Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is sponsoring an essay competition at National Defense University as "a fitting tribute to the life and leadership" of the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who died Jan. 23.
Some Muslim American groups opposed to the Saudi monarchy have complained, saying the concept is deeply offensive.
Dr. M. Zudhi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, an advocacy group, said it's a misguided attempt to honor the leader of what he called "one of the worst theocracies and totalitarian regimes on the planet."
"If Gen. Dempsey wants an essay about the inhumanity of the king's reign, that would be fine," Jasser said.
Jasser, an Arab American who said he served 11 years in the U.S. Navy, said, "I don't think our military officers believe King Abdullah and his regime are what we are fighting for."
The essay contest, announced by the Pentagon last week, will "focus on issues related to the Arab-Muslim world," according to a Pentagon press release. It honors Abdullah, who Dempsey called "a man of remarkable character and courage."
The Pentagon announcement said the essay competition "is designed to encourage strategic thinking and meaningful research on a crucial part of the world."
The competition, scheduled to begin during the next academic year, is open to students at the university, which is focused on providing high-level instruction to American and foreign military members.
But Khalilah Sabra, executive director of the Muslim American Society Immigrant Justice Center, said the contest perpetuates the U.S. government's false narrative of Abdullah as a moderate, pro-Western ally.
"King Abdullah — politically skilled, renown, outrageously rich — was just one member of a group of royals who … traveled lavishly around the planet and thumbed their nose at principled governance," Sabra said.
Col. Edward W. Thomas, Jr., a spokesman for Dempsey, said the competition is not intended as "political affirmation" for Saudi Arabia. "It's about encouraging thoughtful discussion of issues in the Middle East," he said.
Abdullah left a contested legacy. U.S. officials have praised the late monarch as a reformer and a steadfast partner in the fight against international terrorism.
President Obama, who traveled to Saudi Arabia to pay his respects to the royal family, spoke of "our genuine and warm friendship." Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Abdullah "a powerful voice for tolerance, moderation and peace."
Critics portray Abdullah as a duplicitous tyrant who crushed dissent, oppressed women and presided over a strict Wahhabist theocracy that endorses public beheadings, floggings and amputations as punishment for crimes.
The day of the Pentagon announcement, Jasser offered his own essay topic for the competition: The Jan. 9 public flogging, ordered by the Saudi government, of Raif Badawi, a jailed Saudi writer and dissident charged with insulting Islam.