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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Saudi Specter over the American Education System

Filed under: Saudi Arabia
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 29, Numbers 1–2


The article describes and analyzes Saudi Arabia’s vast investment in the U.S. education system starting in the 1980s but especially after 9/11.

It focuses on both the Middle Eastern Studies centers at the universities and on the K-12 systems. It emphasizes the nature of the translated Saudi Wahhabi textbooks. It points to the impact of this investment on American students and consequently on American public opinion.

“Understanding the Role of the Muslim Brother in America”

…The Ikhwan [brethren] must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying western civilization from within and “sabotaging” its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions. Without this level of understanding, we are not up to this challenge and have not prepared ourselves for Jihad yet. It is a Muslim’s destiny to perform Jihad and work and work whereever he is and wherever he lands until the final hour comes, and there is no escape from that destiny….1

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the reports that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, there was naturally a surge of interest in how an alleged ally of the United States could provide so many willing terrorists in the devastating assault against the United States and the West.2 Most who are well-informed on the subject and experts in the field of counterterrorism realize that Saudi Arabia since the 1970s, via its vast oil wealth enabled by the immense rise in oil prices, has financed the building of thousands of mosques, Islamic schools (madrassas), as well as other Islamic centers and institutions that espouse an ultraconservative brand of Islam, often termed “extremist” or “radical,” that follows the Wahhabi or Salafi doctrines of Islam. A recent New York Times article calculated the Saudi investment from 1964 to 2004 in non-Muslim-majority countries alone at an astonishing 1,359 mosques, 210 Islamic centers, 202 colleges, and 2,000 schools.3

Saudi money financed these institutions alongside multitudes of other Islamic organizations across the world and within the United States (80 percent of 1,200 mosques operating in the United States were built after 2003).4 The surge of Saudi investment coincided with King Faisal’s accession to the Saudi throne in 1964 and the kingdom’s subsequent rapid increase in oil revenues in the 1970s. King Faisal felt a religious obligation to spread Islam; this led to an effort that saw the Saudis spend massive sums over the decades leading up to 9/11 in order to spread the Wahhabi doctrine.5 Indeed these sums came to a stunning $4 billion annually, as substantiated in a testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and corroborated by then-King Fahd’s website.6 Perhaps more tellingly, the kingdom strove to spread its version of Islam through the academic environment. Many observers across the globe have regularly criticized the radical Islam that celebrates jihad and denigrates Jews and Christians, both of which were frequent themes in Saudi-produced K-12 textbooks. These radical textbooks were used internally and exported throughout the Muslim and non-Muslim world; the Islamic State, when they opened their own schools throughout the areas they controlled, decided to adopt Saudi textbooks.7

Fareed Zakaria, the prominent Washington Post journalist, concluded that the Saudis have created a monster in the world of Islam.

More suicide bombers from Saudi Arabia than from any other country volunteered to go to Iraq after 2003. In addition, Saudis formed the second largest national contingent (after Tunisians) of foreign fighters (2,500) in the Islamic State. Recently Islamic terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have turned against the Saudi ruling family. In response, the kingdom has gone on the counterterrorism offensive against some of the groups that it had assisted with its petrodollars. As William McCants of the Brookings Institution remarked, “The Saudis are both the arsonists and the firefighters” when it comes to extremist Islam.8

Many have recently become more aware of Saudi Arabia’s ties to terrorist organizations and ultraconservative, extremist approaches to Islam. This was in part due to the media’s renewed interest in the subject after the Obama administration seemed to distance itself from the United States’ historical alliance with the kingdom leading up to and after the Iran nuclear deal, and the subsequent release of the previously withheld 28-page section of the 9/11 Commission Report that focused on Saudi Arabia’s role in the terrorist attack.9 While more were publicly aware of the Saudi efforts at global Islamic missionary activities (da’wah), they were not fully aware of the insidious manner in which the Saudis, along with other Gulf states, had influenced American youth by targeting the U.S. education system.10 It was similar to the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) and other extremist Islamic organizations’ strategy of affecting U.S. government policy by targeting the future policymakers before they became less malleable – a strategy that was pursued throughout Egypt and Sudan.11

After 9/11 the Saudis, as well as other Gulf states, stepped up their spending spree and targeted the U.S. education system with renewed vigor. Perhaps this was an attempt to counter the backlash that the Saudis and others expected after the 9/11 fallout and the exposure of their connections to radical Islam. Or perhaps it was part of a strategy to deploy the massive Saudi wealth to affect future political decisions, a use of economic and soft power in conjunction with the openness and liberality of Western democracies.12 Soft power is an international relations term coined by Joseph Nye in the late 1980s that has evolved over time to include methods that do not involve coercion (or hard power, i.e., military power). Instead soft power employs alternative measures, such as international aid and investment, to make one’s culture, ideas, and agendas more attractive and thereby induce other people and entities to acquiesce to one’s desires.13

While across the Muslim world, and for the most part domestically, the Saudis have propagated their ultraconservative Wahhabism, they have also targeted the Western impression of Muslims and Islam by focusing on Western youth via Western education systems. The Saudis, alongside other organizations they have helped finance, have set out to provide a different image of Islam for Western consumption. This is an Islam that indeed differs greatly from the one in Saudi Arabia’s own state-produced textbooks and publications, which follow the Wahhabi doctrine.14

This study aims to ascertain to what lengths the Saudi influence has penetrated the U.S. education system and to what extent it has affected Americans’ opinions about Islam and Muslims. First, it was necessary to examine and analyze the ties and the funding by the Saudis and their sponsored organizations of universities that directly feed policymaking governmental agencies. Second, the article delves into the network of funding initiatives by the Saudis aimed at the K-12 primary education system of the United States. It must also be noted that this article will by no means attempt to define what the proper interpretation of Islam is, but will examine whether the direct and indirect Saudi-funding efforts to influence U.S. education institutions have altered the social impression of Islam that Americans hold.

