Anwar at Georgetown: A Case Study in the Shaping of Expert Opinion

Prompted by Harlech’s question, I want to offer some thoughts about why we’re having a serious debate in America now about the Muslim Brotherhood’s aptitude for “moderation.”

I should say that his comment seems to have annoyed quite some number of Ricochet members, but I appreciated it. I have a better sense now of what many outside of the small community of American Ikhwan-watchers must be thinking: “Surely the people who are calling the Muslim Brotherhood moderate, or otherwise benign, couldn’t be that wrong? They are, after all, experts, no?”

Those of us who follow the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood closely keep smacking our foreheads in bewilderment at these blithe pronouncements, unable to comprehend how this could be a matter of debate at all. There are serious debates to be had about the Ikhwan, but they’re not debates about whether they’re moderate. They are debates about how powerful they really are–in Egypt, for example–and what their strategy is apt to be at a moment like this, which appears to have caught them by surprise as much as it has everyone else. These are questions worthy of debate and difficult to answer.  

That we’re having a serious discussion, however, at high levels of our foreign policy establishment, about whether the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate should be seen not as a sign that those who say they are might be right, but as a symptom of a pathology in our foreign policy apparatus. It’s important to recognize just what has happened to our intelligentsia–our experts, in other words–and to evaluate what they’re saying in this light.

One part of it, a plain fact that’s poorly appreciated but demonstrably true–not a conspiracy theory at all–is that the Saudis and other Gulf regimes have poured breathtaking amounts of money into American universities and think tanks since the 1970s. The Saudis spend $4 billion per annum to promote a particular view of Islam. This exceeds the Soviet Union’s budget for foreign subversion during the Cold War. A mind-boggling amount goes to funding America’s top-tier universities, and of course this has an influence.

Now, I am not claiming that the Saudis have made explicit conditions for the receipt of this money, but I am certainly claiming that people are human. I’m not pure. Ricochet has financial backers, too, and you sure won’t find me going out of my way to criticize them. When you’re talking about Saudi money, though, it doesn’t just all balance out in some big marketplace of competition for influence–they have enough to make whole university departments appear overnight. Or disappear, a fact that will weigh particularly on the mind in a recession.

Let’s look at just one example–Georgetown. In 2005, Georgetown accepted a $20 million donation from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, whose money was contemptuously rejected by Mayor Giuliani in the wake of the September 11 attacks. This was used to finance Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. (Muslim-Jewish understanding wasn’t a priority, I guess.) What does it do with this money? Well, for example, it hosts symposiums such as this one, in 2007: “Islamophobia and the Challenge of Pluralism”–co-host, CAIR.

In 2008, Representative Frank Wolf asked wrote to Georgetown to ask whether “the center has produced any analysis critical of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example in the fields of human rights, religious freedom, freedom of expression, women’s  rights, minority rights, protection for foreign workers, due process and the rule of law.” Georgetown president John DeGioia didn’t answer the question directly, but said instead something quite important: 

Our scholars have been called upon not only by the State Department,  as you note, but also by Defense, Homeland Security and FBI officials as well as governments and their agencies in Europe and Asia. In fact, a number of high ranking U.S. military officials, prior to assuming roles with the Multi-National  Force in Iraq, have sought out faculty with the Center for their expertise on the region.

Do you see what might ensue from this? Mitchell Bard has provided the most patient and detailed account I’ve seen of the amount of money flowing from the Gulf to our universities in The Arab Lobby, which I reviewed here–behind the firewall, alas. That’s a book that should have forever put paid to the idea that it’s the Israel lobby running the show, but that idea, alas, dies hard.

So let me point out something that happened recently at Georgetown that should give you a feel for things. This past week, Anwar Ibrahim visited Georgetown for a discussion titled “Revolution and Democracy in the Muslim World.” He argued there–and this was widely reported in the media–that the United States shouldn’t fear the Muslim Brotherhood. It should rather “engage them,” because it was “crucial to support peoples’ choices in the Islamic world.”

First let’s start with the assumption that the Muslim Brotherhood is the peoples’ choice in the Islamic world. That alone is an insane and unsupported assertion; we have no evidence of this. A lot of Muslims I know are terrified of them. The idea then goes cheerfully unchallenged in conventional wisdom, although I dare say these Malaysian women would find the idea quite remarkable.

But that’s not even the main point. The main point is the way Georgetown billed this speaker. Do you not feel it would have been minimally responsible, since the media covered this event and policy makers no doubt paid attention to it, for Georgetown to have mentioned that where the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned, Anwar is not neutral? That he himself co-founded the IIIT, a major Muslim Brotherhood think tank in the United States? Don’t you think it might be relevant to note that the Justice Department named the IIIT as unindicted co-conspirators in a crucial terrorism-financing case involving the covert channeling of funds to Hamas through the Holy Land Foundation? Or perhaps they might have mentioned that the survivors of September 11 sued the IIIT for “rendering material support to radical Islamism?” None of this is a secret; it has been widely reported.

