Omer Aziz is a writer and J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. He is a Student Fellow at the Yale Information Society Project. He is a graduate of Queen’s University and Cambridge University and recently worked for the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria.
He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Dialogue Coordinator Elliot Friedland about Saudi financing in American higher education after a Saudi billionaire named as a defendent in a 9/11 lawsuit recently donated $10 million to establish a Center of Islamic Law and Civilization.
The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Clarion Project.
Clarion: Why does Yale accepting Saudi money mean so much to you?
Omer Aziz: I think we have to be mindful of who is financially supporting our academic institutions, especially elite institutions, which have inexorable ties to politically and financially powerful people.
Money talks in America,especially in the dissemination of ideas. In Washington, over a dozen think-thinks have taken money from foreign governments. Major universities have accepted donations from countries operating de facto apartheid regimes, as the Gulf states do.
Even if donations do not come with quid pro quos or implied expectations, as is the case with the Saudi gift to Yale, accepting dirty money sends the wrong message to students and to the world. The source of the money becomes interwoven with the reputation of the institution. Did the president of Yale and the dean of Yale Law School pause for a moment to ask, should we be accepting this funding? If ISIS gave Yale a $50 million donation would they accept? I hope not, and the difference between ISIS and the Saudis is that one is our ally.
I’ve said this before but I’ll repeat: The Saudi regime is a criminal syndicate that propagates the most totalitarian interpretation of Islam and claims to speak for all Muslims because that corrupt family is the protector of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. It has used its vast oil-wealth to spread this ideology. If the Iraq War is the first parent of ISIS, the Saudi regime is the second.
What Yale should have done is use a miniscule percentage of its $23.9 billion endowment to fund the Islamic civilization center. Elite institutions ought not to profit from theocratic, authoritarian, sexist, racist regimes. You’d think that was morally self-evident, but again, money talks.
Clarion: Saudi Arabia and its money also dominates many interfaith organizations and Middle East studies departments in Universities across the country.
What advice would you give to non-Muslims seeking to learn more about Islamic culture and religion but who want to avoid entanglements with the repressive Saudi regime and its Wahhabist doctrine?
Aziz: My advice is is, first: make sure you know some Muslims. The degree of stereotyping and generalization you hear in the media and in public discourse is abysmal. There’s this essentialist caricature of “the Muslim”—zealous, fanatical, and one-prayer-away from being suicide-bomber, or otherwise docile, moderate, unassuming. Americans who actually know some Muslims are far less likely to hold bigoted or Islamophobic views. If you’ve never met Muslims or engaged with them socially, your opinion is worthless since you are dealing with an abstraction and that abstraction is represented, reproduced, and reified by images you see on television or read about in the papers.
On the point of Islamophobia, I should add that people who say Islamophobia is not bigoted because one can have a rational fear of Islam are being either deceptive or willfully ignorant. Like other terms denoting bigotry, the term is problematic, but I think it’s useful to capture the overriding fear that Muslims are all involved in a malicious conspiracy to spread terror and create a Sharia state. Sure, some are, and they must be defeated, but the people who are not constitute not just the majority, but the overwhelming majority. The numbers do not even deserve a comparison.
Yet if you never knew any Muslims you’d think terrorists were somehow the most typical representations of Islam.
We see this stereotyping narrative play out with almost all minorities. Jews as selfish financiers. African-Americans as drug-dealing criminals. Hispanics as illegals taking away jobs. People who hold these views have the privilege of remaining ignorant about how Jews, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Muslims actually live. And so they construct an alternate reality, and it’s nonsense. Even compared to Canadian or British Muslims, American Muslims are by far the most progressive and open-minded in the West. So that’s the first thing. Get to know some Muslims.
Second, I would suggest reading history for yourself.
This is not just a Saudi problem but an academic one. University departments in America spend way too little time on Islam. This is perplexing. An entire course on some obscure part of the Renaissance, but students have to learn 1,400 years of history in a week? With all due respect to the Renaissance, of course.
