U.S. Muslims Divided Over Saudi Aid

Times Staff Writer

One of the nation’s most prominent Islamic organizations has accepted a $500,000 donation from a Saudi prince, sparking a blunt debate among American Muslims over whether foreign contributions are compromising their independence and the integrity of their organizations.

“To what extent is this part of the larger Saudi effort to co-opt our organizations?” asked Mairaj Syed, a UCLA graduate student in Islamic studies who opened an online debate about the donation on San Francisco-based AMILAnet, a Muslim-oriented discussion group. It has been one of the main forums for debate over the donation.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 7, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 07, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 300 words Type of Material: Correction
Saudi funds--A Dec. 1 article on a debate among U.S. Muslims over Saudi donations said that some Saudi funds are disbursed through the Islamic Foundation of Sheikh Ibn Taymiyah in Culver City. According to the foundation’s chairman, Khalil Khalil, he has disbursed Saudi funds to local mosques, but did so as an individual, not in his capacity as head of the foundation. The foundation, itself, does not disburse Saudi funds to local organizations.

“For too long we’ve depended too often on overseas financing to keep our institutions alive. This comes at the price of our intellectual independence and integrity,” Syed said.

Omar Ahmed, board chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which received the gift, said the donation would be used to support a $2.5-million project aimed at placing Islamic educational material in the nation’s 16,000 public libraries.


The contribution came with no strings attached, he said. “We run our own agenda and no one can influence us,” said Ahmed, who added that he had received no complaints about the donation from the council’s roughly 28,000 registered members. Foreign donations make up about 20% of the council’s fund-raising for its national office in Washington, D.C., and 15 regional chapters, and are accepted only if no conditions come with the money, Ahmed said.

The gift to the council from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd and one of the kingdom’s richest men, comes at a time when the Saudi royal family’s spending on Muslims in the United States has been the subject of new questions.

Last week, it was disclosed that Saudi Princess Haifa al Faisal, the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States, apparently gave thousands of dollars to two Saudi nationals in San Diego, who then provided funds to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. FBI investigators have said that they do not believe the royal family deliberately aided the terrorists, but the issue has fanned concerns on Capitol Hill over Saudi financial support of Muslims here.

Saudi Arabia is the largest single contributor to Islamic causes -- ranging from mosques to religious literature to refugee aid -- around the world. Experts say, however, that its support of American Muslims has significantly dropped in the last decade.

Critics of the prince’s gift have begun publicly questioning it, calling it everything from immoral to a “strategic mistake” that would fuel criticism of American Muslims as Saudi mouthpieces.

Supporters of the donation, by contrast, argue that the critics are unwittingly aiding what many U.S. Muslims see as a campaign by fundamentalist Christian and conservative Jewish groups to demonize the Saudis.

Syed and others who question Saudi donations argue that too many American Muslim mosques and organizations have been dependent on Saudi money, which inhibits them from criticizing the desert kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam.

Adherents of the form of Islam that predominates in Saudi Arabia, including the doctrines of the 18th century Muslim teacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, advocate strict gender roles and shun any perceived innovations to the faith. They tend to strongly disapprove of other Muslim practices such as Sufi mysticism or the beliefs of Shia Muslims.


Some Muslim scholars have argued that such leanings are fundamentally intolerant and, taken to their extreme, are used as a religious justification for the terrorism of Osama bin Laden and others.

“The main reason we lack legitimacy among many Americans is because we don’t take a critical look at the theological orientations within the Muslim community that could produce ugly acts like 9/11 or the Taliban regime’s destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan,” Syed said in an interview.

Others argued that acceptance of foreign donations could prevent American Muslims from criticizing the human-rights records of Muslim states.

“Saudi Arabia is a corrupt, dictatorial, fascist state that is an embarrassment to Islam and Muslims,” wrote Sarah Eltantawi, communications director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council. Accepting foreign donations from such regimes “could set us back decades, or keep us in the ‘straddling the fence’ posture vis-a-vis Muslim dictators and oppressors that we seem to be shamefully stuck in today,” she wrote.


In his own posting in the online debate, Aslam Abdullah, the editor of Minaret magazine in Los Angeles, called on Muslims to reject all donations from Persian Gulf monarchies because they constitute “immoral money” earned off oil revenue and other sources that rightfully belong to the people of the Gulf countries, not to their kings.

According to news reports, Alwaleed has invested an estimated $16 billion in such U.S. companies as Citigroup, News Corp., Apple and AOL Time Warner. He also is a prominent philanthropist who has donated millions to causes including care for children with cancer, aid to needy Palestinians and help for disaster victims. Last year, he offered $10 million to New York City as aid to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, but then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani rejected the check because of Alwaleed’s long-standing criticism of Israel.

In contrast to the criticism, some Muslims have praised Alwaleed’s donation for enhancing the Islamic council’s work.

The Islamic council focuses on media relations, community building and advocacy for U.S. Muslims, tracking hate crime allegations, for instance, and investigating charges of bias against Muslims. The group’s leaders say they do not address human-rights problems among Islamic regimes abroad because that is not their focus nor a pressing cause among their constituents.


“The money could not have gone to a more worthy cause” than the council, said one posting on the Internet discussion group from Jawad Ali.

The issue of foreign donations -- particularly from Saudi Arabia -- has long been debated among American Muslims. The kingdom has helped finance more than 1,700 mosques, Islamic centers and schools worldwide, according to the Saudi Embassy. In the U.S., the kingdom reports it has fully or partially financed Islamic centers in Los Angeles; San Francisco; Fresno; Chicago; New York; Washington; Tucson; Raleigh, N.C.; and Toledo, Ohio, among other places, as well as professorships at the University of California, Harvard and elsewhere.

In addition, Saudi Arabia’s printing presses have distributed more than 114 million Korans and 80 million religious tracts around the world, according to the embassy.

In Los Angeles, some Saudi funds are dispersed through the Islamic Foundation of Sheikh Ibn Taymiyah, the nonprofit corporation that owns the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City. Saudis pay the salary of some imams in the area and provide Korans even to places such as the Islamic Center of Southern California, which promotes one of the most liberal interpretations of Islam in the region.


“There is no mosque in this county that hasn’t received some money from Saudi Arabia,” Tajuddin Shuaib, imam of the King Fahd Mosque, said in an interview earlier this year. “Saudi Arabia is their Bank of America.”

In recent years, however, Saudi donations have significantly declined. Embassy spokesman Nail Al-Jubeir said the kingdom tightened up on its largess about a decade ago after discovering some abuse -- people using Saudi money to build mosques but putting the title under their personal names; others asking for Korans for a congregation only to sell the books.

Other experts say the Saudis cut back because they were saddled by debts from the Persian Gulf War and felt betrayed by some American Muslim leaders who had taken their money and then publicly criticized their support of the U.S.-led attacks on Iraq.