On December 12, Harvard and Georgetown Universities each accepted a $20 million donation from Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz.
According to Fortune magazine, al-Waleed, known as the "Arabian Warren Buffet" for his shrewd investing, is the world's fifth-richest man. Unlike many of his compatriots, he does not simply spend his cash on garish luxuries or on subsidies to terrorists and radical religious causes. Instead, he has become a generous philanthropist to causes which are not out of place in the democratic world. He has a history of offering large donations to relief and recovery efforts. Following last year's tsunami, he donated $19 million to its victims. He gained notoriety in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when he offered New York $10 million. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani returned the cash a month later, however, after al-Waleed implicitly excused Islamist terrorism by suggesting that the U.S. government reevaluate its policies toward the Middle East.
In recent years, the prince has placed special emphasis on funding academic institutions. In 2003, he endowed American studies programs at the American Universities of Beirut and Cairo. But with last week's donations to Georgetown and Harvard, al-Waleed again stepped into the limelight of controversy. He told The Harvard Crimson that he hoped his donation would help "bridge the understanding between East and West, between Christianity and Islam, and between Saudi Arabia and the Unites States." To the Harvard University Gazette, he said that this process is "important for peace and tolerance."
Helping to promote peace and tolerance is surely a laudable goal, but al-Waleed's cash may do the opposite. Underlying the prince's statement is the assumption that Americans have too negative a perception of Islam and Saudi Arabia. While this might be the case, much of the concern about Islam and the Arab world is in fact a justified reaction to that world's uncomfortable realities, such as the oppression of women, Islamist incitement, and apology for terror. But universities — and especially Georgetown and Harvard — are not the place to find this sort of distaste. Their classrooms, and especially Middle Eastern-studies departments, tend instead to amplify anti-American rhetoric, legitimize conspiracy theories, and, in the name of cultural relativism, gloss over the oppression that exists in the Arab world.