Saudi Influence on U.S. Campuses

While Saudi financing of Muslim institutions across the globe had become widely reported over the past few years, though it had been occurring since the 1960s, it coincided with the Obama administration’s distancing of the United States from decades of close alliance with the kingdom. Less had been reported in the mainstream media on the extent of financing that the Saudis provided and continue to provide to America’s education systems.15 One main source of Saudi funding goes directly to U.S. universities and colleges through Middle Eastern Studies (MES) programs and centers. A second major source of funding is financial assistance to organizations associated with universities such as student organizations and those that they have helped establish. There is concern that the Saudis are purposefully attempting to influence the opinions and social impressions of future American policymakers by financing MES programs and centers located at what many consider “feeder-schools” to U.S. government agencies such as the State Department. Using Sarah Stern’s editorial efforts in the release of Saudi Arabia and the Global Terrorist Network in 2011, records from the U.S. Department of Education are used to show the extent of Saudi gifts; they totaled a staggering $329 million in funding from 1995 to 2008. These donations have become critical to the operations of these universities and in many cases have rejuvenated their MES programs.16

The public discomfort over Saudi and other Arab funding of U.S. universities is nothing new, with the first concerns being voiced back in the mid-1970s after the 1973 rise in oil prices that enriched numerous Arab nations with huge amounts of petrodollars. This was exemplified by Georgetown University’s MES center being founded in 1975 with $2 million in grant money from Libya, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab sources.17 A number of other universities across the United States launched similar Arab Studies programs with Saudi money; some universities and the donors claimed that there were no strings attached and that the purpose was to benefit both Arab and U.S. foreign policy by educating more Americans about the Arab world and its people. The controversy first arose when reports surfaced showing that the $1 million in financing that the University of Southern California (USC) had received to endow the King Faisal Chair of Islamic and Arabic Studies was accompanied by Saudi “requests” to the USC administration. A report detailed that the Saudis demanded that Professor William Baird, formerly an Arab-American Oil Company (Aramco) official, head the MES Department at the university in 1976 and also insisted on having a future say on who would fill the endowed chair.18

In addition to the newly funded MES departments and centers, the Saudi government fully sponsored tens of thousands of Saudi students over the next few decades. There is nothing necessarily unscrupulous about wanting your country’s youth to receive a better education, but the significant rise of Saudi students in the United States brought forth new organizations such as the Muslim Student Association (MSA) in college campuses across the country.19 The numbers of Saudi students continued to rise since the 1970s; according to a Brookings Institution report on foreign university students studying in the United States during the period of 2008-2012, the Saudis comprised 5 percent of all students on F-1 visas, placing them fifth overall with China coming in first at 25 percent of total students. While this is a huge percentage gap, it is crucial to note that when one considers the student-age populations of each of these two countries it reveals a stark reality; per capita there are more than 10 times as many Saudi students than those hailing from China enrolled in U.S. universities.20

Since the report was released the number of enrolled Saudi students at U.S. universities increased, and during the 2014-15 school year it reached 60,000 or 6 percent of the total foreign students studying in the United States21 This point is highly significant because a by-product of the rise in number of the Saudi students on fully funded Saudi-government scholarships was the establishment of many questionable organizations with ties to extremist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The MSA is one such organization, along with others, that were founded with Saudi donations and have since transformed into controversial organizations with ties to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the MB. MSA was one of the first organizations in the United States to be funded by Saudi donations, and the New York Times described the early chapters across American universities as “little slices of Saudi Arabia,” subscribing to the teachings of Wahhabism and other radical Islamist trends while prohibiting any criticism of the kingdom and its leaders.22

MSA evolved as it grew and expanded into more universities, taking in more American students, and the organization slowly moved away from the puritan Wahhabism that had characterized it in the 1960s and 1970s. However, while this moderation had occurred in some campuses, the MSA is regularly criticized for its organized events that use what many describe as hateful speech, especially when directed toward Jews and Israel.23 The MSA has ties to the MB and Hamas via fundraising efforts for the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), an organization officially labeled by the United States as funding terrorism.24 In 2001 HLF’s assets were frozen, in 2007 it was taken to trial, and in 2008 it was found guilty on all 108 counts of funneling more than $12 million to Hamas.25 MSA was one of the first Saudi-funded Islamic organizations in North America that declared its main goal to be furthering the global “Islamic Movement.” Larry Poston, in his book Islamic Da’wah in the West, used MSA’s own publications in 1975 to illustrate that their main purpose was to spread Islam to non-Muslims in North America and that the best place to do so was the university campuses, which the MSA deemed the “most curious, the most inquisitive and the most open-minded audience for Islam.”26 Furthermore, MSA and its students helped spawn several other organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), the Muslim Youth of North America (MYNA), the Islamic Book Service (IBS), and a host of others that were all identified by the MB in an internal 1991 explanatory memorandum as “our organizations and the organizations of our friends.” The MB then later in the memo identified different sectors that were designated as priorities for expansion such as social, cultural, and professional organizations that included student groups and educational research centers.27

Many branch-off organizations that the MSA helped establish received their initial seed funding from Saudi donors. One of these listed previously, NAIT, was founded by University of Indiana MSA members and was designated as an unindicted coconspirator in the HLF trial, as money was transferred to Hamas through its accounts.28 NAIT received vast amounts of largesse from Saudi Arabia, Libya, and other oil-rich Arab nations, and later in 2009 Federal Judge Jorge Solis stated that there was ample evidence to link NAIT with Hamas and the MB. This was not the first time that NAIT, the MSA, or their associated organizations – the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) and ISNA – had been linked to the Ikhwan (MB). In 1988 an FBI memorandum labeled these organizations as MB front groups with aims of altering public opinion and influencing the U.S. government through infiltration.29

