Professors and administrators said yesterday that the Islamic studies program newly endowed by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud will likely focus on South Asia, rather than the Middle East.
As more information emerges about the possible uses of the $20 million gift, some students and faculty have expressed concerns about the potential direction and tone of the studies paid for by the grant.
The money will fund four senior professorships in Islamic studies, graduate student research, the digitization of Islamic texts, and an Islamic studies program to coordinate related work across departments.
The new program will host workshops and conferences but will not grant degrees.
Though professors and development officers favor concentrating the new funding on South Asian studies, students said that they see a dearth of resources devoted to contemporary politics and sociology in both the Middle East and South Asia.
Gurney Professor of History Roy P. Mottahedeh said yesterday that the program will not be “Arab-oriented.”
“Almost all of the stated goals of the program are not focused on Arab culture,” Mottahedeh said. “Most Muslims live east of the meridian of Karachi, [Pakistan].”
Mottahedeh said there is a particular need for more academic coverage of South Asia.
Donella Rapier, Harvard’s vice president for alumni affairs and development, echoed Mottahedeh’s suggestion that the program will center on South Asia.
“This gift will make it possible to add strength in important disciplines such as the history of science and new areas of study, such as Islamic Inner-Asian, Southeast Asian, or South Asian studies, to complement our expertise in other geographic areas,” she said.
While Alwaleed said in a telephone interview from Riyadh that the main goal of his donation is to “bridge the gap between East and West, between Christianity and Islam, and between Saudi Arabia and the United States,” he said that he defers to Harvard in terms of the focus of the program.
“Whether between Islam and Christianity or the West and the East, I will defer to the people handling the program,” he said. “I defer to them in that respect.”
The move toward more South Asian studies comes after a recent Undergraduate Council resolution supporting the South Asian Studies Initiative. The resolution called for the expansion of South Asian studies at Harvard with a growth in course offerings, visiting professors, and student involvement in the department.
“When people hear Islam, they immediately associate it with the Middle East,” said South Asian Association President Alka R. Tandon ’07. “This will education people both about the region and the Islamic presence there.”
But both the President of Harvard’s Society of Arab Students, Rami R. Sarafa ’07, and the President of Harvard Students for Israel, Amy M. Zelcer ’07 said that Harvard does not offer enough classes focusing on the contemporary Middle East.
“There is a lack of Middle Eastern classes at Harvard,” Sarafa said. “There is a lack of Near Eastern classes relating to politics and sociology.”
The focus of the program will be strongly influenced by which professors the faculty chooses to hire.
Rapier said that the professors will be chosen under the normal appointment process and that Alwaleed will have no input whatsoever over appointment decisions, but students and faculty have already started to express concerns about who is hired.
Zelcer said that while she favors the development of an Islamic Studies program, she thinks that the college will have to be careful about its choice of professors.
“I feel strongly that the College needs to act judiciously when it comes to recruiting for these positions in order to ensure that the professors selected will act under the auspices of true scholarly excellence and academic standards,” she said. “We sincerely hope, however, that acceptance of this gift does not signal that the University will feel compelled to hire someone whose political beliefs reflect those of Prince Alwaleed—namely the beliefs which impelled Rudy Giuliani to return a similar gift immediately after September 11th.”
Giuliani rejected the donation after Alwaleed issued a statement saying that the U.S. “must address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack.”
Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature Ruth R. Wisse said that the field of Islamic Studies in America has been plagued with problems, and she worries that those same problems could potentially surface at Harvard depending on how the grant is used. She said the danger is that the courses could be “congratulatory rather than critical.”
“The whole field of Middle Eastern studies has been severely compromised,” she said. “What have the universities done to teach us anything meaningful about what’s going on there? Anything we’ve learned has been in spite of what’s being taught in universities, not because of it.”
Wisse said that Alwaleed is not from a Democratic tradition that values free inquiry, and she fears that his cultural background might influence the way the courses are taught at Harvard.
“Saudi culture is definitely not a self-accuasatory culture. It’s a culture of blame,” Wisse said. “The question is, will it affect the way the subjects are taught?”
But Alwaleed said he hopes the new program will look at both positive and negative aspects of Arab culture.
“My point of view is [that] my friend is bringing plus and minus together,” he said. “I want an open forum for debate that will bridge the gap between both societies. [The program should] reestablish the positive and try to rectify the negative.”
Coming from a mixed Saudi and Lebanese background, Alwaleed said that he has friends from all different cultures and religions, and hopes that the new programs he has established in the United States will serve as a “melting pot” for different ideas.
“The best forum is academia,” he said. “Teachers and professors from Israel and Saudi Arabia and the United States, of course, can talk and debate and loosen up.”
CORRECTION: The print and original online version of the Dec. 14, 2005 news article "Use of $20M Donation Debated" incorrectly stated that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud is of Syrian and Lebanese background. In fact, he is of Saudi and Lebanese background.