Some day, Yale’s prince will come

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Danish cartoons scandal at Yale University Press is the role of the university administration. When author Jytte Klausen was summoned by John Donatich, director of the press, to hear that it wouldn’t publish the cartoons in her book about them, Donatich had company. Also present were the chair of Yale’s Mideast center, Marcia Inhorn, and Linda Lorimer, Yale vice president and secretary of the Yale Corporation. Klausen now asserts that the university effectively forced the hand of press, by collecting almost “unanimous” opinions of “experts” warning that violence would erupt if the images were republished. Klausen: “Once the university had decided to collect these alarmist reports about the consequences [of including the pictures], there was very little the press could do. That is why I agreed to go ahead with it, [although] I disagree with it.” The press has confirmed reaching its decision “after receiving the outside advice collected by the university.” And that advice was collected from on high. Islamic art historian Sheila Blair, one of the outside experts (who recommended in favor of publication), says she was approached by an assistant in the office of Yale president Richard Levin.

What prompted the Yale administration to intervene? Roger Kimball and Diana West have already suggested that Yale University is foraging for funding from oil-soaked Arab sources. Yale’s administration intervened not to prevent violence, but to prevent damage to its fundraising prospects in Araby. There’s a strong prima facie case for this, and it revolves around Yale’s courting of Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Over the years, I’ve reported on Prince Alwaleed’s efforts to buy up prime academic real estate in the United States. It was six years ago, in July 2003, that Alwaleed, then the world’s fifth-richest man, announced his plan to go on what I called “an academic shopping spree.” On a stop in Britain, Alwaleed revealed that “I am in the process of establishing centers of Arab and Islamic studies at select universities in the United States.” I made a prediction:

If you want a fabulously wealthy Saudi royal to drop out of the sky in his private jet and leave a few million, you had better watch what you say.… Prince Alwaleed’s buying binge is liable to reduce the entire field [of Middle Eastern studies] to a cargo cult, with profs and center directors dancing the ardha in the hope of attracting the flying prince.… In the near future, don’t be surprised to see grinning university presidents posing with Prince Alwaleed. They will say there are no strings attached. Puris omnia pura: To the pure all things are pure.

Sure enough, in December 2005, Harvard and Georgetown universities announced that they’d each received $20 million endowments from Prince Alwaleed—Harvard for an Islamic studies program and Georgetown for John Esposito’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Sure enough, a photographer captured Georgetown’s President John J. DeGioia beaming alongside the Prince, and a Georgetown administrator made the inevitable assurance: “The funds are designated, but there are no strings attached.”

The crucial thing to know about Prince Alwaleed is that he believes in “strategic philanthropy.” He’s not tied emotionally to particular universities, and he’s not interested in honors. He seeks maximum return on investment. The two $20 million gifts he made in 2005 followed a semi-secret competition, in which half a dozen institutions put on their most Saudi-friendly face. Alwaleed later named some names in an interview with the New York Times: Harvard, Georgetown, Chicago, Michigan, “and several of the Ivy Leagues” were in the running. The interviewer pressed for more names. “Please. Keep the other universities out,” said Alwaleed. “I’d rather not embarrass them.”

Who was spared embarrassment? The Yale Daily News asked President Levin if Yale had been in the race; Levin “said two University proposals had been in the final running.” Finalist, but not a winner.

But everyone assumes that Alwaleed will run another competition. He isn’t worth as much as he was a few years back, but according to Forbes, he’s still worth over $13 billion. (In March, he summoned a Forbes reporter to spend a week with him, just to prove he’s still living the opulent life. “Observing wealth on this scale, even for a seasoned billionaires reporter, was staggering.”) And he’s still in the academic market—so says Muna AbuSulayman, executive director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation: “Because of what is happening (in the markets) people might think he is stopping his philanthropy; on the contrary he is fully committed to his charity goals no matter what happens.” According to her, the Alwaleed Foundation has set aside $100 million for its Islam-West dialogue project, which endowed the centers at Harvard and Georgetown.

This same Muna AbuSulayman is also Alwaleed’s point person for his academic programs. “I used to work with him at Kingdom Holding, I was head of strategic studies, and I was given the assignment of doing the first centers in the U.S. I guess I did such a good job that he actually offered me the foundation.” You can see her in this photo of Alwaleed with Georgetown’s president, and in this one of Alwaleed with Harvard’s provost (she’s the one with the hijab). AbuSulayman continues to monitor the Alwaleed centers; in March, she convened their directors in London for their first joint planning meeting. (In this photo, she’s surrounded by the directors of the endowed centers, including Georgetown’s John Esposito and Harvard’s Roy Mottahedeh. Look carefully for strings attached.)