IIIT, after a six-year federal investigation that started with raids of its office in 2002 under Operation Green Quest, which saw the seizure of $10.3 million, 12 arrests, and four indictments, also was active in funding American universities; it donated $1.5 million to help George Mason University expand its Islamic Studies programs in 2008.30 NAIT, another of MSA’s previously mentioned affiliates, created splinter organizations. Despite the abundance of these new North American Islamic organizations and institutions and name changes of others, when one followed the funding route it led to Saudi Arabia; its donors provided the funds necessary for MSA, NAIT, and a host of others to initiate and maintain operations.31

Alex Alexiev of the Center for Security Policy was quoted saying that:

The Saudis over the years set up a number of large front organizations, such as the Al Haramain Foundation, the Muslim World League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, and a great number of Islamic “charities.” While invariably claiming that they were private, all of these groups were tightly controlled and financed by the Saudi government and the Wahhabi clergy. Moreover, these organizations commonly shared personnel, money, and institutional affiliations.32

This network of Saudi monetary influence within these organizations and their ties to the MB raised the question of how the MB envisioned proceeding with its operations.

An MB official in the United States, when explaining the organization’s role in North America during a speech in Missouri in the 1980s, stated that “the reality of the movement is that it is a student’s movement,” later adding that “they have to be members of the MSA…and, if they’re Palestinians for instance, they will have to be members in the Islamic Association for Palestine.”33 Now while there were legitimate activities that these organizations engaged in, activities protected under the freedoms accorded to them under the U.S. Constitution, there were also those statements and initiatives that indicated that the MSA had a radical Islamist agenda. For example, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, at a 1995 Muslim Arab Youth Association conference, stressed that “da’wah, converting people to Islam, that is what we hope for. We will conquer Europe, we will conquer America! Not through sword but through da’wah.”34 Another example was former UCLA MSA member Ahmed Shama, who delivered a speech at MSA’s seventh annual West Conference held at USC in 2005. In his speech he said that “the only justification – the only justification – that Muslims have to live in this country [the United States] is da’wah.”35

The MSA document “Dawa [sic]: Time to Come Out of Our Boxes,” previously posted on its national website, demonstrated that there often occurred a change of verbiage and version of Islam depending on who were the target audiences. That document advised MSA members to adjust their da’wah to the cultural sensibilities of North Americans. One example was the use of the concept of jihad. In an effort to appeal more to American audiences, members were instructed to use terms such as “struggle,” “striving,” or “participation in the struggle” instead of “holy war.”36 This is something that experts, in addition to Al Qaeda terrorist insiders such as Zacarias Moussaoui, have claimed that the Saudis have been doing for quite some time: condemning Islamic terrorist attacks and extremists for Western consumption, but then promoting and funneling money to extremist Sunni Islamic organizations in the United States and across the world, including in the lead-up to the 9/11 attack.37

Some might be quick to point out that the Saudi government officially listed the MB as a terrorist organization, perhaps concluding that this fact alone casts doubt on a possible connection between Saudi funding sources and organizations that the FBI and others had defined as MB front groups operating in the United States. While this is currently true, historically the Saudi government and donors regularly helped fund the MB until the 1990s when there was a fallout between the two due to the MB’s support for Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the First Gulf War.38 It is also important to note that after the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud on January 23, 2015, Saudi Arabia warmed up to the Brotherhood again. This was attributed to new King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud’s allegedly more positive view of the organization.39 It was significant that while relations between Saudi Arabia and the MB did sour in the early 1990s, with the MB eventually being labeled a terrorist organization by the Saudi government, Saudi money continuously assisted the financing of the group’s agenda for decades, breeding multiple organizations in the United States that were dedicated to the fundamental philosophies of the MB and specifically targeted university students.40

Several decades of Saudi investment in U.S. universities and associated student organizations helped spawn new Islamic-based institutions in the United States and a renewed vigor in Saudi donations following the 9/11 attack. This was exemplified by back-to-back $20 million donations from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to American universities.41 The first was in 2005 to the Georgetown Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which was renamed in honor of the prince shortly after Georgetown received the second largest donation in its history.42 The second $20 million gift from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal went to Harvard University in 2005. An interesting critique by those who opposed the Georgetown MES center was that the Muslim-Christian Understanding title was a complete misnomer since there were zero Christian representatives in the center and the only Christian tie to the center was the fact that Georgetown had been founded by the Jesuit order. Other critics have claimed that the Georgetown and Harvard MES centers actively pursued campaigns aimed at identifying and labeling individuals and organizations as “Islamophobic” in an attempt to discredit those critical of Islam in the United States.43

Those who defended the MES centers and their recent donations claimed that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was a global philanthropist who also donated money to universities across the Middle East that taught about America and its culture such as the American Universities of Beirut and of Cairo, and that there was no unscrupulous motive behind the money. While the first point is undoubtedly true, it was necessary to note that neither the American University of Beirut nor of Cairo offered courses on Christianity, the majority religion in the United States that had helped shape American culture since its earliest days, whereas the MES programs in U.S. universities overwhelmingly focused on Islamic Studies.44

Saudi donors were by no means the only ones to provide funding to U.S. universities; it was common for many countries around the world to donate to higher education regularly both inside and outside the United States. Just recently two wealthy Hong Kong moguls pledged to donate $370 million to Harvard and USC. Still, the Saudi government was one of the largest gift-givers to U.S. universities. From January 2007 to November 2013, Saudi Arabia donated $97 million to U.S. universities placing it fifth overall for this period.45 Whether or not these donors expected anything in return was nearly impossible to prove; but regardless, they caused concern. Some other large Saudi donations to universities included $20 million to the MES center at the University of Arkansas, $11 million to Cornell University, $5 million to UC Berkeley’s MES center, $5 million to Rutgers University, $1 million to Princeton University, and a half million dollars to the University of Texas.46

