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Harvard's Divine Dilemma By: Beth McMurtie
Chronicle of Higher Education | Friday, June 06, 2003

The Harvard Divinity School is considering whether to return a $2.5-million donation to the president of the United Arab Emirates after questions were raised about his connection to a controversial Middle Eastern think tank.


The Zared Center for Coordination and Follow-Up --which was established "in fulfillment of the vision" of the president, Sheik Zared bin Sultan al-Nahayan, according to its website -- in recent years has been host to speakers and has published books with anti-Semitic and anti-American views.


Wendy McDowell, a spokeswoman for the divinity school, said that administrators have been aware of the possible ties since December, but that they have not yet been able to determine whether the center has received the president's blessing.


"From what we've been told, it's one of those things in that country where people say that everywhere," she said of the statement about fulfilling the president's vision. "There are people who start things in the name of the president all the time. It's like when we call things 'George Washington something.' It does not necessarily mean he's behind it or sponsors it or has given any money to it."


But Rachel Fish, a divinity student who met with Dean William A. Graham in March to share information she found on the center's Web site, said the connection was obvious and that she was distraught that the administration has taken so long to make a decision. Ms. Fish said the dean told her that the center's activities were "deplorable" and that he would form a research team to look into the possible connection.


"It was just puzzling and troubling to me how the institution could have accepted the money to begin with, when this connection was apparent," she said. "This wasn't secret information that I had access to."


President Zayed donated the money to Harvard in 2000 to create a professorship in Islamic religious studies, but the position has not yet been filled. The divinity school has put the search on hold "until all questions are resolved," Mr. Graham said in a statement.


The president is not listed on the Zayed Center's Web site as having a particular role there, but his deputy prime minister is chairman of the center. The organization states as its goal the promotion of "solidarity and cooperation among the Arab nations in the light of the principles and objectives of the League of Arab States."


The Zayed Center has drawn several high-profile speakers over the years, including former President Jimmy Carter, former Vice President Al Gore, and former Secretary of State James Baker.

It has also gained a reputation for serving as host to controversial lecturers and publishing their works. Last year, Thierry Meyssan, a French author whose book The Appalling Fraud claims that the U.S. military was behind the September 11 attacks, spoke at the center. The center published his book in Arabic. It has also published a book titled Those Who Challenged Israel, in which the ideas of Holocaust deniers David Irving and Roger Garoudy are highlighted.

On April 9, Umayma Jalahma, a professor of Islamic Studies at King Faysal University in Saudi Arabia, who has claimed that Jews use human blood in making pastries for the Purim holiday, was a guest lecturer, according to the Middle Eastern Research Institute. (The center's Web site does not list any speakers for that date.)


Last year, the Zayed Center was host to a conference on "Semitism," in which the center's executive director called Jews "the enemies of all nations," according to news reports.


The Anti-Defamation League, which monitors anti-Semitism worldwide, has a page on its Web site about the Zayed Center. Topics of the center's lectures and publications include Jewish conspiracy theories, the league states.


In his statement, Mr. Graham called the Zayed Center's activities "repugnant and indefensible." The school has made inquiries to both the V.A.E. government and to V.S. government diplomatic officials in Abu Dhabi, he said. The independent researcher's report was delivered to Mr. Graham last week, and he said he plans to share it with faculty members before coming to a decision.


Ms. Fish eagerly awaits some action. "The divinity school is a moral voice of this institution," she said. "By accepting this money, or at least being complicit and complacent and not returning the money, you are bankrupting the divinity school of its moral voice."

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