Last week, the Washington Post profiled Zainab al-Suwaij, the founder and director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC). Because she grew up under dictatorship and repression in Iraq and so understands the values which make America great, Zainab has always been outspoken in favor of moderation, individual liberty, women’s empowerment, and against the extremism preached so often by Saudi Arabia and Iran. While almost anyone who meets Zainab, be they in Iraq, Egypt, and the United States, becomes an admirer, the Post found one naysayer. “If AIC is surviving on U.S. money, then they have no legitimacy, especially if they came to the fore in the [George W.] Bush era,” Muqtedar Khan, a professor at the University of Delaware, said.
Khan’s statement is curious: Why should it be wrong for the AIC to compete for and, on occasion, to win U.S. grants? It’s not like an organization called the American Islamic Congress hides the American component. Nor does Khan indicate why Muslim groups should shy away from accepting American money but have no hesitation accepting Saudi cash, like the more radical Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society for North America (ISNA) do.
The ultimate irony is that Khan’s home institution, University of Delaware, has also accepted State Department money to run Middle East programs. If Saudi Arabia is a cash cow for organizations like CAIR and ISNA that often apologize for terrorism, shouldn’t organizations that take a more moderate tack and seek to promote both empowerment and respect for American values also have access to resources?
Perhaps it is time for Islamic advocacy organizations and universities to first and foremost foreswear foreign money. It does say a great deal about Suwaij that she’d rather compete for American grant money and also a great deal about her critics that they see Saudi money as less tainted.