Follow the Money

By Alex Joffe
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The prestigious London School of Economics (LSE) is shocked—shocked—to discover that Muammar Qaddafi is a very bad man. So the once venerable institution is diverting some of the $2.5 million pledged through Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam into a scholarship fund for Libyan students.  As for the Ph.D. bestowed on the young man in 2008 for a dissertation on (if you please) the virtues of global democratization, he will be keeping it, at least for the moment. After all, in the words of one faculty member, there is "no substantial evidence" to support long-standing allegations that someone else wrote the work.

A crazy dictator like Qaddafi gets the attention, but his is hardly the only corrupt and repressive regime in the Arab and Muslim world, let alone the most lavish, to have invested in Western universities with the clear expectation of a quid pro quo. When another one of these governments erupts or falls, will its academic beneficiaries suddenly discover that the money they took over the years has been similarly tainted?

The transparency of programs like the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding—established in 2005 with the Saudi royal's $20-million gift to Georgetown University, and staffed with reliable apologists—is glaring. Alwaleed himself could not have been clearer, stating that because of the events of 9/11, "the image of Islam [had] been tarnished in the West"; hence, his donation to Georgetown, along with one to Harvard in the same amount, was intended "to teach about the Islamic world to the United States."

Alwaleed's terms had been on even brighter display years earlier. Offering $10 million to New York City in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he noted pointedly that the "United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East" since "our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of Israelis while the world turns the other cheek." Then-mayor Rudy Giuliani promptly and publicly spurned the money, calling Alwaleed's statement not only wrong but "part of the problem." What Giuliani explicitly rejected, universities have implicitly embraced.

The effect has been felt most saliently in academic studies of the Middle East. An early and rather clumsy attempt at influence-buying, as Martin Kramer notes in his Ivory Towers on Sand, was a 1977 grant to Georgetown from Libya; the motives behind it were so blatant that three years later the money was returned with interest. But this, like earlier sallies by the Shah of Iran (to endow chairs of Iranian studies) and the Turkish government (for an Institute of Turkish Studies in Washington), was merely the prelude to a flood of oil money.

Between 1995 and 2008, according to the researcher Stanley Kurtz, Arab Gulf states gave $234 million in contracts and about $88 million in gifts to American universities. Although amounting to only a drop in the bucket of total university endowments, such targeted gifts, like the $20 million contributed by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to the University of Arkansas, and various multi-million-dollar donations to Berkeley, Cornell, Princeton, Texas A&M, Columbia, Rutgers, and other schools, have meant a very great deal locally. 

The aims of these investments are very specific: the creation of a particular sort of cultural "understanding." And in this respect they have paid off, especially in the area of faculty hiring and concentration. Early on, there was much touting of secularization in the Middle East, a commodity that failed to materialize. As for radical Islam, a subject in much greater need of "understanding," it was downplayed both before and even after 9/11. Instead, the supposedly "separate political wings" of Hamas and Hizballah, the way that elections in the Arab world allegedly tend to "moderate" radical groups, and the so-called "incrementalism" toward democracy of tyrants like Qaddafi were held up as hopeful signs. To this day, even as the study of Israel itself has been marginalized, the Palestinian cause has been presented as the pivotal issue of all time and the real key to everything one would ever need to know about the Middle East.

Although report after report has documented the strong anti-Israel bias coming out of these programs, the U.S. government has also abetted them financially through Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1998, which provides funds to centers of Middle East studies undertaking language instruction and, ominously, outreach to local primary and secondary schools. But the American government is one thing, foreign donors something else, and these particular foreign donors something else again. Here the fundamental issue remains: why was the money taken in the first place?

Sometimes, to be sure, the deal stinks a little too much. In a surprising display of backbone, UCLA returned a $1-million gift from Turkey after it was revealed that scholars would be prevented from using Ottoman archives that might confirm evidence of genocide against Armenians in World War I. But this was a rare exception. In 2003, the Harvard Divinity School would have been happy to take $2.5 million from Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi, despite his support for Holocaust denial, were it not for the activism of one persistent student. The next year, back at the trough, Harvard accepted two $1-million gifts from unnamed donors in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and another $14.5 million two years later. In 2008, thanks to a gift of $50 million, New York University set up a campus for international students in the UAE (sorry, no Israelis allowed), as have other American universities.

British universities, perennially short of cash, have also benefited nicely from Middle Eastern largesse. In Great Britain, indeed, the teaching of Middle Eastern history and Islam has been so transformed that it is now primarily conducted by Muslim Middle Easterners themselves. Saif Qaddafi's alma mater has been a particular hotbed of anti-Israel hatred; calls for the boycott of Israeli scholars are frequently voiced by LSE faculty, including heads of its Middle East Center, set up with a grant from the Emirates Foundation and also funded by Libya. 

Today, Libya is noticeably more murderous than it was even a few weeks ago. But Saudi Arabia has for decades been a reliably oppressive, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian supporter of terrorism and radical Islam. Is the idea that these countries are free to oppress their religious minorities, incite against Jews, flog as many Indonesian maids, hang as many gay teens, and, in extreme cases, fire on as many protestors as they please—and that American and European universities get to keep their money at least until the revolution forces second thoughts (and then only when the revolution shows signs of succeeding)?

It would appear so. With events in the Arab and Muslim Middle East being televised, YouTubed, Tweeted, and e-mailed, the true nature of Arab and Muslim regimes can no longer be hidden, except perhaps by paid-for savants in the West.  After the revolution, and assuming a moderately happy outcome, the citizens of these countries would be well advised to demand their money back.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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