DeVos Threatens to Cut Funding for Middle Eastern Studies Programs for ‘Portraying Islam Too Positively’

“This is what a real threat to free speech on a college campus looks like.”

By Julia Conley, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 9-22-2019

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc)

Sunday marked a deadline for the University of North Carolina and Duke University to submit information to the Trump administration about the two schools’ Consortium for Middle East Studies, after the Department of Education accused the joint program of biases against Christianity and Judaism.

The DOE called on the schools to provide a list of events it is supporting in during the school year and a full list of courses it’s offering, claiming in a letter sent late last month that in the program, “there is a considerable emphasis placed on the understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East.”

The program should emphasize “foreign language instruction and area studies advancing the security and economic stability of the United States,” wrote the department.

Critics denounced the demand by education secretary Betsy DeVos as part of President Donald Trump’s Islamophobic agenda.

The consortium teaches Middle Eastern languages, history, and geopolitics, and well as hosting community events focused on the majority-Muslim region’s culture.

DeVos opened an investigation into the program in June after it took part in a conference titled “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities,” to determine if Duke and UNC had “misused” any of the $235,000 it received in federal grants under the Title VI program, to promote “radical anti-Israel bias.”

“They really want to send the message that if you want to criticize Israel, then the federal government is going to look very closely at your entire program and micromanage it to death,” Zoha Khalili, staff lawyer at Palestinian rights group Palestine Legal, told the New York Times.

DeVos’s targeting of the consortium “sends a message to Middle Eastern studies programs that their continued existence depends on their willingness to toe the government line on Israel,” she said.

UNC acknowledged it had received the DOE’s letter and told the Times it is “committed to working with the department to provide more information about its programs.”

If the DOE determines that the program is insufficiently focused on Christianity and Judaism, it stands to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Title VI program.

The DOE’s request comes as many on the right, including the Trump administration, have condemned so-called attacks on free speech on college campuses.

“This is what a real threat to free speech on a college campus looks like,” David Perry wrote at CNN. “It looks like the federal government telling a university how and what to teach its students.”

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