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.
Recently, Harvard's Middle East faculty registered a deafening silence when Saudi Arabia shunned the "West" by boycotting participation in the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative. The professors continue to say nothing in the face of Riyadh's production of textbooks that inculcate young children to wage "jihad for the sake of Allah." And Harvard students are just as placid. During my time at Harvard, my peers seldom avoided an opportunity to downplay the intolerant radicalism that has permeated Muslim societies. This resulted in a delicious irony, with many Harvard students describing themselves as progressive while denouncing White House prioritization of democratization abroad, ignoring imprisoned dissidents, urging divestment from democracies, and falling over themselves in a rush to excuse autocratic regimes. Nowhere is this irony more clear than when it comes to dealing with al-Waleed's home country, Saudi Arabia, as Harvard feminists attack President Bush for his domestic sexist slights, real and imagined, but remain silent when Saudi courts condemn women to death for the crime of having been raped.
Perhaps Harvard students learn their hypocrisy from their teachers, who once censured Harvard President Larry Summers for suggesting that researchers might consider a genetic basis for men's traditional dominance of math and science. These same faculty now remain silent on the fact that few Saudi girls even get a chance to study the subjects, or pursue higher education at all, unless they have their father's or brothers' permission.
James Taranto, editor of OpinionJournal.com, pointed out another irony: While law faculties at Harvard and Georgetown seek to ban the military from recruiting on campus because of its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy toward homosexuals, they don't seem to mind that their universities take money from a member of a regime whose response to asking and telling is to behead. Accepting money from a member of the royal family legitimizes the regime. While Harvard professors may backslap themselves for protecting homosexuals and their peers from a full choice of careers, it is unfortunate that they welcome cash from a family which denies visas solely on the basis of religion. Jews need not apply.
It may be hard to turn down $20 million, and universities seldom shy away from gifts, even from donors with agendas. Harvard only returned a gift from the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan after an alumni uproar over his Holocaust denial and support for anti-Semitic causes. And unlike Sheikh Zayed, al-Waleed might have the best of intentions. His money might very well go to some worthwhile causes — like preserving and digitizing historical Islamic documents. But funding an academic culture which has a history of rationalizing abuse and avoiding reality will not foster understanding.
If Harvard is truly committed to fostering tolerance and understanding — Al-Waleed's stated goal — it might spend the $20 million more productively. The university could use the money to fund scholarships for Harvard students — regardless of their religion — to visit Saudi Arabia. Or it might help support extension of its core liberal-arts curriculum into the few and precious Saudi Arabian intellectual institutions that foster free thinking and liberal education. It could send prominent faculty members to teach for a semester in the kingdom's universities. One fine example is J. Lorand Matory, the Harvard African-American Studies professor who last March submitted the no-confidence motion against Summers following the women-in-science brouhaha. Saudi students could benefit from the concepts of tolerance, as well as the subjects enshrined in many Harvard classes ranging from women's studies to Western philosophy to Hebrew language and literature. Surely, al-Waleed would welcome such moves. His gift has no strings attached, right? After all, his goal is to foster understanding and tolerance. And when it comes to Saudi Arabia, tolerance should begin at home.
Suzanne Gershowitz, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, is a 2004 alumna of Harvard University.
By Suzanne Gershowitz
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online