The concern in the United States grew, compounded by the fact that universities were not always clear about the sources of their donations. Universities are only required by law to release the origins of donations greater than $250,000.47 Many universities, such as Columbia, were criticized for not reporting their foreign donations in a timely manner. One speculated that the reason was that they wanted to avoid criticism of their education being tainted by “strings attached” for their research, or that these funds were intended to facilitate the admittance of certain foreign students into the universities. Critics pointed out that many endowed research chairs at MES centers in upper-echelon universities that received money from Saudi donors had historically been open to Saudi requests concerning who was going to teach in them.48 Also, many were distressed by the fact that some university programs that obtained these donations had a record of feeding directly into U.S. government jobs. Georgetown was well known as a feeder institute to the State Department, drawing perhaps more attention than other recipients of Saudi funds. The $20 million donation from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal concerned one congressman enough to write a letter to the president of the university in which he demanded answers to some very difficult questions about the university and its ties to Saudi funds.49

Additionally, Saudi donations had been claimed by others as rewards for producing research and focusing on topics that the Saudis saw as aligned with their interests in presenting Islam and the kingdom in a positive light. Some even went so far as to focus research on how the United States was responsible for bringing the 9/11 attack upon itself due to its policies in the Middle East and across the globe. While no topics should be purely off-limits in an academic setting, it was the absence of balance with regard to subjects that were researched at these MES centers that disturbed many. Critics of Saudi donations suggested that while the gifts might not grant them direct access to manipulate the research at these MES centers, it gave those in the centers a larger voice to propagate their opinions and possibly even their agendas by supporting those who were funding them.50 One such controversial “expert” in the field who attracted large sums of Saudi donations was Georgetown University professor and MES director and longtime Islamic apologist John Esposito. After Prince Alwaleed bin Talal announced his intention to donate $20 million to Georgetown’s MES center, he shortly thereafter said that the funds would follow Professor Esposito to wherever he would move.51

Professor Esposito has been surrounded by a cloud of controversy because of his close ties to terrorist-organization sympathizers. Some of these were prosecuted for assisting terrorist organizations such as Sami al-Arian, previously a University of South Florida professor whom Esposito had described as a close friend.52 Sami al-Arian was prosecuted for “Conspiracy to make or receive contributions of funds, goods or services to or for the benefit of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a Specially Designated Terrorist group.” He received a 57-month prison sentence but was expected to be released on time served until he was held in contempt because of his refusal to testify in a Virginia court case against IIIT.53 The judge in the case called him a “master manipulator,” saying to al-Arian that “you looked your neighbors in the eyes and said you had nothing to do with Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This trial exposed that as a lie.”54

Professor Esposito had a long history in the field and had been heavily criticized for defending extremist organizations such as Hamas and Hizbullah.55 He was first criticized in the public limelight when several scholars in the field took him to task for downplaying the threat of Islamic extremism while he was a State Department analyst in the 1990s. Martin Kramer, a Middle East scholar and former director of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, described Esposito as one who “more than any other academic, contributed to American complacency prior to 9/11.”56 Kramer was not the only critic of John Esposito; the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) released a report in which it suggested that his defense of radical Islam was in essence the same as promoting its ideology. The report illustrated this claim by documenting his close working relationships with two islamic organizations, CAIR and the United Association for Studies and Research (UASR), both of which have been branded by court evidence as supporting Hamas.57

After the Saudi donation of funds, Professor Esposito brought in an interesting “expert” to work alongside him at Harvard’s MES center who happened to have deep ties to the Saudi government. Susan L. Douglass had previously taught at the Saudi-government-funded Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA) in Fairfax, Virginia. That institution was criticized for its teaching of extremist Islamist concepts regularly found in Saudi-produced textbooks, and a federal panel requested that the State Department shut it down.58 Douglass also had questionable ties to many Islamic organizations beyond the decade she spent at the ISA as a teacher. Recently she had worked with these organizations, specializing in revamping K-12 textbooks in the United States in an effort to expand Islamic understanding.59

The prince’s $40 million were not the only donations to higher education by Saudis, and Harvard and Georgetown were not the only recipients. In fact, former President Bill Clinton, who was a classmate of Saudi Prince Turki bin Feisal at Georgetown, worked hard to obtain Saudi donations to his home state’s University of Arkansas MES program. It received more Saudi donations than any other university.60 Saudi donations, combined with other Gulf-state oil contributions to U.S. universities in the millions, had arguably shifted the campus demographics into a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli disposition across many American universities. Perhaps this shift and its influence were best represented by the rapid escalation in campus anti-Israeli events, such as Israel Apartheid Week, along with an increase of pro-Palestinian events throughout U.S. campuses.61

The Saudi Cloud Hanging over U.S. Elementary Education

The Saudi influence on American education was not limited to the collegiate level but extended to the K-12 system as well. There were a few different ways in which this happened, but the issue most widely reported concerned textbooks and curriculum that were provided by the Middle East National Resource Centers (NRCs), which were federally funded under Title VI.62 Part of the federal sponsorship required these NRCs to conduct outreach, which was largely done by developing curriculum and lesson plans for U.S. K-12 schools. The fact that these NRCs had a federal stamp of approval made it very easy for the K-12 system to work with their outreach coordinators. These coordinators then helped provide the K-12 schools with material and curriculum on Islamic Studies that had been produced at these NRCs, which were in reality just the university MES centers. The problem was that many of these NRCs were also heavily funded by Saudi donations via their respective universities’ MES programs (e.g., Georgetown and Harvard’s MES centers). There were reports of English-language curricula and courseware that were very Saudi-friendly, being funneled from the Saudis to the U.S. universities and then through the outreach coordinators to the K-12 system.63

