Appointed on the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, John Carroll became the first head of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. in 1784. Being a Jesuit, he soon set up a school, buying some land near the Potomac and quickly convincing President James Madison to confer on it the first-ever federal university charter. The school soon became known as Georgetown University, and its first student, William Gaston, went on to become a congressman, foreshadowing his alma mater’s reputation as the training ground for Washington’s elite. Glance at the resumes of many current ambassadors, cabinet secretaries, representatives, and special advisors to presidents, and you’ll see that the school’s reputation is warranted—making it all the more concerning that, over the past few months, Georgetown has embraced a professor who speculated in a podcast that Israel was behind the recent attack on Salman Rushdie and an academic organization that defended his comments, as well as defending those of another professor who called Hamas’s October 7 attacks “awesome.”

The Middle East Studies Association, or MESA, is the largest and most influential association of scholars studying the region. Or at least, it was, before deciding, about a decade ago, to focus its efforts on boycotting Israel. In 2022, after years of internal struggles, MESA officially issued a sweeping resolution endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, strongly urging “MESA program committees to organize discussions at MESA annual meetings” dedicated exclusively to Israel’s purported evils.

This focus put off many MESA members, even those with no love for the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. As Middle East scholar Martin Kramer reported, in 2010, before the anti-Jewish fever fully seized MESA, the group boasted 62 institutional members. By 2022, as the organization was negotiating and passed the BDS resolution, that number stood at 43. By late 2023, it had dropped to 31, meaning that the organization had lost precisely half of its member universities in just over a decade.

MESA lost its academic home, too, twice, leaving the University of Arizona in 2019 and George Washington University four years later, declining to elaborate on the circumstances behind these changes.

MESA’s leadership, however, remained committed to its biases. Confronted with GoPro footage and other evidence of Hamas terrorists beheading Israeli children, raping women, and binding families together before setting them on fire on October 7, 2023, MESA waited more than a week to release a tepid statement, which cleared its throat with verbiage about suffering on both sides before focusing on the plight of the Palestinians and warning against any attempt to curb pro-Palestinian enthusiasm on campus. When Columbia University professor Jospeh Massad reportedly described Hamas’s massacre as “astonishing,” “astounding,” and “awesome,” and drew criticism for the comments, MESA’s president, Eve Troutt Powell, sent a strongly worded letter to Columbia’s president Minouche Shafik, calling her “failure to speak out in defense of Prof. Massad” a “severe abdication of professional and academic responsibility.”

Where, then, would MESA go? The answer, sadly, was Georgetown. On February 22, the organization issued a press release announcing that it had moved its headquarters to the university’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

A second move raises further red flags about Georgetown. In July 2023, the university appointed Nader Hashemi as director of its Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU). In 2022, after Salman Rushdie was attacked on stage by a man dedicated to fulfilling Iran’s fatwa against the author of The Satanic Verses, Hashemi, then teaching at the University of Denver, argued on a podcast that the attack may have been secretly orchestrated by Israel’s Mossad. Hashemi’s statement made headlines in Colorado. After university officials issued a statement distancing itself from Hashemi’s comments but respecting his “academic freedom and freedom of speech,” Hashemi and the university parted ways, with Hashemi citing, according to one news outlet, a toxic work environment.

Less reported, however, is a more troubling detail from Hashemi’s academic career. Hashemi served on the editorial board of an academic publication called the Middle East Affairs Journal. Evidence filed in the landmark 2008 terrorism financial trial against the Holy Land Foundation, formerly the largest Islamic charity in the United States, included the Winter/Spring 1995 issue of that journal, which was published by the blandly named United Association for Studies and Research (UASR). A check of the State of Illinois’s Articles of Incorporation, file no. 5566-789-6, from September 18, 1989, reveals that the UASR, now defunct, was a Virginia-based think tank founded by Mousa Abu Marzook and run by Ahmed Yousef. (Yousef acknowledged his and Marzook’s role in founding UASR in an interview with Middle East Quarterly in March 1998.) Abu Marzook, detained and deported from the U.S. in 1995 for terrorism charges, is now a senior Hamas leader. Yousef, too, is a senior Hamas operative. 

These two developments—Hashemi’s hiring and the welcoming of MESA—are interconnected. Hashemi’s predecessor at the ACMCU was John Esposito, a former long-standing MESA president. In an interview in 2000 with the Middle East Affairs Journal, Esposito refused to characterize Hamas as a terror group. “Some actions by the military wing of Hamas,” he said, “can be seen as acts of resistance.” Esposito, too, served on UASR’s advisory board and has spoken and written in defense of Sami Al-Arian, the Florida professor convicted of violating a federal law that prohibits contributing funds, goods, or services to, or receiving them on behalf of, a terrorist organization—in this case the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. When Hashemi drew fire for his remark suggesting the attack on Rushdie may have been secretly orchestrated by Israel’s Mossad, MESA rushed to his defense, prompting several members of Congress to ask why a major academic organization was protecting fringe conspiracy theories. Congressional representatives Jim Banks (Indiana), Claudia Tenney (New York), and Doug Lamborn (Colorado) wrote a joint letter to MESA, arguing that the organization’s statement in defense of Hashemi “essentially asks the University of Denver to condone such an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory under the aegis of ‘academic freedom.’ Yet, what is ‘academic’ about spreading conspiracy theories that promote hatred and prejudice?”

It’s a question Georgetown may soon have to address itself. The university is already closely aligned with Qatar, a major Hamas financier, and has a campus in Doha, which hosted a panel last month titled “Israel’s war on Palestinians.”

Georgetown’s sudden shift toward embracing controversial figures is concerning to some observers. “I have been studying Islamism in America for almost 25 years and while these dynamics are to some degree common to other universities, the combination of high-level personal connections to Hamas and other Islamist organizations, extreme anti-Israel positions, and Qatari funding seen at Georgetown is unique,” said Lorenzo Vidino, who runs the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. “It is particularly concerning given the reputation of the university and its role of feeder school to the State Department and the intelligence community.”

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images


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