Islam’s Golden Age (8th-13th centuries) produced Copernican revolutions in science, philosophy, mathematics, and literature and other subjects. A proto-scientific method was born in this time, as was the poetry of Rumi, the translations of and commentaries on Aristotle, the historiography of Ibn Khaldun, the study of algebra, one can really go on. The men working during this era were not simply intellectuals, they were polymaths. Ibn Sina (Avicenna) wrote 450 books in his lifetime encompassing physics, medicine, and logic. My personal favorite, because his writings are so funny and also because ISIS hates him, is al-Ma’ari, who was a 9th century atheist and poet from Syria.
The Islamic world was prosperous at this time because it was an open society that allowed science and skepticism. The House of Wisdom in Baghdad, for example, was a repository of learning and scholarship. Later, in the Indian Mughal Empire, the Emperor Akbar would hold religious debates in his court. After the birth of this fine American republic, the first country to recognize the United States was a Muslim nation, Morocco. Thomas Jefferson was even accused of being a Muslim, so that allegation goes back two hundred years.
There is nothing in the current terrorism problem that is historically predestined, and we should not treat the present malaise as something that can be attributed inherently to Islam. This should be rudimentary enough.
So that’s the second point: read history. It lets you zoom out and obtain a perspective that the media and countless terrorism “experts” will not and cannot provide.
Clarion: What impact do donations like this have on your experience as a Muslim in America?
Aziz: Very little, but my experience is atypical. I go to an elite law school and have the benefit of a supportive community. I am a male, which is its own form of privilege. I don’t practice, and so being beardless with brown skin is another kind of shield, though I’ve gotten my own fair share of looks at the airport.
There as many kinds of Islam as there are Muslims. Like every other kind of person, Muslims come in all shapes and sizes.
One of my best friends is an American Muslim veteran who served in Afghanistan. He served his country proudly and wore the American uniform to protect the homeland and protect Afghans from people who wanted to blow up voting centers and women’s shelters. Are you going to tell him he doesn’t belong here? That he should be registered? What about the many, many, American Muslim mothers who already have to deal with all the hardships of motherhood and life and are now being told by their fellow citizens that they have to somehow pre-emptively condemn terrorism, as if they had something to do with ISIS?
Most American Muslims I know find themselves torn not between America and terrorism, but between their deeply patriotic belief that this land was built by immigrants and the abiding fear of what may happen to their children and brothers and sisters if another loser picks up a gun, yells Allahu Akbar, and goes to shoot up some civilians.
In terms of a direct impact, I think I find myself more on the defensive than I ever want to be.
I can fairly criticize Islam and certainly Islamism and especially very conservative variations of Islam, but I always have to remind people that the Saudis, despite their money and prestige, are aberrations. They do not represent me. They do not represent the Muslims I know. So when I see a headline that reads, “Yale accepts Saudi billionaire’s donation,” I’m like, “Here we go again.”
Clarion: You say the study of Islam is desperately needed in the West. What in particular is the most important thing people do not know about Islam?
Aziz: It’s a pluralistic tradition. A political dispute broke out at Islam’s earliest stages, and there have been so many splintering groups that have come and gone, and even today obscure sects continue to exist. In theory at least, because interpretation and religiosity are grounded in the individual, there are as many Islams as there are Muslims. It is also a tradition steeped in history, a rich history that ISIS wants to completely elide in order to resurrect some non-existent utopia of the 7th century. It a lived tradition, meaning the character of the tradition in 2015 is not the same as it was in 1815 and won’t be the same as in 2050.
Some people say that the Qur’an is a violent text. Well, yes, there are violent verses in it, but most Muslims just mentally excise those verses from their lives. You can’t amend them formally like you can a constitution, but their de facto disregard is evidence in itself that the religion is compatible with modernity.
None of this to say there isn’t a cancerous mutation within the religion. There is.
A sect wants to kill as many people as possible, including fellow Muslims, and will behead even the most devout and peace-loving Muslim.
A group like this existed before. They were known as Kharijites and they thought even the Caliphs were not religious enough to their liking. These guys had the gall to claim someone was an apostate if he sinned. One of their members killed the fourth Caliph Ali while he was praying in the mosque. A sword to the neck. Sound familiar?
If ISIS was somehow convinced that 99% of Muslims were not pure enough and if they had the weapons at their disposal, they’d wipe the 99% of Muslims out in a heartbeat.
