Beginning on March 22, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs will host a conference entitled “The Prospect for Democracy: A-Libyan-American Dialogue.” On the second and final day of the conference, Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qadhafi is to address the participants by video conference. He is slated to speak about his views on the prospect of democracy in Libya. Among the participants will be Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch. The conference is being cosponsored by Columbia, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and the Libyan regime.
It is unfortunate that Columbia University has accepted money from the Libyan regime. Columbia’s public affairs did not respond to queries about the amount of funding it received, nor whether there were any conditions with regard to nomination of speakers or limits on the audience. The conference is but the latest in a disturbing trend of U.S. universities displaying willingness to accept Middle Eastern money. Harvard and Georgetown Universities, for example, accepted millions from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz. In Columbia lost out on that bid but soon after SIPA Dean Lisa Anderson, SIPA’s acting Middle East Institute director Gary Sick, and other prominent faculty accepted an all-expenses paid junket to the Kingdom.
What is wrong with accepting Middle Eastern largesse? Seldom is the funding altruistic. Just as Alwaleed hopes to launder Saudi Arabia’s image, so too does Qadhafi want to whitewash his interest. Just a month ago, Qadhafi’s Revolutionary Committees and Libyan security shot and killed eleven people in Benghazi. Hundreds of Libyans–including my brother Fathi–remain in prison for the crime of speaking out in favor of multiparty elections.
Since Washington’s rapprochement with Tripoli, Qadhafi has used public visits by U.S. officials and intellectuals to score propaganda points at home. He is confident enough to publicly tell the Libyans that he bought American forgiveness for the Pan-Am, flight 103 bombing. On March 2, 2006, Qadhafi called his Green Book “the path to salvation.” This is the same text upon which Qadhafi has justified an evisceration of rights from freedom of speech to freedom of religion to freedom of private property. Yet now, after apparently having received some Libyan assistance, Columbia University will host a conference equating the basis of the most repressive dictatorship remaining in the Middle East with democracy. Both the university setting and the presence of senior State Department officials are a gift to Qadhafi, who will use his monopoly over all Libyan television and newspapers to declare this a sign of U.S. support. That Ragab Budabbus, director general of the Academy of Jamahiri Thought, is an invited panelist makes Yale University’s decision to fund a Taliban look uncontroversial. Budabbus has defended the regime as it hanged some dissidents without trial and mutilated others. Yale University likely would not have hosted the Taliban while they were still in power, slaughtering innocents. That Columbia is lending its reputation to a regime not so dissimilar in substance is unfortunate.
Columbia is a private institution. Its decision to allow subsume its scholarship to outside interests is its own. It can sell its reputation if it desires. SIPA can win access and Qadhafi, his coffers filled with oil-boom cash, can buy legitimacy. Already, regime operatives boast that the fact that one of the top universities in the U.S. would hold a conference in honor of the Green Book is a sign that the White House accepts Qadhafi’s regime as democratic. The same operatives snicker that most of American intellectuals who visit Libya come with hat in hand asking for money, much the same as those who come from poor African countries.
Less understandable, though, is Condoleezza Rice’s decision to send Welch to legitimize the conference. During last months Benghazi riots, Libyan youth shouted, “Qadhafi you are a coward, you are the agent of Americans.” In a little over two years, Qadhafi has succeeded in changing his image at home from an enemy to an ally of America. High-level U.S. participation in an event funded at least in part by Qadhafi sends the wrong message to the Libyan people. No matter how sincere the White House is, engagement will go nowhere so long as Qadhafi is allowed to dictate the terms of the process.
–Mohamed Eljahmi is a Libyan-American activist. His brother Fathi was re-arrested in March 2004, two weeks after President Bush declared his brief release a symbol of a changing Libya. Fathi remains in prison.