US faculty condemn Trump officials on Middle East centre threat

University study centre ‘positive’ on Islam but not Christianity, objects senior Department of Education official

September 24, 2019
Christian cross on table
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The leading association of US university professors condemned the Trump administration for threatening to withdraw funding from an academic study centre deemed to be insufficiently “positive” towards Christianity and other non-Islamic religions.

The American Association of University Professors, in a statement released on Monday by Henry Reichman, the chair of its Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, called the federal funding threat to the Consortium for Middle East Studies, a joint project between Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “chillingly inappropriate”.

The US Department of Education accused the consortium of potential legal violations after a Republican congressman complained about a conference on Gaza that it held in March.

The department began investigating the consortium in June after George Holding, a Republican representative of North Carolina, complained that the event – which used $5,000 (£4,000) in federal grant money – contained anti-Semitic content.

The congressman was reportedly alarmed by coverage of the event that described one conference participant, Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar, as saying he was singing “my anti-Semitic song”.

Mr Nafar was merely referring, one audience member told the UNC student newspaper, to his concern that any comment that might be regarded as anti-Israel could be criticised as anti-Semitic. Others, however, said Mr Nafar did make comments at other points that Jewish students legitimately took as offensive. Kevin M. Guskiewicz, UNC’s interim chancellor, later issued a statement condemning the language.

After the department’s investigation, the assistant US secretary for post-secondary education, Robert King, wrote to the consortium late last month listing a series of complaints.

By law, he wrote, “federal funding is conditioned on a demonstration that a given center or program is a ‘national resource’ for teaching of any modem foreign language; for instruction in fields needed to provide full understanding of areas, regions, or countries in which such language is commonly used; for research and training in the international and foreign language aspects of professional and other fields of study; and for instruction and research on issues in world affairs that concern one or more countries.”

The consortium’s work “appears to lack balance as it offers very few, if any, programs focused on the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze, and others”, Mr King wrote.

He also complained that in the consortium’s offerings for elementary and secondary students and teachers, “there is a considerable emphasis placed on understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East”.

Mr King said federal funding would be withdrawn unless the centre responded by 22 September demonstrating compliance with the law.

The money at stake, said Dr Reichman, a professor emeritus of history at California State University East Bay, is relatively little – the Duke-UNC consortium gets just $235,000 from a $22 million annual federal programme to assist international studies centres, of which about $3.5 million is aimed primarily at Middle Eastern topics.

But the threat to academic freedom is profound, Dr Reichman said. “We urge the Department of Education to step away from the dangerous path it has entered,” he said.

The chief lobbyist for US higher education, Terry W. Hartle, senior vice-president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said that while he was not familiar with all details in the case, the administration's protest seemed curious given its long-running crusade to enact a free speech code governing colleges.

“The Trump administration seems to be very much in favour of free speech on campus”, said Dr Hartle,”until someone says something they don't like”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

My experience of an online university course at a more junior level was that there was a lack of balance on Islam. Sources intended by the creators to "enable dawa carriers" for example were the main source of information on some subjects. One could still learn, often from other students, but you had to be careful not to be taken in. It is also worth investigating the funding for these courses.

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