Hitler based his genocidal intentions on a racial hierarchy; Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi bases his on a motivational one—you pledge allegiance to me, or my men can kill you. (Ironically, motivational demands are also made of Muslims by the far-right in Europe and American nativists).
It’s gangsterism meets religion, and it must and will be defeated ideologically and militarily.
Clarion: Saudi abuses seem to be getting more media attention of late. How do you see public perception shifting? What is needed to convince Americans of the truth about Saudi Arabia's repressive government and support of global Islamism?
Aziz: That’ll take some time. This is because America long ago made a strategic deal with the Saudis to offer them military support in return for the continuing free-flow of oil and the protection of American interests in the region.
This is why the Saudis were so worried when the Iran deal was struck. It wasn’t because they were anxious about Iran getting a nuclear bomb some time in the future—Washington would protect them or Pakistan would—but because they thought America was strategically realigning with their rival and negating their influence.
But ISIS is doing the Saudis no favors. People are starting to connect the dots ideologically linking Riyadh to Raqqa and if public opinion shifts, American politicians will have to change course.
Every single current or former foreign policy official I’ve spoken to has recognized the nefarious impact of the US-Saudi relationship and how counterproductive it is both to American interests and American values.
The strategic change will come eventually. It is a matter of when, not if.
Clarion: What is wrong about the way America relates to the Islamic world?
Aziz: From the perspective of the Middle East, America is perceived as an imperialist power hell-bent on war all the time. Not by all people, but that’s the image. The Iraq War exacerbated this perception, but it was there before the wars of the past decade.
It’s a caricature, of course.
Military action without legal justifications in international law make people suspicious of motives, and rightly so. Take Iraq in 2002/2003. The UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441 demanding Saddam Hussein open his facilities to weapons inspectors. A respect for international law and norms would have let the inspectors do their work, and if military action was justified, to get approval from the Security Council beforehand. Instead, the United States rushed into war against the overwhelming public opinion of the world, bungled the entire thing, and it turns out, under false pretenses.
If action cuts one way, inaction cuts the other way. Today, American inaction has allowed Bashar al-Assad to gas thousands of people and use barrel bombs to slaughter even more, killing over 200,000 Syrians and creating over 4 million refugees. The nightmare scenario expected with Saddam in 2003 has been borne out by that other Ba’athist in Assad. The people of Syria rose up against a tyrant. I submit that a republic and democracy born of revolution and the strongest power in the world ought to have supported them. Washington did not, and now we see the consequences.
This is the nation of Hollywood: you’d think the US could do a better job of explaining why it is conducting the actions that it is.
Some acts are unjustifiable, like the American support of Saudi Arabia’s bombing in Yemen. But American soldiers have also given their lives to protect Iraqi and Afghan democrats.
The United States repelled Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait in 1991 and thus prevented the obliteration of a sovereign state. American planes protected the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq in the 1990s when Saddam wanted to mass-murder them. US bombs (belatedly) prevented Bosnian Muslims from being subject to any more carnage by Serbian fascist militas. I know your readers may disagree, but I believe that the US upheld the principle of non-proliferation in its deal with Iran.
These are unsung victories, because America is awful at explaining and justifying its foreign policy.
In the longer-term, there needs to be a fundamental rethinking of how America relates to the Middle East.
A just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will remove one grievance from the minds of many Muslims in the region, and both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry understand this but political forces make this almost impossible because the status-quo benefits the Likud government and the Palestinian Authority alike—the former an extreme right-wing and refusenik regime, the latter a corrupt and self-serving one.
Citizen-to-citizen outreach is needed as well, so Washington is not only dealing with the al-Sissis’s and King Salman’s of the Middle East but the people, who have the same aspirations and hopes as Americans do.
Even more consequentially, America should be pushing for internal reforms within countries as much as it does for stability.
The people who live in the Middle East, like people around the world, want economic opportunities, a say in who governs them, security for their children, and yet, for fifty years all they’ve gotten is corrupt, authoritarian dictators.
If such repressive regimes continue to exist, it will only postpone the next uprising, which will be uglier than the previous one.