Islamophobia is a problem in the United States, and anti-Americanism is a problem in the Arab world. Those conflicting realities were the idea behind a series of gifts by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Abdul-aziz Alsaud to six universities, including Harvard, and the topic of a February 8 panel discussion among the leaders of the centers the prince funded at those institutions.
Ali Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures and director of Harvard’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program (established in 2005 with a $20-million gift), expressed dismay about the fact that “discourses of American nationalism are being framed to exclude Muslims”—as though American Muslims cannot be patriotic or loyal to their country. “We have entered into a culture of fear—fear of the other,” he said. “Democracy cannot function if we are afraid of our neighbors.…We should be concerned about democracy in other parts of the world, but what about democracy here?” (Asani teaches Harvard undergraduates about Islam in two general-education courses.)
As for attitudes toward the United States in the Arab world, the United States suffers from “a problem of marketing,” said Magda Shahin, director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for American Studies and Research at the American University in Cairo. She noted that Egyptian citizens have more awareness of the opera house built by the Japanese government than of infrastructure improvements the U.S. Agency for International Development has supported. “The United States, as a superpower, either does not know [how to], or does not care to, market itself in the region,” she said.
Moderator R. Nicholas Burns, the Sultan of Oman professor of the practice of international relations at the Harvard Kennedy School, asked whether Arab governments didn’t have a responsibility to help with the American image in their countries, and to discourage anti-American sentiment.
Alexander Lubin, director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut, questioned the notion that Islamophobia and anti-Americanism are mirror images of the same thing. While “Islamophobia racializes Islam and Muslims,” he said, anti-Americanism is a reaction to specific policies.
In response to Burns’s third question, about whether the Arab Spring has produced lasting change, the prince called last year’s events “an earthquake” in the region. The lesson governments drew from it: “No matter how much social change you make in your country,” the people won’t be satisfied unless they are able to participate in governing their country (a point he also made in a Wall Street Journal editorial earlier in the week).
Yasir Suleiman, director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, agreed: “The Arabs have demonstrated…that they do want a change, that they do want democracy.” He said a movement “from subjecthood to citizenhood” was under way: “We are speaking about emancipation.”
The prince cautioned that the United States should not expect Arab democracies to look like American democracy, nor that all of them will look alike, just as Singapore and Switzerland have their own variations on democracy distinct from America’s.
And Hugh Goddard, director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World at the University of Edinburgh, noted that the road from less democratic rule to more democratic rule is not always a one-way street: for example, Italy and Greece, he said, “are not, in a traditional sense, democracies right now.”
Several participants predicted said that in the wake of the Arab Spring, longstanding paradigms would change—for example, the idea that by supporting authoritarian regimes, the United States could ensure security and stability, said John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown.
Suleiman voiced hope that democracy’s inroads in the Arab world would unleash the region’s economic power—everyone talks about the economic potential of “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), but what if the Arab world could be a fifth member?
The six centers have different emphases; one focus of Harvard’s is Islam outside the Middle East. Harvard’s first endowed chair was filled in 2010 with the appointment of Malika Zeghal, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal professor in contemporary Islamic thought and life, who studies the Middle East and North Africa in the postcolonial period and Muslim diasporas in North America and Western Europe. Yet-to-be-filled positions will focus on Islam in sub-Saharan Africa and Islam in Central Asia, as the University builds its capacity to study and understand and teach about a relatively less understood, but critical, part of the world.