Now it gets interesting. In April, Yale named Muna AbuSulayman a “Yale World Fellow” for 2009. This isn’t some honorific, and she’ll reside from August through December in New Haven. (Her Facebook fan page, August 16: “I need help locating a Town House/condo for short term leasing near Yale University… Anyone familiar with that area?”) Can you imagine a better way to set the stage for a major Alwaleed gift? Hosting for a semester the very person who structured the Harvard and Georgetown gifts, and who now directs Alwaleed’s charitable foundation? A stroke of genius.

Imagine, then—and we’re just imagining—that someone in the Yale administration, perhaps in President Levin’s office, gets wind of the fact that Yale University Press is about to publish a book on the Danish cartoons—The Cartoons That Shook the World. The book is going to include the Danish cartoons, plus earlier depictions of the Prophet Muhammad tormented in Dante’s Inferno, and who-knows-what-else. Whooah! Good luck explaining to people like Prince Alwaleed that Yale University and Yale University Press are two different shops. The university can’t interfere in editorial matters, so what’s to be done? Summon some “experts,” who’ll be smart enough to know just what to say. Yale will be accused of surrendering to an imagined threat by extremists. So be it: self-censorship to spare bloodshed in Nigeria or Indonesia still sounds a lot nobler than self-censorship to keep a Saudi prince on the line for $20 million.

Yale has seen its endowment suffer billions in losses, and its administration has the mission of making the bucks back. Yale’s motto is lux et veritas, light and truth, but these days it might as well be pecunia non olet: money has no odor—whatever its source. Still, that isn’t the mission of Yale University Press, which seeks to help authors of exceptional merit shed full light on the truth. More than three years ago, I warned against “the deep corruption that Prince Alwaleed’s buying spree is spreading through academe and Middle Eastern studies.” If this is what caused Yale University to trespass so rudely against the independence of its press, then the rot has spread even further than I imagined. I’ve been a reader for Yale University Press, which I think publishes a more interesting list in Middle Eastern studies than any university press. But if editorial decisions are to be subjected to vetting and possible abortion by Yale’s money collectors, why bother?

Ignore all the denials, and watch for a hefty gift from Arabia, perhaps for another Alwaleed program in Islamic apologetics. Fat endowments speak louder than words—or cartoons.

Fear-mongering at Yale

Flash back to 2006. Professor Marcia Inhorn, a medical anthropologist and director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan, is invited to lecture in Tehran on her field of expertise, infertility and assisted reproductive technologies in Muslim countries. On her return, she seeks to dispel misconceptions about the Middle East. Because of the “American daily diet of fearsome media discourses about the Middle East, particularly Iran,” she complains, “it was difficult to convince relatives, including my 80-year-old mother, that it was safe for me, a mother of two young children, to travel to that part of the world.” Landing in Detroit, she finds the same bias:

When the customs official at the Detroit International Airport asked me why I had been “over there,” I told him it was for an academic conference. Then he asked, “And they didn’t behead you?,” to which I replied, “No, they served me delicious food.” He retorted, “But you never know what was in it (i.e., the food),” to which I responded, perhaps too flippantly, “Probably uranium.” Fortunately, he returned my passport and let me proceed to baggage claim, where I retrieved my two gorgeous Persian carpets.

Inhorn’s conclusion:

I would argue that such fear-mongering is very unwise. It is leading to closed minds, closed embassies, restricted visas, travel bans and demeaning airport luggage searches for those of us who overcome these travel restrictions.

They’re not going to cut off our heads or irradiate us—that’s her message. They just want to serve us their delicious food and sell us their gorgeous carpets. Nothing to fear but fear itself.

Flash forward to July 2009. Professor Inhorn has recently made a big move: she’s now at Yale, where she chairs its Middle East center (known as the Council on Middle East Studies). She’s seated in a cafe in Boston with Jytte Klausen, author of a forthcoming book on the Danish cartoons affair—those dozen cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that Muslim extremists seized upon in 2005. (Also around the table: the director of Yale University Press—the book’s publisher—and a vice president of Yale.) Professor Inhorn has been called in by the publisher to break some bad news to the author. Here’s a summary of what transpired at that meeting (as told by Klausen to Roger Kimball):

Their two-hour cup of coffee on July 23rd was not a pleasant occasion…. Unfortunately, [Klausen’s] book about the Danish cartoons could only be published without the cartoons. Moreover, Professor Inhorn told her, that depiction of Mohammed in hell by Doré would have to go. How about the less graphic image of Mohammed by Dalí? she suggested.

Nope. No-go on that either. In fact, Yale was embarking a new regime of iconoclasm: no representations of that 7th-century religious figure were allowed.

The reason? Yale University Press, relying on Professor Inhorn and other “expert” consultants, had determined that running the cartoons “ran a serious risk of instigating violence,” and that “publishing other illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad in the context of this book about the Danish cartoon controversy raised similar risk.” A statement by Yale University Press justifying its decision directly quoted Inhorn: “If Yale publishes this book with any of the proposed illustrations, it is likely to provoke a violent outcry.”

