Prince of Tithes: Will a Saudi’s gift to Harvard really promote understanding?

In an era when Saudi nationals are best known for flying planes into buildings or funding radical Islamic groups that espouse terror and spread hatred, it is almost a relief to see a Saudi royal donate money to two U.S. universities for a benign-sounding cause. Harvard and Georgetown announced this week separate gifts of $20 million each from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to fund Islamic studies.

“Bridging the understanding between East and West is important for peace and tolerance,” Harvard quoted the prince as saying. With a gift to the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown, he said, “We are determined to build a bridge between Islam and Christianity.”

Noble sentiments, to be sure. Yet it’s unlikely that even this Saudi, let alone many Mideast-studies departments at U.S. universities, define bridge-building the way that most Americans do.

Let’s start with the prince. Fortune magazine ranks him as the world’s fifth-richest man, and he routinely gets credit for actually earning his fortune, e.g., through shrewd investments in companies such as Citigroup. Prince Alwaleed is also the same person who wrote a $10 million check for New York after 9/11 and then issued a statement saying: “At times like this one, we must address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack. . . . [The U.S.] should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause.” Mayor Rudy Giuliani famously sent the check back. “There is no moral equivalent for this attack,” he noted. “Not only are [Prince Alwaleed’s] statements wrong, they’re part of the problem.”

Perhaps the mayor’s remarks reflect the sort of pesky image issue that the prince had in mind when he addressed a Dec. 5 media conference held by the Arab League in Dubai. “We in the Arab world are not doing the job of explaining ourselves properly,” he said while announcing his gifts to Georgetown and Harvard.

With its $25 billion endowment and some 30 Islamic-studies scholars on board at any time, Harvard hardly needs more money to help with explaining. Even so, the folks in Cambridge and Washington are not likely to embarrass their benefactor politically. Although Columbia’s radicalized Middle Eastern programs and scholars have attracted the most controversy for pro-Arabism, the field of Islamic studies at most major universities generally belongs to those who share the prince’s passionate feelings about the Palestinian cause.

However, if the prince expects his gifts to truly improve the quality of serious study and dialogue, he may not get his money’s worth. Former Brandeis professor Gary A. Tobin, now president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, is co-author of a new book on the proliferation of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism in academe–“The Uncivil University” (published by the Institute). “If there was ever a time that we needed to understand the world of Islam and the Arab world . . . it is now,” he told us. “But how can you add to our understanding if you won’t explore the true nature of the Arab world and Islam as they exist today. What you have is shoddy scholarship and propaganda instead.”

The prince may have his own, private reasons for transferring some of his wealth to universities in the world’s richest country. When it comes to promoting peace and tolerance, though, the money might have been far better spent in his homeland. Saudi schools systematically seek to inculcate students with a loathing of Christians, Jews and virtually anything identified as “Western.” How about endowing a bridge called the “Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding” in Riyadh?