Grant for Islamic Studies Put on Indefinite Hold

A controversial Islamic think tank's plans to endow a chair at Temple U. fall through -- because of prudence or undue influence?
January 8, 2008

In deciding to indefinitely delay accepting or declining a think tank’s offer to fund an endowed chair in Islamic studies, Temple University officials determined that no decision would be made pending the completion of post-September 11 federal investigations of the Virginia-based International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) -- a private, nonprofit institution “concerned with general issues of Islamic thought and education.” The institute was the subject of a 2002 search warrant in connection to a federal investigation of the financing of groups accused of terrorist activities.

The university’s inaction, however -- which eventually led to the institute withdrawing its $1.5 million offer in December with plans to resume negotiations with other institutions -- has spurred concerns about the chilling of intellectual inquiry in Islamic studies by mobilized interests.

"There were allegations from outside groups that we shouldn't be taking the money from this organization," the religious studies department chair, Rebecca T. Alpert, told the Philadelphia Inquirer for an article on the subject. A second professor of religious studies quoted in the article, Leonard Swidler, described pressure on Temple's president from "very un-American ... Islamophobic persons on the board of trustees." (Alpert and Swidler could not be reached for comment.)

“You have to work hard to convince the university we’re bad guys, but somebody did it,” Nancy Luque, a lawyer who represents the institute, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. She added that the institute was not aware of the reasons for the delay in the university's decision-making process until an Inquirer reporter contacted her after the institute decided to withdraw its offer. “Time was passing. We had other opportunities and finally we decided that we should just stop waiting and go elsewhere,” Luque said, adding that the institute had been talking with several colleges in Virginia and one in Michigan.

“The next thing I know, I get this reporter calling me, telling me all of this is happening behind the scenes,” she said.

In a written statement, Temple said officials “decided to neither accept nor reject this generous offer” pending the completion of federal investigations. The university affirmed its commitment “to attracting private support for teaching and research in the Department of Religion, including endowed chairs and the Islamic studies program, as part of its ongoing development activities.”

With any significant proposed donation, the university investigates the background of the donor, explained a senior university administrator who asked not to be identified by name. In this case, Temple administrators were concerned to see that the institute was named, though not directly charged, in connection with the indictment of a University of South Florida professor, Sami Al-Arian, who ultimately received a 57-month sentence for “conspiring to violate a federal law that prohibits making or receiving contributions of funds, goods or services to, or for the benefit of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad” (he pleaded guilty to one count of the 17-count indictment after a jury failed to convict him). “It was not clear to us from the work that we had done that all of those investigations as they might pertain to the institute had been completed," the Temple administrator said.

Luque, IIIT’s lawyer, expressed dismay about the university’s stated concern over the think tank's former support of the South Florida professor. “IIIT exists to give funding to universities or people who are writing books for universities,” she said, adding that given Al-Arian's position at a public institution, there was no reason to suspect a problem at the time. “They misunderstand and misperceive the reference in that indictment,” she said. "Nothing happened to us. We didn't have our assets frozen;" nor, she said, was the institute the subject of any trial.

"I think if you go six years without anything happening to you, it's kind of fair to conclude that nothing's going to happen," she said.

Luque sadly described this weekend’s Philadelphia Inquirer article as likely chilling any effort by the Institute to move forward at another university with its plans to endow a chair for the first time – or even create an entire center for Islamic studies at another institution, as had been discussed.

“I don’t know how we can do anything now. I don’t see how any university, public, private or otherwise, can accept [the] money.”


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