Wait a minute…. The last time we encountered Professor Inhorn, she was telling us to ignore the fear-mongering, not to let the media dupe us into expecting the worst. Now, behind the scenes, she’s telling an expert author, who knows a lot more about the topic than she does, that Yale’s press absolutely must expect the worst. The author’s book must be censored.

So let me try to reconcile Professor Inhorn’s view of how it works “over there.” Sure, they’ll feed you delicious food and sell you gorgeous carpets, but they can suddenly be “instigated” to violence by the mere reproduction, in a scholarly book, not only of old cartoons that anyone can access in a flash on the internet, but canonical works of Western art that have been in the public domain for decades (and even representations of the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic art). How easily they come unhinged! Why, show them the wrong image, and they could… well, behead you, just like that. And Professor Inhorn fancies herself above the “fearsome media discourses about the Middle East”….

Now I don’t know if publishing these images in an academic book at this time would run a “serious risk of instigating violence.” Everything I do know tells me that it wouldn’t. Extremists are always looking for something to exploit, but it has to be a new, unprecedented (perceived) offense against Islam. Dante’s Inferno, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons—these are all old perceived offenses, too familiar to fire up a sense of indignation. No doubt there will be another round at some point—and no doubt, its ostensible “cause” will surprise us all. (That’s because it won’t really be the cause, but a pretext—like the Danish cartoons.)

But that’s neither here nor there. The reason we have “restricted visas, travel bans and demeaning airport luggage searches” (and other disdained measures) is so that in America, a university press can publish the Danish cartoons in a book about the Danish cartoons, and do so without fear. If we didn’t have that line of defense, we would constantly have to censor ourselves and ban whole classes of free expression, lest we be tormented by fanatic extremists.

Given a choice between undergoing a baggage search and muzzling themselves, Americans prefer the former. More than that: if you threaten their freedoms, they may just cross an ocean to search for you. That’s why America is free and a refuge for the world. What sort of American would prefer the muzzle? Now we know.

Update, August 19: Here are more details about that outrageous baggage inspection:

Changing planes in Paris on her way home [from Iran], Inhorn was pulled aside and required to provide proof that her business in Iran had been strictly academic. Security workers slapped a high-risk stamp on her carry-on bags, then donned latex gloves to manually inspect every item. “It was very demeaning, simply because I had been in Iran,” Inhorn says. “So that’s the particular political moment I was in.”

It sounds entirely routine, and speaks less about the “political moment” than about Inhorn’s sense of entitlement.

Pointers: Read Christopher Hitchens, “Yale Surrenders,” and the statement by the American Association of University Professors, “Academic Freedom Abridged at Yale Press.”

Inside job at Yale?

In February, I wrote that I would be shocked if Yale appointed Juan Cole to a professorship in the Yale Center for International and Area Studies. Now that he’s been declared a finalist, I see I’m not alone. The appointment has been the subject of three hard-hitting pieces in the Yale Daily News, the New York Sun, and the Wall Street Journal. They raise all the obvious objections to Cole that I’ve been raising for a long time. The question that sticks in my mind is this: how did Cole get this far in the first place? Here’s one possibility.

One member of the search committee is Yale history professor Abbas Amanat, who also runs Yale’s equivalent of a Middle East center. Amanat is a distinguished scholar, whose judgment normally would be important in such matters. However, he has had an extra-academic relationship to Cole, which may well constitute a conflict of interest between personal obligation and institutional responsibility.

The sum of it is that Amanat and Cole belonged to a small group of dissident Baha’is who left (or were eased out of) the organized “Faith” in the 1990s. In the bitter polemics surrounding this affair, Cole defended Amanat against charges that he had abandoned his belief. “He has never disavowed being a Baha’i,” Cole attested of Amanat, “and has been an important mentor to younger Baha’i scholars in the Middle East studies field.” Cole wrote that Amanat “has feelings about the Faith that prevent him from doing so [i.e., renouncing his belief], despite what he described to me as his ‘liminality.'” Cole also composed a detailed apologia for Amanat, defending him against what Cole called the “Inquisition” of the Baha’i administration.

It is perhaps interesting to note that Amanat and Cole are also politically aligned. The Yale Daily News gave this account of an Iraq war “teach-in” held at Yale in January: “Cole said the decisions of the U.S. government upon entering the war were misguided. Abbas Amanat, a professor of history who concluded the event, reenforced the themes in Cole’s speech.” Amanat’s views on Iran are likewise indistinguishable from Cole’s. And immediately after 9/11, Amanat followed Cole in locating the “ultimate rallying point for the Arab and Muslim worlds” in U.S. policy toward Palestine.

Given all these personal and political intersections, one wonders whether this is yet another case of friend-brings-a-friend. Such a culture created the morass at Columbia, where Edward Said managed to assemble a small faculty of personal allies. It would be unfortunate were Yale to allow scholars with like allegiances, like interests, and like minds to nest in its Middle East programs.