Stanley Kurtz, in a congressional testimony in 2004, provided information on how the lack of government scrutiny of the Title VI program’s funding of 17 different Middle East NRCs across U.S. universities had been used by the Saudis and other Gulf states to mold America’s K-12 education in a manner that suited them.64 Kurtz, a Hoover Institution researcher at Stanford, testified that his latest research into the Title VI Middle East NRCs had led to some startling revelations. He concluded that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states had essentially hijacked these federally funded institutes to propagate a version of Islam and the Middle East that was highly biased. He added that the products, atmosphere, and teaching were extremely biased and that these MES centers had focused excessively on criticizing U.S. foreign policy to explain the problems of the Middle East. He offered several examples, most prominently the postcolonial theory of Edward Said, the Palestinian American professor of literature (not Middle Eastern Studies) at Columbia. This theory had permeated university MES programs and become the prevailing academic view after Said published his book Orientalism in 1978.65

Kurtz pointed out in his testimony that Said’s opinions about the United States and its policies were very clear if one examined his other writings, such as his columns in Egypt’s most widely circulated newspaper Al-Ahram. In these writings he called America a “stupid bully” and condemned it as a nation with a “history of reducing whole peoples, countries, and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust.”66 Kurtz went on to say that he was by no means suggesting the banning of Said’s writings or theories, but that there should be a balance in the ideas presented by the NRCs when they provided outreach for training American K-12 teachers. He used examples of his own, and many from Martin Kramer’s book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, to demonstrate the level of bias in MES programs in Western academia. One such case that he presented to the congressional committee showed that the only material selected and then presented in a recent UC Santa Barbara NRC outreach seminar for K-12 teachers had been writings and theories by Said and those like-minded and influenced by him.67 He further pointed out that other scholars who had very differing views of the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy in the region, such as Harvard’s Samuel Huntington, Princeton’s Bernard Lewis, and Johns Hopkins’ Fouad Ajami, were basically blacklisted, their writings excluded from contemporary MES programs across U.S. universities.

Kurtz concluded his testimony by showing how a large number of current professors in the Title VI Middle East NRCs, whose centers received federal funds for language and area studies in support of national security, were boycotting the National Security Education Program (NSEP), which aimed to impart foreign language skills to future government intelligence and security employees. This academic boycott had perhaps been influenced by the disdain and harsh words that Said had regularly directed at scholars who supported the U.S. government with their language skills, insinuating that they were only helping the United States’ neocolonial actions.68 This atmosphere in the MES/NRC community produced a monochromatic representation of scholarly outlooks, thus perpetuating a bias since most of the future professors in these centers were taught and controlled by the current cohort of directors and elites in the MES field. For example, Harvard’s NRC cadre of professors listed some very active anti-Israeli educators in its ranks, and its former director of outreach, Paul Beran, had been an activist in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.69 In this highly biased environment it might be very difficult for someone with different opinions to gain entry into the Middle East NRC faculty.

Stanley Kurtz and Martin Kramer were not the only scholars to have come to the conclusion that there was a heavy bias in the current MES filed. In the recently released The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain, researcher Dario Fernandez-Morera used a vast amount of primary sources that had largely been ignored by the current lot of Middle East scholars to produce an academically sound book. He concluded that the widely propagated myth of religious harmony in Al-Andalus was partly attributable to the corrosive nature of grants from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, and others to Islamic Studies and MES programs across the elite U.S. universities.70

The full significance of these claims against U.S. university MES centers emerges when one better understands the original intent of the Title VI initiative. Federal funding through Title VI was meant to combat Soviet global influence during the Cold War. The NRCs’ task was to help train potential future military officers, intelligence services personnel, Foreign Service officers, and other government policymakers in cultural and regional studies with a heavy focus on foreign language skills.71 It is hard to imagine the outrage that would have ensued during the Cold War had it been discovered that the Soviet Union was providing massive funding to these same institutions, potentially influencing their research, publishing, and most important, their students. The Saudis, however, had adeptly targeted universities with NRCs on their campuses, providing massive donations to further their reach and influence while also expanding the research capabilities of NRCs that were sympathetic to their cause. The basic aim was to use soft power to socially engineer a population into being more supportive and less critical of Saudi actions and of Islam in general.

One major source in exposing the extent of Saudi reach into the K-12 education system was an insider, Sandra Stotsky, who had previously worked at Harvard as director of its professional development program for teachers and later as a senior associate commissioner for the State of Massachusetts’ Department of Education. In 2004, following the increased interest in Islam after the 9/11 attack, the Massachusetts Department of Education decided to conduct a training seminar for its K-12 teachers centering on Islamic history in addition to some contemporary issues concerning Islam such as: Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, women’s rights in Muslim nations, and the lack of democracies in the Middle East. Naturally they sought the assistance of one of the state’s and nation’s most renowned universities, Harvard. Harvard, in turn, agreed to a seminar proposal for its Center for Middle Eastern Studies, which was also a federally sponsored Middle East NRC under Title VI and had received vast sums in donations from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states over the previous four decades.72

The Massachusetts Department of Education proposed contemporary topics for the seminar, but they were continually rejected by those at Harvard’s MES center because they may have presented Islam or any of the Muslim nations in the Middle East in a negative light. It took a struggle by the state to get the Harvard seminar organizers to agree to include a single book by Bernard Lewis, who they persistently claimed was biased and irrelevant. According to Sandra Stotsky, this was just the beginning of the Harvard MES center’s unbalanced presentations during its training seminar for the state’s K-12 educators. She said the seminar courses offered by the center were marked by a “distorted” political agenda that promoted Islam as a faith and went so far as to focus on America’s prejudices against the Muslim world. The Harvard outreach coordinators proposed that teachers organize courses focusing on the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s life and teachings. In addition, the teachers should appoint a class “imam,” memorize Islamic principles, and act out prayers.73 Most astounding of all was that this was not the only such case involving K-12 education; it was happening across America. The growing number of cases of children in U.S. schools being taught and memorizing Islamic prayers, or of girls told to wear hijabs during Islam Appreciation Week, along with other surprising pedagogic content perhaps demonstrated the influence of Saudi funding of MES centers across the United States.74 Equally interesting and surprising was the absence of claims by the ACLU and other organizations, which pursue any alleged Christian teachings or affiliations in public schools, that this violated the U.S. Constitution.75

