The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Getting to know you..... 

...getting to know all about you, as the song says. The more we know about each other, the more we will understand one another, and the more we will be at peace with one another. In theory at least. So I was fascinated to come across (Thanks to NahnCee) this interview with Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, the seriously rich member of the Saud family, about his gifts of $20 million to Harvard and another $20 million to Georgetown, to "advance the study of Islam".

I'm reproducing part of the interview, and without comments, because the interviewer, Deborah Solomon, is one tough person, and makes just the points that I would want to make. (However I did emphasize my favorite bits in bold).

Q. You just gave $20 million to Harvard and another $20 million to Georgetown to advance the study of Islam, and some are concerned that you are trying to increase the on-campus influence of the Saudi royal family, of which you are reportedly the single wealthiest member.

A. I don't have control, and I don't want control. Period. They approached us with a proposal. Harvard, Georgetown, University of Chicago, University of Michigan and several of the Ivy Leagues.

But your investment company, Kingdom Holding, invited the schools to submit the proposal, didn't it?

Whom else did you approach? Please. Keep the other universities out. I'd rather not embarrass them. The two winners were Georgetown and Harvard.

Since you're said to be worth more than $20 billion, with major holdings in Four Seasons Hotels, Saks Fifth Avenue and Murdoch's News Corporation, why not give an unrestricted gift instead of such a narrowly focused one?

The gift is unrestricted!

No, it's not. It has to be spent on Islamic studies. Georgetown is renaming a center after you, and Harvard is naming a program after you.

Well, sure! The studies that concern me and fit my overall global vision - they're Islamic studies. As you know, ever since 9/11, we have been trying to bridge the gap between West and East.

Which has backfired at least once. You became notorious in New York when Mayor Giuliani declined to accept a $10 million donation from you to victims' families after you suggested that the U.S. was too friendly with Israel.

By the way, my check was taken to the bank and cashed. The problem was with my statement. I accepted that. Subject closed.

Subject reopened. The money was returned to you. Have you told Harvard, as you told the City of New York, that the U.S. needs to "adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause"?

Let me tell you my position. We need to have good relations between the Arab world and Israel. When I sold my Plaza Hotel in New York, it was sold to Elad, which is an Israeli company.

Doing business with the citizens of a country is not the same thing as believing in that country's right to exist.

We are doing so many things to bridge the gap between Christianity and Islam and Judaism. For example, at my hotel in Paris, George V, you are going to find the Christian Bible, the Jewish Bible and the Islamic Koran in each single room.

That's a wonderful idea, but a luxury hotel in Paris is a long way from Saudi Arabia, where you could surely spend more money on Judeo-Christian studies.

Look. You have to understand that the population of Saudi Arabia has zero Christians.

That's the point. Why shouldn't you should spend your millions educating your own students before you educate kids at Harvard?

Obviously, it could be something we are contemplating.

Great interview! I'd love to see more like her doing interviews on US TV.

By the way, the Arabic translation of "Obviously, it could be something we are contemplating." is something like "Some millenia after Hell freezes over", but without the same sense of imminence.

But the basic point remains. I can wander round Barnes and Noble in the US and see shelves of books on Islam, so nobody who is interested in the subject need be starved of knowledge. And are there hordes of students knocking on the doors of universities, demanding courses on Islamic Studies, as opposed to Computer Science or Law? Is ignorance of the Muslim world so great that Western zealots keep flying planes into Arabic buildings? Indeed, for many, a cynical but justified reaction is that they "don't need to read the book, they already saw the film on 9/11".

Where the education is needed, as Deborah Solomon rightly points out, is in Saudi Arabia. Saudi kids, unless they are lucky like me to be educated elsewhere, are fed the most narrow-minded and twisted view of the outside world that it is possible to imagine. Except you don't need to imagine them. Here are some extracts from our syllabus.

The religion of Islam is the true religion and any other religion is false. The religion of Islam is lofty and triumphant over all [other] religions.
[Qur’an] Commentary, Grade 9, (2000) p. 88

The unbelievers (Jews and Christians and Atheists) among the People of the Book and the polytheists shall burn forever in the fire of Hell. They are the vilest of all creatures.
[Qur’an] Commentary, Grade 7, (1998) p. 116

Sometimes the textbooks get really carried away, and stray into a world of complete fantasy, (or the 9th Century.)

The Muslims are the leaders of the world.
Language exercise, Rules of the Arabic Language, Grade 7, pt. 1 (2002) p. 13

Muslim society still holds to the exalted moral principles and to the distinguished social characteristics unparalleled in other nations.
Rules of the Arabic Language, Grade 7, pt. 1 (2002) p. 96

As an example of our "exalted moral principles"....

The bloodmoney for a male Muslim freeman is a hundred camels. The bloodmoney for an infidel freeman is half the bloodmoney for a Muslim, whether he is a Man of the Book [i.e., a Jew or a Christian] or [of] other [religions], such as polytheist, Zoroastrian and the like.
[Islamic] Jurisprudence, Grade 10, (2001) p. 46

....just don't ask me where the Indonesian housemaid comes in that reckoning, nor the Indian guy who's going to have an eye gouged out. Probably as a "slave", which is worth half as little again.

But then reality kicks in, we wake up from our dream, and face the real world. It's a place, of course, we are the "world's favorite victims". So let's feed our "victim culture" with a really good meal.

There is no doubt that the Muslims’ power irritates the infidels and spreads envy in the hearts of the enemies of Islam – Christians, Jews and others – so they plot against them, gather [their] force against them, harass them and seize every opportunity in order to eliminate the Muslims. Examples of this enmity are innumerable, beginning with the plot of the Jews against the Messenger and the Muslims at the first appearance of the light of Islam and ending with what is happening to Muslims today – a malicious Crusader-Jewish alliance striving to eliminate Islam from all the continents. Those massacres that were directed against the Muslim people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Muslims of Burma and the Philippines, and in Africa, are the greatest proof of the malice and hatred harbored by the enemies of Islam to this religion.

And here, of course, is another basic problem of Saudi education - its one-sided lack of debate or even information. No mention of massacres by Muslims of Hindus in India, or Christians in East Timor. No mention of complexities and ambiguities like the "Infidels" coming to the rescue of Muslims in Kosovo, or Arab-Muslim on African-Muslim genocide in Darfur. Hardly the stuff to feed informed future "citizens of the world".

So who needs to be educated more about other peoples and faiths, the students of Harvard and Georgetown, or the students of Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam? Because, Prince Alwaleed, if you only pay for the one and not the other, you may as well name your foundations the "Prince Alwaleed Center for Religious Ignorance" and the "Prince Alwaleed Chair of Applied Bigotry".

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