students and faculty. Our hope is to develop a program of interest to all the students and faculty," Fiss said.
The project developed from a lecture and seminar series that Fiss and Kronman began 20 years ago. "I was struck with our ignorance about history and developments in the Middle East," Fiss said of his and Kronman's initial knowledge of the area of studies. "We knew a lot about Israel and not a lot about other countries in the region including Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia."
The series helped to facilitate relationships between Yale professors and scholars across the globe. Prominent scholars in the field such as Bernard Haykel and Noah Feldman, professors of Islamic studies at Princeton University and Harvard University, respectively, attended a conference at Yale and exchanged ideas about Islamic law and politics in the region. After Sept. 11, 2001 and the Iraq War, acquiring a foundation in Islamic law became increasingly important to scholars across the world. The Middle East and Islam have played a key role in global politics for decades, but in the early years of the 21st century, their study gained new urgency. "After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. became a lot more involved with the region," Fiss said. "As a result of these developments, understanding the region became much more important to America for our foreign policy. This caused a tremendous jolt in the seminar."
Interest in the seminar continued to grow as the Middle East and Islam filled newspaper headlines each day—law students, scholars, and undergraduates alike hope to form a deeper understanding of the way that Islamic law shapes public policy, and fundamentalist religious movements, in the Middle East. Fiss and others at the University view the Center as an opportunity to learn more about a culture that has yielded such influence over the world.
The source of the funding that has provided the support for the Center, however, has prompted ethical questions. Critics have pointed to the entwined relationship between businessmen and the Saudi Arabian government: Kamel's money is connected to oppressive policies.
His banking and real estate conglomerate, Dallah Albaraka, was one of the defendants in a lawsuit pursued by the families of 9/11 victims. While the New York district court ruled in favor of the defendants, the company's connections have drawn scrutiny.
Skeptical about the founding of the Center, Omer Aziz, LAW '17, believes that the donor has corrupt ties to the Saudi Arabian royal family. After obtaining degrees in international relations and politics, Aziz spent time in the Middle East studying Islam. Aziz said that all businessmen in the region, including Kamel, have ties to the Saudi Arabian royal family. According to a 2013 statement from Prince Khalid Bin Farhan Al-Saud, a defected Saudi prince, business ties allow the royal family to continue to financially support Islamic fundamentalist groups that oppress women and dissidents.
"You cannot be a prominent businessman if you are not friends with the royal family," Aziz said of Kamel. "The royal family is central and not peripheral to the kingdom. They uphold radical Islamic fundamentalists who treat women as third or fourth class citizens who cannot even step outside without a male companion."
Aziz acknowledges the benefits of the future Center, but points out that the tainted nature of the donation should be addressed. "Many Americans aren't really aware of this. Initially, I was overjoyed at the idea of having a center of Islamic civilization and I welcomed it, but I had some serious doubts because of the funding," Aziz said.
Fiss denies that the nature of the donation will influence the direction of the Center: "First of all, Kamel is a businessperson, and his entrepreneurial group stands independently from the government," Fiss said. "Secondly, Kronman and I are independent. No one is going to have control over us at all." Fiss explained that an advisory council, including scholars known for their work in Islamic studies, will guide him and Kronman on the Center, although the two directors will ultimately have autonomy. According to Fiss, the Center will independently fulfill its educational mission.
Even though it has the potential to create a more multicultural education at the law school, the donations that made the establishment of the Center possible could originate from questionable sources. The prominence of Islam, and conflicts in the Middle East, reflect a growing need for the study of Islamic civilization and culture. The criticism received in response to the establishment of the center clarifies that knowledge of this region of the world, and US relations with it, is increasingly necessary. A holistic education about the area may help students become more informed on relations the Middle East and the world, as well as dominant ideologies in Islamic culture.
The increased interest of Islamic law and civilization is a response to foreign policy issues, alongside a response of the growth of Islam across the globe. The creation of the Center exemplifies how world events shape academia. If the Center fulfills its purpose, it can in turn help shape world events.