Does the name Alwaleed bin Talal ring a bell? He's the Saudi prince who made a pilgrimage to Ground Zero in New York just after 9/11, and then wrote a check for $10 million to the city's Twin Towers relief fund. The prince then publicly blamed 9/11 on U.S. support for Israel, causing Mayor Rudy Giuliani curtly to return the money.
Alwaleed is once again proffering millions, this time to American universities, in an effort to plant "pillars of a bridge" connecting the United States and the Arab world. According to Martin Kramer, a Middle Eastern expert, he has already donated $17.2 million to fund centers for American studies at the American University of Cairo and the American University of Beirut, and he plans to fund a string of centers for Arab and Islamic studies on select campuses (in addition to those already established by other Saudi royals, to the tune of upwards of $27 million). (Scroll down to the 9 July 2003 entry on Martin Kramer's web log, under the caption Saudi Prince on Academic Shopping Spree.)
All these millions can likely purchase a desert-full of curricular bias. Indeed, Middle Eastern scholars in thrall to the beneficent prince just might not tell the unvarnished truth about, inter alia, Saudi funding of al Qaeda and other terrorists, the violent Wahhabi sect which is the state religion of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi campaign to impose Wahhabism on Islam globally, Saudi support for madrasahs (Islamic schools, many of which fan Islamicism by teaching that nonbelievers are enemies), the Saudi connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and oil. (See Stephen Schwartz, "Saudi Dupes," New York Post, July 11, 2003.)
And, in any case, the current Middle Eastern studies establishment, which Alwaleed can be expected to draw upon, is suspect. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, influential professors of Middle Eastern studies ignored the increasing threat of Islamicism and in fact declined to study Islam itself. A Sarah Lawrence professor, Fawaz Gerges, went so far as to blame "the terror industry" for inspiring an "irrational fear of terrorism by focusing . . . on far-fetched horrible scenarios."
Moreover, we must be alert to the vision of America that Alwaleed's largesse will foster in his centers of American studies. Will these programs be models of well-rounded scholarship on America's founding, its core principles, its achievements and its failures? Or will scholars beholden to him propagate the views, say, of professors of what are called the "new" American studies? As cultural critic Alan Wolfe has noted, scholars of this stripe attack the very concept of an American identity and unity, declaring this country to be an "imagined national community" and their role to be one of "fracturing the very idea of an American nation, culture, and subject." Some academics in this field, Wolfe concludes, display "a hatred of America so visceral that it makes one wonder why they bother studying America at all." Imagine the cognitive dissonance in the minds of Arab students exposed to these anti-American Americans. Consider that such bigotry would give comfort to Wahhabi fanatics and Islamo-fascist regimes, and that it would work against the spread of knowledge of the American experiment in freedom -- knowledge so badly needed in Arab lands long ruled by tyrants.
Academic "bridge-builders" of this anti-American and anti-Western persuasion would also likely propagate doctrines such as "transnational progressivism," which has gained a hearing on prominent American campuses. John Fonte of the Hudson Institute describes professors in this camp as proponents of a new transnational regime, or world government, that is post-liberal democratic and, in the American context, post-Constitutional and post-American. From these "progressive" teachers, Arab nations would be tutored in a brave new world order whose key political unit would not be the individual citizen who voluntarily associates with fellow citizens but the ethnic, racial, or gender group into which one is born. How helpful, notably, to the beleaguered citizens of Iraq, where a constitutional democracy is struggling to emerge, and where Islamists hostile to democratic values oppose self-government!
This Saudi spending jag needs to be tracked and watched. Academicians, higher education governing boards and Congress should encourage Middle Eastern and American studies centers to reject such gifts. By 2004 the federal government will be subsidizing (through the Title VI program of the Department of Education) seventeen National Resource Centers for the Middle East. It would be a good idea, as Kramer advocates, for the government to financially reward centers willing to forgo potentially compromising foreign funding. Colleges and universities that do accept such funds should invite rigorous, open and external curricular review.
The last thing the American academy needs is to be used as a forum for one-sided views on matters vital to our national security and, in particular, to the War on Terror. Already under fire for often not ensuring free and robust debate, higher education institutions must not degenerate into Islamicist madrasahs.
Candace de Russy is a Trustee of the State University of New York