Anwar’s affection for and ties to the the most influential Muslim Brotherhood cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, are also extremely well-known to those paying any attention at all–that would be “Hitler didn’t finish the job” Qaradawi; that would be “I encourage the mutilation of women’s genitals” Qaradawi; that would be “Rape victims should be flogged” Qaradawi; that would be “Kill pregnant Israeli women because their unborn children are future soldiers” Qaradawi. And Anwar’s anti-Semitism is so notorious and vulgar that the B’nai Brith has begged US officials to cut ties with him. Wouldn’t you think Georgetown would be wary of inviting such a speaker to present the views of “moderate Muslims” about the Muslim Brotherhood?

And if they did invite him–out of the sense, perhaps, that universities should promote open debate, even with radicals–wouldn’t you think they’d signal something to the media about their guest’s intellectual pedigree by means of a word such as “controversial,” or “Islamist,” or anything, really, but “respected internationally as a leader in interreligious dialogue?” 

And you know, Anwar isn’t just a one-time guest. He’s a distinguished visiting researcher at the university–at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

Do you see how crazy this is? Do you see why our experts might be a bit confused?  I want to take pains to say that Georgetown still produces important and valuable scholarship, and that I don’t believe this is a plot or a conspiracy. But I do think it’s a culture–a culture in which you don’t point certain things out or ask too many questions, and at a certain point you don’t even realize how strange it is that you’re not, because extremism has come to seem mainstream. 

It’s only one part of the explanation, but it’s an important part. 

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More By Claire Berlinski:

On the Origins of the Muslim Brotherhood

Why the Muslim Brotherhood Matters to You

Engaging the Brotherhood

  1. John Marzan
    • I have a better sense now of what many outside of the small community of American Ikhwan-watchers must be thinking: “Surely the people who are calling the Muslim Brotherhood moderate, or otherwise benign, couldn’t be that wrong? They are, after all, experts, no?”

    Eli Lake is one of them.

  2. Mel Foil

    The Middle East Problem (a semester course in five minutes, by Dennis Prager)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63hTOaRu7h4

    In that part of the World, being a middle of the road Islamic organization is like being a middle of the road alligator. Moderate or not, if you swim with them, they’ll kill and eat you…moderately.

  3. Leslie Watkins

    Having been an editor for several university presses for more than two decades, I have to say, Claire, that I am more worried about professors in the humanities (and, following on that, government experts) than the Brotherhood themselves. It truly is not extreme to say that many such academics, perhaps the majority, despise their country—this includes women, women who are much more fearful of a guy wearing a sports letter jacket than Saudi-like dress. (Of course, these folks don’t really despise their country; it’s just the thing to spout. I agree with Camille Paglia: come a natural catastrophe, this silliness drops by the wayside.) This is why, when I hear academics and bureaucrats saying things like Clapper said, I wonder—am I quoting you on this?—why aren’t these experts urging the inclusion of women in the transition in Egypt as much as they’re endorsing engagement with the Brotherhood? Why?

  4. david foster

    Leslie–”It truly is not extreme to say that many such academics, perhaps the majority, despise their country”

    This certainly does appear to be true. What factors do you think have brought this situation about?

  5. Aaron Miller

    Thanks for the patient explanations, Claire.

  6. liberal jim

    Thank you once again for an informative post.  Certainly major universities are being bought off, but it is good to remember it is in the political self-interest of many in both parties to portray the MB as less radical.  Certainly the lubricating effect of Saudi money helps the process in the political world as well as academia, but it would go on without it.   In the immediate context the MB will have greater political influence in Egypt therefore it is advantageous for some political careers if they are viewed as a semi-mainstream organization and they are being redefined as such in the media.  

  7. Leslie Watkins
    Aaron Miller: Thanks for the patient explanations, Claire. · Feb 17 at 6:36am

    Yes! They’re very valuable.

  8. TeeJaw

    “First let’s start with the assumption that the Muslim Brotherhood is the peoples’ choice in the Islamic world. That alone is an insane and unsupported assertion; we have no evidence of this.”

    What do you make of that Pew Research poll from last year?  Do you think the people polled were lying to the pollster, that their answers do not reflect their true feelings?  Was the poll flawed in some other way?

    I don’t claim to know.  I think leftists use polls to try and set opinion the way they want it, but I haven’t a clue how to evaluate this poll except to say that if it is accurate then the MB would seem to be exactly what Egyptians want.

  9. TeeJaw
    Leslie Watkins:  This is why, when I hear academics and bureaucrats saying things like Clapper said, I wonder—am I quoting you on this?—why aren’t these experts urging the inclusion of women in the transition in Egypt as much as they’re endorsing engagement with the Brotherhood? Why? · Feb 17 at 6:03am

    Because no matter how much they preen about equality for women they are Leftists, first and foremost.  