Another notable phenomenon regarding the U.S. elementary curriculum was the level of Saudi and other Gulf-state involvement in what had become known as the One World Classroom initiative. This movement had expanded rapidly in the United States under the financing of the Qatar Foundation International’s Connect All Schools program, whose current director is MB founder Hassan al-Banna’s grandson. In addition to this initiative, there was the Common Core K-12 education program that was adopted by the vast majority of U.S. states, with only a handful such as Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia declining to adopt it at a state level.76 A recent trend has seen many states withdrawing from the Common Core program, partly because of parental backlash and disappointment with the curriculum. The part of the curriculum that had drawn heavy criticism had taught Islamic fundaments such as reciting the Shahada, which states that there is “no God but Allah,” and memorizing the Muslim call to prayer.77 It was also concerning to many when it was revealed that the main shareholder and financial contributor to the British corporation (Pearson Education) that created and actively managed the Common Core curriculum for the U.S. education system was the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), whose investors have included many members of the Gaddafi family, Saudi Arabia, CAIR (designated a terrorist organization by some countries), the MB, and other questionable organizations.78

Susan L. Douglass, mentioned earlier for her associations with John Esposito and the Saudis, had been working alongside the Council for Islamic Education (CIE) and CAIR to amend children’s textbooks to propound a more favorable version of Islam.79 These initiatives were by no means on a small scale; CAIR’s library program was launched in 2015 with the aim of providing up to sixteen thousand public and school libraries across the country with books and writings that it had selected on Islam and the Middle East.80 Douglass is regularly described as a scholar and has worked in editing history and social science textbooks as well as advising state education boards and teachers on Islam. Her ties to Saudi Arabia and CAIR were not the only worrisome factors concerning her involvement in the U.S. education curriculum; she had also been on the polar opposites of support for different interpretations of Islam. On the one hand, she had praised Saudi-funded Pakistani madrassa schools as “proud symbols of learning,” even though many scholars and the U.S. government had blamed them for enabling the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda with their radical Islamic teachings that included calls for violent jihad; on the other, she had propounded a very liberal view of Islam and jihad in the textbooks she had edited for a Western audience.81

Douglass’ ties to CAIR also raised alarms among many because of her questionable ties to extremist organizations. CAIR has regularly denied this, along with the allegation that it had received funding from Saudi Arabia and other foreign sources. In a 2001 statement CAIR asserted that “We do not support directly or indirectly, or receive support from, any overseas group or government.” Moreover, CAIR steadily denied receiving funding from the HLF, which directly raised and funneled money to Hamas on multiple occasions. However, at a 2003 hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security, the Investigative Project presented financial records and other evidence showing that CAIR had indeed received early seed money from the HLF. In addition, evidence showed that CAIR had actively organized fundraising events for the HLF. Moreover, the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), a Saudi-financed institution, had donated $250,000 to help purchase land for CAIR’s headquarters for its education and research center in Washington, DC. And by examining the networks, the Investigative Project discovered that the IDB president of more than 20 years, Dr. Ahmad Mohamed Ali, had also served as secretary-general of the Muslim World League (MWL), which is known to be one of the largest Saudi Islamic charities and was identified by Osama bin Laden himself as one of the primary funding sources of Al Qaeda.82

This was not the only funding connection to the Saudis, as CAIR received $500,000 in largesse from a Saudi prince in 2002, as well as donations from the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), both with ties to the kingdom.83 CAIR’s shady practices had been further exhibited in three separate court filings in which CAIR had been linked to Hamas and the MB. This was best demonstrated when it was named an unindicted coconspirator in the HLF trial in 2007. In CAIR’s case it was not necessary to try and draw conclusions about the organization’s true purpose; CAIR founder Omar Ahmad had stated how CAIR could eventually gain influence in Congress: “This can be achieved by infiltrating the American media outlets, universities and research centers,” going on to suggest how this would give them an entry point that would allow them to pressure U.S. policymakers.84 In summation, Saudi money has unquestionably had an impact on the curriculum that American K-12 students receive. The extent to which it has influenced their opinions or socially conditioned them to perceive Islam, Muslims, and the Saudi kingdom in a more favorable manner is harder to determine.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are not the only countries that have provided funds to American universities or to other education and research institutions throughout the United States. Many countries do so to support what they believe in, and also to help fund research centers and think tanks that they believe to have agendas that are friendly to their government’s purposes. While it is impossible to prove any specific motive behind the funding efforts, it is possible to discern that a motive does in fact exist. There are a multitude of reasons for which individuals or corporations may donate to a philanthropy, but in the end there is always some particular reason; they may truly believe in the philanthropy and what it is doing, or may simply want a tax break. The company or person may want to be seen in a positive light and thereby attract more business, enhancing soft power, or they may just want to divert attention from things they have been criticized for previously.

