The Oct. 15 killing in Gaza had a bitterly ironic quality. The victims were three Americans, security personnel protecting an academic review committee en route to interview Palestinian applicants for the Fulbright program, an academic exchange funded and run by the U.S. government. The killers were Palestinian terrorists. The three, in other words, were murdered by Palestinians while on a humanitarian mission to help Palestinians.
But the irony runs deeper: According to the Israeli government, a current Fulbright scholar from the West Bank "is known as an activist" in Hamas - one of the terror groups suspected in the bombing.
Mustafa Abu Sway just began teaching about Islam at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Jupiter, Fla. Superficially, he appears to be prime Fulbright material.
He has a Ph.D. from Boston College, is an associate professor of philosophy and Islamic studies at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, has written two books on a medieval Muslim thinker and received an award from the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley.
But when we inquired about Abu Sway, the Israeli government informed us of his Hamas ties. How can a person belonging to a group that possibly killed Fulbright-related personnel himself receive a Fulbright award?
Who duped the American taxpayer into funding someone an alleged activist in a terrorist organization? Why had no one in the Fulbright or FAU bureaucracies asked questions about Abu Sway's background?
J. William Fulbright, the Democratic senator from Arkansas, hoped that the program named for him would "bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship."
In contrast, Hamas' highest priority is to establish an Islamic Palestine "from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River" - in other words, a Palestine that does away with Israel. (Abu Sway echoes this view when he states that Palestinians need to "return to their homes from which they were uprooted in 1948.") That goal would appear to be in direct contradiction to the Fulbright program's spirit.
That the State Department both administers the Fulbright program and has listed Hamas as one of 36 Foreign Terrorist Organizations adds a surreal quality to this problem: State sponsors and pays someone accused of belonging to a group it itself has outlawed.
Nor is Florida Atlantic blameless in this sordid affair. University officials gushingly welcomed Abu Sway in a July 2003 press announcement (he "adds to our diversity and strengthens our international studies program"). But when informed of Abu Sway's ties to terrorism in early October, they went mum, seemingly in hopes of avoiding the whole issue.
This is precisely the wrong response. Both FAU and the Fulbright program must urgently take two steps: 1) Investigate how they came to fund and employ someone said to belong to a terrorist group, and 2) Get serious about instituting anti-terrorist measures to prevent a re-occurrence.
The Abu Sway outrage also points to another problem, the casual tolerance of terrorist ties in the field of Middle East studies. Here are two other examples of this pattern:
* In 1993, Mohammed Abdel-Hamid Salah, a convicted Hamas operative, identified the Springfield, Va.-based United Association for Studies and Research (UASR) as Hamas' political command center. Yet Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding co-sponsored a conference in 2000 with UASR. (Abu Sway graced this event with a talk on "Islamic Movements in the Arab Muslim World.")
* Last February, a grand jury indicted three Middle East specialists associated with the University of South Florida on charges of being "material supporters of a foreign terrorist organization," namely Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Not only did the Middle East studies establishment seem unperturbed by that indictment, but several professors rushed to defend the accused.
Abu Sway's Fulbright award presents another example of connections to Islamist terrorism becoming acceptable and almost routine in Middle Eastern studies - one of several reasons why it is perhaps the most problematic of any academic field.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, was vice-chairman of the Fulbright Board of Foreign Scholarships in the early 1990s. Asaf Romirowsky is an MEF research associate.