    Muslim cultures can stone rape victims to death and Leftists will not utter a peep.  They simply do not care one little bit about that.  They wallow in hatred of their own country and they believe the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

    It may be true that they don’t really hate their country, but one must engage in deep psychoanalysis to come to that conclusion.  I’m not qualified to do that so I take them at their words, or lack thereof.

  10. Aaron Miller
    liberal jim: …it is good to remember it is in the political self-interest of many in both parties to portray the MB as less radical.

    Agreed. That’s one reason I prefer Allen West to Chris Christie (I can’t find Kenneth’s post where he talked about this).

  11. Claire Berlinski
    C
    TeeJaw :

    What do you make of that Pew Research poll from last year?  Do you think the people polled were lying to the pollster, that their answers do not reflect their true feelings?  Was the poll flawed in some other way?

    TeeJaw, I mentioned that poll in the podcast I just did with Judith. I’ll actually write a post about it at some point in the future–I have a lot of thoughts about it. What I said was that it’s alarming, but I’ve seen far too many opinion polls about “What Turks think” that are widely off the mark to trust it all that much. I see the kinds of problems pollsters get into when they deal with Turkey. Huge ones. I’ve been looking for more information about that poll’s methodology and haven’t found it so far. When I do I’ll give you my opinion about how seriously to take it. 

  12. Margaret Ball

    What do you make of the persistent tendency of the media, academia and government officials to acclaim some prominent Muslim as “moderate” when a 5-minute Google search would reveal that he’s no such thing? It puzzles me. Surely they can’t all be raking in Saudi dollars?

  13. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Margaret Ball: What do you make of the persistent tendency of the media, academia and government officials to acclaim some prominent Muslim as “moderate” when a 5-minute Google search would reveal that he’s no such thing? It puzzles me. Surely they can’t all be raking in Saudi dollars? · Feb 17 at 9:39am

    Language, for one thing. If you don’t understand the languages they speak and refuse to master Google Translate, you’ll miss a lot. Lack of imagination–it can be very hard to grasp just how different other cultures can be. Wishful thinking–it is universal to want to see the good in people, and very much to Americans’ credit that they do. 

  14. TeeJaw
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

     I’ve been looking for more information about that poll’s methodology and haven’t found it so far. When I do I’ll give you my opinion about how seriously to take it.  · Feb 17 at 9:25am

    Cool.

  15. Humza Ahmad

    I have been an admirer of Anwar Ibrahim for some time, ever since working for one of his strongest supporters outside Malaysia, former US Ambassador to Malaysia John Malott. Amb. Malott is now taking flak from the Malaysian ruling party and might be banned from entering Malaysia because he has denounced their pursuit of Mr. Ibrahim on a second round of trumped up sodomy charges. My support of Anwar Ibrahim stems form his support of secular democracy in Malaysia and his brave opposition to one-party rule by UMNO, the ruling pro-Malay coalition. I am honestly not knowledgeable enough to comment on his connections to Islamists or the Muslim Brotherhood, but his policies on democracy and human rights make clear that he, himself, is no Islamist.

    (More later…)

  16. Humza Ahmad

    But there is one point I think needs to be discussed in regard to the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement in Egypt’s future, if any. I think we are all proponents of democracy in Egypt and any other country for that matter. But when it comes to dangerous elements like the Muslim Brotherhood, where do we draw the line? What specific policies can we support that would keep the Muslim Brotherhood out of power, but would not seriously compromise democratic principles? I don’t want to see the Muslim Brotherhood organizing and taking part in Egypt’s government, but I’m at a loss as to how to appropriately keep them out.

    This question reminds of the first international relations class I took in college. The professor talked about the democratic peace hypothesis, and I, a loud-mouthed 18 year old, called him on it, pointing out how peace between democracies was more of a Cold War construct than an inherent property of democratic governments. Could we be seeing the beginnings of the breakdown of the democratic peace hypothesis now, with Arab populations hostile to Israel and each other vote for governments that reflect this hostility?

  17. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Humza Ahmad: I have been an admirer of Anwar Ibrahim for some time, ever since working for one of his strongest supporters outside Malaysia, former US Ambassador to Malaysia John Malott. Amb. Malott is now taking flak from the Malaysian ruling party and might be banned from entering Malaysia because he has denounced their pursuit of Mr. Ibrahim on a second round of trumped up sodomy charges. My support of Anwar Ibrahim stems form his support of secular democracy in Malaysia and his brave opposition to one-party rule by UMNO, the ruling pro-Malay coalition. I am honestly not knowledgeable enough to comment on his connections to Islamists or the Muslim Brotherhood, but his policies on democracy and human rights make clear that he, himself, is no Islamist.

    (More later…) · Feb 17 at 5:11pm

    Hamza, interesting comments. Very briefly, I don’t think you’re right about Anwar. He has surely been persecuted on absurd charges, and no doubt UNMO is rotten. But that doesn’t a moderate make. Look at his coalition partners, the PAS–would anyone concerned for secularism or democracy in Malaysia make common cause with them?