Middle East studies in the News
Harvard Returns $2.5-Million Gift to Persian Gulf Leader After a Year's Criticism
by Erin Strout
Putting an end to more than a year of controversy, Harvard University is returning a $2.5-million gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates, who asked for his money back.
The gift, presented to the Harvard Divinity School in 2000 by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, was criticized by Harvard students and faculty members last year because of his affiliation with the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-Up, a research organization in Abu Dhabi, the emirates' capital.
Critics said the center, which was shut down last August, sponsored speakers and events that were anti-Semitic and anti-American, including a lecture by Thierry Meyssan, a French author who contends that the U.S. military was behind the September 11 attacks. The center's executive director has called Jews "the enemies of all nations."
In closing the Zayed Center, the United Arab Emirates said that the institution's activities "starkly contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance."
The $2.5-million gift to the divinity school was supposed to create a professorship of Islamic religious studies, but in light of the protests, Harvard never filled the position. Harvard officials put the plans on hold last August while they decided whether it was appropriate to keep the money.
In the meantime, President Zayed withdrew his donation, Harvard announced this week.
"Harvard has agreed to honor this request and return the funds," according to a written statement released by the divinity school. "Harvard remains strongly committed to advancing the understanding of Islam, and the divinity school is actively pursuing two faculty appointments ... in this important field."
Abdulla Alsaboosi, a spokesman at the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington, said the gift's withdrawal came after months of indecision by Harvard officials.
"The negotiations were conducted with cordiality and mutual respect," he said, "but after no decision was made by the university, we felt we had no other option but to retract the grant."
Rachel Fish, who led the movement against the gift as a student at the divinity school, said that Harvard should have acted more quickly. She added that the Zayed Center's activities were not the critics' only source of concern. The United Arab Emirates, she said, have a questionable human-rights record, including the use of corporal punishment on political prisoners.
Mr. Zayed has been the president of the country since 1971.
"Harvard dragged its feet on addressing the issue and didn't resolve it," Ms. Fish said. "The divinity school needs to seek reputable funding, not from individuals promoting hatred."
Ms. Fish, who is now the New York regional director of the David Project, a human-rights organization focused on the Middle East, urged students at other institutions that have accepted donations from the United Arab Emirates, such as Columbia and Georgetown Universities, to speak out about the same concerns.
"I hope these universities follow Harvard's lead," she said. "Students need to realize the importance of raising these issues and fighting against intolerance and injustices."
Julie Green Bataille, a Georgetown spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message that the United Arab Emirates have donated $1.2-million since 1975 to support programs and faculty positions at Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
"The gifts received ... have all supported our Center for Contemporary Arab Studies' efforts to foster greater understanding of the Arab world," she said. "We are grateful for the meaningful contributions that the UAE has made to our academic mission."
The emirates also contributed to the Edward Said Chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia. Messages seeking comment from Columbia were not returned on Wednesday.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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