And those are just some of the possibilities. Although, in the end, it is difficult if not impossible to prove with any certainty what is the actual motive(s) of the Saudi funding of U.S. education, it can be reasonably concluded that there is a motive behind the gift-giving. The next question to be asked is why Saudi Arabia would finance such different views and doctrines of Islam that target different audiences. Why does it simultaneously finance the proselytization of its Wahhabi ultraconservative Islamic doctrine to a Muslim audience via mosques and other institutions that mostly cater to the Muslim populations in both Muslim and non-Muslim-majority countries, while also promoting the contrasting liberal view of Islam that is propagated by professors hailing from Saudi-financed university MES centers across the United States, which is mostly consumed by the West and non-Muslims?85

Finally, there is no true ability to prove the Saudis’ motives for their considerable donations to the U.S. education system without their direct admission, which is highly unlikely ever to occur. It is almost equally challenging or nearly impossible to measure the level of influence that the Saudi funding of U.S. universities has produced over the last four decades. Many have alleged that the true purpose of the Saudis’ gifts to U.S. universities, along with their vast donations to other Islamic organizations devoted to da’wah, has been to socially engineer U.S. citizens, specifically university students, to be more supportive and accepting of Islam. It has been shown in this study and in many other documented sources that the publications and organized events that these universities and organizations, such as MSA chapters across America, produce and disseminate are anti-Israeli and unarguably pro-Palestinian in nature. Possibly a good barometer for the effectiveness of these alleged social-engineering efforts by Saudi Arabia and its sponsored organizations is whether there has been a corresponding demographic change in views on the hot issue in America when it comes to the Middle East: Israel vs. Palestine.

A 2014 Gallup poll clearly shows that young college-age Americans overwhelmingly support Palestine and saw Israel’s actions in the most recent Gaza conflict as unjustified. Interestingly enough, as the age group rises, the support for Israel rapidly increases.86 This Gallup poll is not the only survey showing this trend; the Pew Research Center’s latest report also showed a clear trend among the millennial age group (those born after 1980). On the question of whom they sympathize with more, Israelis or Palestinians, the millennials have over the past 12 years increased their level of support for the Palestinians by 18 percentage points with a similar downward trend in support for Israel.87 A more general inquiry by the Brookings Institution focused on American impressions of Islam and Muslims, and the results showed a similar demographic trend. The 2015 report concluded that the youth and higher-educated groups had more favorable impressions of Islam and Muslims than other demographic groups. Some 60 percent of those aged 18 to 24 had favorable views of Muslims compared to only 43 percent of those over 65.88 While the data trends show that younger Americans have opposing views to those held by older generations, the big question is what factors are affecting this, and if one of those factors is the Saudi influence on the U.S. education system. When all is said and done, it is very interesting to see that over the past decade, in which the number of attacks against the United States and the West committed in the name of Allah has increased, along with the concurrent rise of the Islamic State, those who have grown up during this period and know nothing different have the most favorable impression of Islam and Muslims among all demographic groups in the United States.

* * *


1 “An Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Goal for the Group in North America,” U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation et al., Government Exhibit 003-0085, 3:04-CR-240-G, May 22, 1991.

2 “September 11th Hijackers Fast Facts,” September 6, 2016,

3 Scott Shane, “Saudis and Extremism: Both the Arsonists and the Firefighters,” New York Times, August 25, 2016,

4 Carol E. B. Chosky and Jamsheed K. Chosky, “Saudi Connection: Wahhabism and Global Jihad,” World Affairs Journal, May/June 2015,

5 Shane, “Saudis and Extremism.”

6 Chosky and Chosky, “Saudi Connection.”

7 Shane, “Saudis and Extremism.”

8 Ibid.

9 Rowan Scarborough, “Saudi Government Funding Extremism in U.S. Mosques and Charities: Report,” Washington Times, July 19, 2016,

10 Stanley Kurtz, “Following the Foreign Money,” National Review, March 26, 2008,

11 IPT, “The Muslim Brotherhood: Report,” Investigative Project on Terrorism,

12 James P. Piscatori, “Islamic Values and National Interest: The Foreign Policy of Saudi Arabia,” in Adeed Dawisha, ed., Islam in Foreign Policy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 33-53.

13 “Soft Power,” accessed January 10, 2017,

14 Chosky and Chosky, “Saudi Connection.” For analysis of Saudi textbooks, see Michaela Prokop, “Saudi Arabia: The Politics of Education,” International Affairs 79, 1 (January 2003): 77-89.

15 Nicole Gaouette, Kevin Liptak, Michelle Kosinksi, and Nic Robertson, “White House: Obama ‘Cleared the Air’ with Saudi Arabia,” CNN, April 20, 2016,

16 Steven Stotsky, “Harvard’s Role in Misleading Americans about the Middle East,” Jerusalem Post, February 15, 2012,

17 Norman Kempster and Ronald J. Ostrow, “Arab Gifts to U.S. Colleges Stir Suspicion and Concern.” Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1978.

18 Ibid.

19 Jonathan Dowd-Gailey, “Islamism’s Campus Club: The Muslim Student Association,” Middle East Quarterly 11, 2 (Spring 2004): 63-72,

20 Neil J. Ruiz, “The Geography of Foreign Students in U.S. Higher Education: Origins and Destinations,” Brookings Institution, August 29, 2014, Calculated numbers are based on the Brookings Institution report. Total foreign students in 2014: 1,163,469. Saudi students per capita for age group 15-24 (.016%) vs. Chinese students per capita for age group 15-24 (.0015%) based on population data from: Chinese total age 15-24 population is 182,261,688; Saudi total age 15-24 population is 3,527,378 (Saudi nationals; does not include foreign workers residing in the country).

21 Jeanne Batalova and Jie Zong, “International Students in the U.S.,” Migration Policy Institute, May 12, 2016, accessed January 7, 2017,

22 Neil MacFarquhar, “For Muslim Students, a Debate on Inclusion,” New York Times, February 21, 2008, accessed January 4, 2017,

23 Ibid.

24 IPT, “Muslim Students Association Dossier,” Investigative Project on Terrorism,

25 “No Cash for Terror,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, November 25, 2008,

26 Larry A. Poston, Islamic Da’wah in the West: Muslim Missionary Activity and the Dynamics of Conversion to Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 102-5.

