Al-Qaeda Goes to College

Anthony Glees says this book fails to consider the threat to academia posed by terrorism's side effects

April 23, 2009

This is a fascinating book, but it isn't about al-Qaeda attacks on any US university, or even its sympathisers in American higher education. As the author explains: "So far, no jihadist terror attacks have been directed at US universities." What Castagnera writes about are the ways in which the "War on Terror" has affected what universities do and how they do it.

His thesis is as simple as it is cheering. "The war on terror", he writes, "has been a double-edged sword as far as higher education is concerned." It has led "on the one hand (to) a loss of innocence", owing to "the inexorable, irresistible demand for ever-tighter security measures". But on the other, it has provided "an enormous windfall for many colleges and universities", defined in terms of better campus security, large amounts of government funding for terrorism-related research and generous gifts to academia from Saudi Arabia.

Castagnera properly defines terrorism as being not only Islamist in nature, but also including the activities of animal-rights activists, Bruce Ivins (an anthrax expert for the US Government alleged to have killed five people with spores from his workplace), as well as - less convincingly - deranged students.

He is right to point out that, thankfully, academics have not been attacked with weapons by Islamists, even if animal-rights terrorists have used repugnant violence. But it does not follow that there isn't a problem. Universities can be (and have been) hiding places for terrorists - for example, Mohawk Valley College in New York, where convicted terrorist Dhiren Barot was enrolled, and Brunel University in Uxbridge, where Jawad Akbar, one of the bomb plotters caught by Operation Crevice, studied.

This is one reason campus security is vital, and despite the public posturing of many British vice-chancellors, it has been much improved here thanks to new government guidelines.

But universities can also be sites from which individuals can propagate extreme ideas to generate terrorist attacks or try to subvert liberal democracy more generally. Castagnera glosses over these matters, dwelling simply on the need, as he sees it, to provide "academic freedom" and "free speech" for teachers. He is less bothered about preventing the enemies of democracy and inclusive culture from using campuses to promote violence.

Indeed, only two examples of possible incitement are cited, in the form of professors Ward Churchill and Sami Al-Arian, to show how well US universities have done to maintain academic freedom. "US higher education", he says, "is the better for rising to the challenges" posed by terrorism. Castagnera's smugness is misplaced in respect of the culture of US higher education, which historically treated blacks and Jews as second-class citizens.

Moreover, free speech is not an absolute value in America: the First Amendment does not permit advocacy of the use of force where directed to inciting or producing lawless action. He also ignores evidence that the treatment of Middle Eastern affairs on campus is increasingly one-sided and distorted.

It is precisely in respect of Middle Eastern studies that Castagnera goes most seriously astray. In respect of recent gifts of $40 million (£29 million) to Harvard and Georgetown universities from Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, the author gushes: "We in the academy should be crowing about the Saudi largesse our prestige and influence has attracted."

Is Saudi funding really something to crow about? Are there no proselytising strings attached? For many, the Saudis' extreme version of Islam - Wahhabism - is incompatible with liberal democratic thinking and intellectual objectivity.

Although not an inconsiderable sum, $40 million is nothing to be conceited about, either specifically (Harvard's endowment in 2008 was $36.9 billion) or generally. After all, Arab and Islamic funders have given British universities and colleges more than six times that amount over the past decade, 50 per cent of it coming from Saudi Arabia and 50 per cent of it going to the University of Oxford.

While some of the money given to America goes to further research in Islamic civilisation, some is earmarked for "Muslim-Christian dialogue and understanding" (Christian, note, not Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist). This cash is therefore being used for political purposes, not academic ones. Universities are not there to do the work of politicians, even if some academics fail to understand this.

Of course, we face the same issues here. In March 2008, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal donated £8 million to build an Islamic centre at the University of Cambridge. It replaced the existing centre (why?) and conferred on the Prince important rights of governance within it. Yasir Suleiman, director of the centre, said: "(Its) aim ... will be to foster a deeper understanding between Islam and the West through the twin pillars of high-quality research and an energetic outreach programme."

In May 2008, the Prince gave the same amount to the University of Edinburgh to fund another Islamic centre. Carole Hillenbrand, then head of Edinburgh's department of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, said: "This is the biggest thing to hit Islamic studies in the UK ever. It is the biggest donation to the humanities that ... Edinburgh has ever received.

"There is ignorance and phobia about Islam. Our major aim is to improve public knowledge of Islam ... we can build bridges."

The phrases used by these professors show that the funding is primarily political.

Castagnera surmises that Saudi money has been donated for several reasons: "a penance" for the fact that 15 out of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis; "an investment in the gold standard" of US higher education; and to "buy the goodwill and expertise of US universities" to help expand research in Saudi Arabia "directed towards diluting the influence of fundamentalists within Saudi's own borders", which seems far-fetched. He accepts that "it stands to reason that Saudi generosity is aimed at winning hearts and minds of influential academics and intellectuals", but, tellingly, this does not seem to alarm him. It ought to. Those who pay the piper usually call the tune. The problem with Arab funding is not that it is Arab, but when it comes as a gift, unregulated by government, rather than as a legitimate fee for tuition.

Al-Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education

By James Castagnera

Greenwood, 224pp, £.95

ISBN 9780313364280

Published 30 April 2009

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