A Saudi Arabian prince donated $20 million to Georgetown last month for the expansion of its Islamic studies program, handing the university the second-largest single gift in its history and potentially enhancing its position as a leading institution of Islam-related research.
Georgetown expressed its appreciation to the prince by renaming the program’s location — now the His Royal Highness Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding — in his honor. Alaweed also made an equal donation to Harvard University’s Islamic Studies program.
“I am pleased to support the Center,” Alwaleed said in a Dec. 12 press release. “It is vital for the monotheistic religions to reach a common ground of understanding in the Muslim world and the West.”
University President John J. DeGioia echoed the prince’s enthusiasm in the release, saying that Alwaleed’s generosity “will deepen Georgetown’s ability to advance education in the fields of Islamic civilization and Muslim-Christian understanding.”
John Esposito, the director of the center, said that the university plans to use the endowment to advance many of its primary goals.
“The money will be used as an endowment to support the center’s faculty, its basic programs and to help it meet the increased demand for its work in the post-Sept.11-world,” Esposito said. “The money ensures that the center will contribute to the international community for years to come.”
Esposito added that the gift would help the university develop its capacity to examine current political situations across the Muslim world.
“Americans, regardless of their position on the political spectrum, agree that there has to be a bridging of the gap between Muslims and the West,” Esposito said. “The gift allows us to pursue this goal.”
The idea for the donation originated when the prince contacted the university early last spring, according to Esposito. Esposito said that he and former director John Voll composed the gift proposal that was later submitted to Alwaleed’s staff for consideration.
The donation came under fire from some groups who criticized Alwaleed for his past statements assailing U.S. policy in the Middle East.
In 2001, then-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani rejected Alwaleed’s $10 million donation to the Twin Towers Fund after Alaweed recommended that the United States adopt its policies in the Middle East to become more pro-Palestinian.
In letters to both DeGioia and Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, U.S. House Rep. Anthony D. Weiner (D-N.Y.) said that “institutions like Harvard University and Georgetown University should not accept funding from a family that bankrolls terrorist organizations.”
Esposito said that the benefits that the money will provide for the Georgetown community are more important than the donation’s source.
“The issue is not who the donor is, but rather what the money is going to be used for,” said Esposito.
The prince’s gifts to Georgetown and Harvard’s programs for Muslim studies accompanied additional donations to American universities in Beirut and Cairo. The Washington Post reported that Bin Talal has donated $15 million dollars to these universities to establish the region’s first centers for American studies.
“The Prince had planned to establish centers for Western culture in the Middle East, and to fund existing Muslim centers in the United States,” Esposito said. “And that is what he has done.”