WASHINGTON - In recent weeks, Harvard University has found itself facing an ethical question of a new sort: from whom is it appropriate to accept contributions for academic purposes, and whether it is okay to accept contributions from individuals whose actions are at odds with the values the institution professes to instill in its students.
The recent affair is related not only to the moral fiber of the donor but also to charges of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial versus complaints of limits on free speech and academic freedom. The issue revolves around a $2.5 million contribution made to Harvard three years ago by the president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Sheikh Zayed earmarked the contribution for the establishment of a chair in Islamic studies that would bear his name. Heads of the university welcomed the contribution and began the groundwork for realizing the objective. In the meantime, however, details on other endeavors of Sheikh Zayed have begun to turn up, eventually leading to calls for reject the generous contribution.
Much of the investigatory spadework was carried out by Rachel Fish, a 23-year-old graduate student in Harvard Divinity School. Fish, whose studies jointly focus on Judaism and Islam, went to the administrative directors of Harvard and told them the university should refuse to accept the contribution from Sheikh Zayed due to his support for racist and anti-Semitic positions. "It wouldn't be a question if it was linked to the Ku Klux Klan or another racist group. I want to know why it's okay to accept this individual's money," Fish recently said in an interview with the Boston Globe.
There is a thick file of grievances against Sheikh Zayed. It mainly focuses on another contribution he made to a research center that bears his name The Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow Up. The center was founded in 1999, and is based in Abu Dhabi. It is considered a research institution that serves as the official think tank of the Arab League, and aims to promote and reinforce the connection between members of the league. The center's Web site declares that it is not only named for Zayed, but is also "the realization of the vision of the president of the United Arab Emirates."
The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization that keeps track of anti-Semitism around the world, is highly familiar with The Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow Up. An ADL report details several symposia sponsored by the center, one of which, last August "counter[ed] the historical and political fallacies propagated by Israel." "In particular," an ADL report says, "the center notes Israel has been `spreading lies and exaggerations about holocaust [sic] in order to squeeze out huge sums of money from European countries through worst [sic] forms of blackmail.'"
In the past two years, the center has held several conferences at which the phenomenon of suicide terrorists has been extolled. What's more, in April 2002, the center hosted the Frenchman Thierry Meyssan, who in his lecture charged that the September 11 terrorist attacks were an American conspiracy and that what hit the Pentagon that day was not a hijacked plane, but an American cruise bomber. The Zayed Center even had Meyssan's book, "Those Who Challenged Israel," translated into Arabic. Last month, the Saudi Arabian professor Umayma Jalahma, who gained notoriety when she charged in a column printed in a Saudi newspaper that the Jews were using the blood of non-Jews to prepare pastries for the Purim holiday.
The charges leveled by Fish and her colleagues which were backed up by Jewish organizations in the U.S., seem to have found an ear among heads of Harvard University. Divinity School Dean William Graham appointed an investigator to examine the contacts between The Zayed Center and Sheikh Zayed, and a university spokesman said last week that the revelations of The Zayed Center's activities "upset the faculty greatly. We're prepared to return the money if we don't get the right answers," she said. To date, in other instances in which criticism was leveled at donors, the university has not returned contributed funds.
The storm created by the affair, and Harvard University's willingness to do without the contribution have provoked furious responses from American-Arab groups. James Zogby, head of the American-Arab Center, commented, "It smacks of a witch hunt," charging that Zayed himself has nothing to do without what is happening at the center that bears his name. In an interview with CBS, Zogby said the center does bear the sheikh's name, but so do a lot of things in his country.
Others cite the fact that not only Holocaust deniers and those spouting conspiracy theories are hosted by the Zayed Center. Among the lecturers who have appeared, there are more than a few respectable Americans - former president, Jimmy Carter, former vice president, Al Gore and former secretary of state James Baker are a few of the public figures who have taken part in events sponsored by the center. Last week, The Zayed Center ran an announcement in which it charged that the accusations against it were part of a Zionist propaganda campaign. The center announced it is not hostile toward any nation, and that it serves as a stage for free intellectual debate.
The Sheikh Zayed contribution affair is reflective of a broader phenomenon in post 9/11 America. Since the terrorist attacks - and the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim wave that inundated America in their wake - the activity of Arab and Muslim contributors to universities and American research centers has increased. There has also been an increase in the involvement of Arab Americans in public organizations and political action groups, all of which, after the terror attacks, made it clear to Arab Americans that for years they have missed the boat on the public discourse in the U.S. and lost in the struggle for public opinion. The comparison to the American Jewish community is practically unavoidable - while the Jews are organized, considered significant donors to political, academic and public groups, and seen as having broad public influence, the Arab American community is considered powerless and inactive in the public arena. In the past year, the change has been perceptible, and the Arabs' voice has been heard more clearly.
One of the examples of this activity is a report released last week by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), which documents discrimination and hate crimes against Arab Americans in the U.S. since 9/11. Although this is not the first time the organization has issued such a report, this time it is of unparalleled scope - 139 pages that describe not only "hate crimes" against Arabs in the U.S. since the terrorist attacks, but also statements, quotes and subjects of legislation that in the opinion of the report's authors do harm to the Arab public in the U.S.
According to the report, the worst period immediately followed the attacks: "Over 700 violent incidents targeting Arab Americans, or those perceived to be Arab Americans, Arabs and Muslims in the first nine weeks following the attacks, including several murders." Subsequently, largely thanks to the intervention of President Bush and widespread acts of law enforcement, the extent of harm to Arabs declined, although it remains higher than in previous years.
Aside from violence, the Arab Americans also cite a record high in cases of discrimination and ethnic characterization against them. The group noted "over 80 cases of illegal and discriminatory removal of passengers from aircraft after boarding, but before take-off, based on the passenger's perceived ethnicity." In addition, "Over 800 cases of employment discrimination against Arab Americans, approximately a four-fold increase over previous annual rates."
More interesting is the new chapter, "Media Bias and Defamation," which was added to the report. It considers the discrimination against Arab Americans and statements against them in the media and by high-ranking politicians. The report lists dozens of quotes and published statements against Islam and against the Arabs, and compares them to anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in the United States. "Why is Islam a threat to America and the West?" is only one of the published statements cited by the report as evidence of the anti-Muslim wind blowing through America after 9/11, alongside a description of several conservative periodicals. "The editorial section of The Wall Street Journal and the pages of the Weekly Standard, the National Review and the National Review Online were particularly enthusiastic participants in this campaign of racism."