27 “An Explanatory Memorandum: On the General Strategic Goal for the Group in North America,” Muslim Brotherhood, May 22, 1991,

28 Ryan Mauro, “North American Islamic Trust (NAIT) Profile,” Clarion Project, February 11, 2013,

29 “North American Islamic Trust Memorandum,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, August 17, 1988,

30 “GMU Accepts Grant for Islamic Center,” Washington Times, November 20, 2008,

31 “Forgotten Investigation, Emails Offer Insight into IIIT Probe,” Investigative Project on Terrorism, August 3, 2008,

32Quoted in Dowd-Gailey, “Islamism’s Campus Club.”

33 IPT, “The Muslim Brotherhood.”

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid., 3-7.

37 Chosky and Chosky, “Saudi Connection.”

38 “Muslim Brother Report,” Counter Extremism Project,

39 H. A. Hellyer, “The New Saudi King, Egypt and the MB,” Al-Monitor, March 23, 2015,

40 IPT, “The Muslim Brotherhood.”

41 Kurtz, “Following the Foreign Money.”

42 “Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding,” Georgetown University School of Foreign Service website,

43 Kurtz, “Following the Foreign Money.”

44 Ibid.

45 Jasion Chow, “Hong Kong Tops List of Foreign Donors to U.S. Schools,” Wall Street Journal, September 22, 2014,

46 Ezequiel Doiny, “The Link between Saudi Donations to US Universities and the Israeli Apartheid Week,” The Conservative Papers, March 25, 2016,

47 Chow, “Hong Kong Tops List.”

48 Doiny, “The Link between Saudi Donations to US Universities and the Israeli Apartheid Week.”

49 Frank R. Wolf, “U.S. Virginia Congressman’s letter to Georgetown President Dr. John J. DeGioia,” February 14, 2008,

50 Stanley Kurtz, “Saudi in the Classroom,” National Review, July 25, 2007,

51 Valerie Strauss, “$20 Million Saudi Gift Is Questioned,” Washington Post, February 15, 2008.

52 IPT, “John Esposito: Reputation vs. Reality,” Investigative Project on Terrorism, September 30, 2009,

53 Jerry Markon, “Witness Is Silent in Terror Probe,” Washington Post, November 14, 2006.

54 IPT, “Sami Al-Arian Profile,” Investigative Project on Terrorism,

55 IPT, “John Esposito.”

56 Doiny, “The Link between Saudi Donations to US Universities and the Israeli Apartheid Week.”

57 IPT, “John Esposito.”

58 Jacqueline Salmon and Valerie Strauss, “State Dept. Urged to Shut Saudi School in Fairfax,” Washington Post, October 19, 2007,

59 Paul Sperry, “Look Who’s Teaching Johnny about Islam,” World Net Daily, May 3, 2004,

60 Tim Weiner, “Clinton and His Ties to the Influential Saudis,” New York Times, August 23, 1993,

61 Doiny, “The Link between Saudi Donations to US Universities and the Israeli Apartheid Week.”

62 “National Resource Center Program,” U.S. Department of Education,

63 Kurtz, “Saudi in the Classroom.”

64 Stanley Kurtz, “Testimony before the Subcommittee on Select Education and the Committee on Education and the Workforce,” U.S. House of Representatives, June 19, 2003,

65 Stotsky, “Harvard’s Role.”

66 Kurtz, “Testimony before the Subcommittee.”

67 Ibid.

68 Ibid.

69 Stotsky, “Harvard’s Role,”,

70 Dario Fernandez-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2016), 6-8.

71 Bekah Wolf, “Title VI and Middle East Studies: What You Should Know,” Middle East Research and Information Project, November 14, 2014,

72 Kurtz, “Saudi in the Classroom.”

73 Ibid.

74 Gina Cassini, “High School Tries to Make Female Students Wear Islamic Head Covering, Backfires Big Time,” Top Right News, October 13, 2015,; Damon Morgan, “Islam Week at Schools in America, Administrators Demand Females Wear Hijabs to Show Support,” Conservative Daily Post, December 4, 2016,; Victor Skinner, “NY School Organizes ‘Hijab Day’ for Non-Muslim Students,” Education Action Group News, February 9, 2016,

75 Bethany Blankley, “Parents Must Reject Common Core,” Washington Times, April 7, 2015,

76 Academic Benchmarks, “Common Core State Standards Adoption Map,”

77 Ibid.

78 Ibid.

79 Sperry, “Look Who’s Teaching Johnny.”

80 Council on American-Islamic Relations, “Bring Islam to Your Local Library,” March 11, 2015,

81 Sperry, “Look Who’s Teaching Johnny.”

82 IPT, “The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR): CAIR Exposed,” Investigative Project on Terrorism, 3-6, 14-17,

83 Ibid., 2-4.

84 Ibid., 14-16.

85 Chosky and Chosky, “Saudi Connection.” On Saudi Wahhabism, see Muhammad Al-Atawneh, “Is Saudi Arabia a Theocracy? Religion and Governance in Contemporary Saudi Arabia,” Middle Eastern Studies 45, 5 (September 2009): 721-37; Sarah Yizraeli, Politics and Society in Saudi Arabia: The Crucial Years of Development 1960-1982 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 67-93.

86 Gallup, “Latest Gallup Poll Shows Young Americans Overwhelmingly Support Palestine,” Mint Press News, August 4, 2014,

87 Carroll Doherty and Samantha Smith, “5 Facts about how Americans view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Pew Research Center, May 23, 2106,

88 Shibley Telhami, “What Americans really think about Muslims and Islam,” Brookings Institution, December 9, 2015,