A U.S. congressman is asking Georgetown University about its academic scrutiny of Saudi Arabia and its use of $20 million donated by a Saudi prince in 2005.
U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) wrote to Georgetown President John DeGioia Thursday, saying he was concerned about how the money was being spent at the university's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Of particular concern, Wolf said, was the university's role in training current and prospective U.S. foreign service personnel.
Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, center, is seen with Georgetown president John J. DeGioia and John Esposito in this 2005 photograph. The prince gave Esposito's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding $20 million.
"The Saudi government continues to permit textbooks to contain inflammatory language about other religions," Wolf wrote. "Restrictions on civil society and political activists continue to be pervasive. No changes have been made to the underlying legal authority relating to non-Muslim worship that the Saudis have relied on to enforce these rules. The Saudis have cleansed their own country of religious liberties by severely restricting public religious expression to their interpretation and enforcement of wahhabism."
Wolf's letter seeks assurances the Georgetown center "maintains the impartiality and integrity of scholarship that befits so distinguished a university as Georgetown." He then asks whether:
• "the center has produced any analysis critical of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example, in the fields of human rights, religious freedom, freedom of expression, women's rights, minority rights, protection for foreign workers, due process and the rule of law."
• "the center has examined Saudi links to extremism and terrorism, including the relationship between Saudi public education and the Kingdom-supported clerical establishment, on the one hand, and the rise of anti-American attitudes, extremism and violence in the Muslim world, on the other."
• "the center has examined or produced any critical study of the controversial religious textbooks produced by the government of Saudi Arabia that have been cited by the State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and non-governmental groups for propagating extreme intolerance."
• "any of the Saudi-sourced finds have been used in the training, briefing or education of those going into or currently employed by the U.S. government.
Harvard University also received $20 million from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal but that is not addressed in the letter. Wolf is the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on State-Foreign Operations and is co-Chair of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.
The answer to his questions likely will be no, said Martin Kramer, former director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and a fellow at Harvard and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Prince Alwaleed's money wasn't designed to stop academic scrutiny of Saudi Arabian society and policies, Kramer said. The Georgetown center wasn't doing that anyway. Rather, "It's a move to change the subject [and say the roots of terrorism lie elsewhere]. For the Saudis after 9/11, changing the subject is important."
The Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding is run by John Esposito. His research has not delved into aspects of Saudi society or human rights to determine why 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, or why so many of the foreign fighters in Iraq have been from the Kingdom. Rather, Kramer said, Esposito's research places U.S. policy under the microscope and finds it responsible for fostering anger and resentment.
"He's not doing anything he wasn't doing before he got the Saudi money, he was doing it anyway," Kramer said. "The Saudis just rewarded him for it."
Esposito has a history of minimizing the threat of Islamic extremism and supporting Islamist regimes and movements. He has praised Muslim Brotherhood spiritual guide Yusuf al-Qaradawi as an intellectual who "reinterpreted Islamic principles to reconcile Islam with democratization and multiparty political systems and recast and expand traditional doctrine regarding the status (dhimmi) of non-Muslim minorities."
Qaradawi has expressed support for the killing of American forces in Iraq and praised Palestinian suicide bombers, writing "it is wrong to consider these acts as ‘suicidal,' because these are heroic acts of martyrdom, which are in fact very different from suicide."
In the summer of 2001, Esposito criticized those who emphasize the threat Osama bin Laden posed. "There's a danger in making Bin Laden the poster boy of global terrorism, and not realizing that there are a lot of other forces involved in global terrorism," Esposito wrote in The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. "Bin Laden has become the new symbol, following in the footsteps of Qaddafi, Khomeini, and Sheikh Omar Abdur Rahman. Bin Laden is a perfect media symbol: He's tall, gaunt, striking, and always has a Kalashnikov with him. As long as we focus on these images we continue to see Islam and Islamic activism through the prism of ayatollahs and Iran, of Bin Laden and the Afghan Arabs."
In addition to his academic work, Esposito has been allied with a series of people directly involved in terrorist and extremist movements. He continues to consider Sami Al-Arian, an acknowledged member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to be a friend and "[o]ne of the most impressive people I have met under fire."
He served on the Board of Advisory Editors for the Middle East Affairs Journal, published by United Association for Studies and Research (UASR). The UASR was established by Hamas Deputy Political Director Mousa Abu Marzook and run by Ahmed Yousef, now a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.
When the gift was made, the $20 million was reportedly designed to finance scholarships, three faculty chairs and expand academic outreach to "beef up" what the center already had in place.
In 2001, Alwaleed's attempt to donate $10 million to a fund for 9/11 victims was rejected by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani after Alwaleed suggested U.S. policy contributed to the attacks. In a news release, Alwaleed called on the U.S. to reexamine its Middle East policies "and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause."
Esposito defended the Prince's statement, saying "He was expressing his enormous sympathy with the United States but also trying to give people the context in which this [terrorist attack] occurred."
In addition to probing how the prince's money is being used at Georgetown, Wolf is asking the Bush Administration similar questions in opposition to a proposed $20 billion arms sale to the Saudi government.
In 2006, Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom issued a report on Saudi Arabian education. Despite claims that it modernized its curriculum and text books to remove intolerant and extreme references, the study found "an ideology of hatred toward people, including Muslims, who do not subscribe to the Wahhabi sect of Islam."
The issue of Saudi education was highlighted in a 2006 study by the Freedom House Center for Religious Freedom. Nina Shea, the report's author and then-director of the Freedom House center, penned an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on May 21, 2006 saying, "The texts teach a dualistic vision, dividing the world into true believers of Islam (the "monotheists") and unbelievers (the ‘polytheists' and ‘infidels').
This indoctrination begins in a first-grade text and is reinforced and expanded each year, culminating in a 12th-grade text instructing students that their religious obligation includes waging jihad against the infidel to ‘spread the faith.'"
Among the many examples Shea cited was this, from a sixth grade textbook:
Just as Muslims were successful in the past when they came together in a sincere endeavor to evict the Christian crusaders from Palestine, so will the Arabs and Muslims emerge victorious, God willing, against the Jews and their allies if they stand together and fight a true jihad for God, for this is within God's power.
The heart of Wolf's concern in both his letter to Georgetown, his alma mater, and in his opposition to the arms sales, appears to be a question of how reliable an ally Saudi Arabia is in the fight against terrorism and extremism. In addition, Wolf seems concerned over a cumulative effect Saudi interest in the U.S. has on policy. The letter notes a request to the Government Accounting Office about investigating "the revolving door" of senior officials who leave government only to lobby on behalf of governments where they previously served. And he specifically asks Georgetown about training current and future foreign service officers.
He notes that there has been a fair amount of promising talk, but "the Saudi government's promises remain unfulfilled."