Religion dept. gets interfaith chair

Temple University recently accepted a $1.5 million gift to create an interfaith dialogue chair after a previous offer for a Islamic studies chair was withdrawn. On Jan. 15, director of communications Ray Betzner announced that

Temple University recently accepted a $1.5 million gift to create an interfaith dialogue chair after a previous offer for a Islamic studies chair was withdrawn.

On Jan. 15, director of communications Ray Betzner announced that the religion department had received a total of $1.8 million from Harry Halloran. Halloran, CEO of the American Refining Group, made the donations through the Enlightened World Foundation. Halloran donated $1.5 million to create the Leonard and Arlene Swidler Chair of Interreligious Dialogue, and $300,000 to toward a future Islamic studies chair.

A statement issued by President Ann Weaver Hart read in part, “Mr. Halloran’s gift will help us advance inter-religious dialogue and strengthen Temple’s scholarly leadership in Islamic studies.”

The Swidler Chair is in honor of Temple professor Dr. Leonard Swidler, who specializes in catholic thought and interreligious dialogue, and his wife Arlene, who holds a master’s degree in English and catholic theology. Together, the Swidlers founded the Journal of Ecumenical Studies in 1964. The journal facilitates interreligious scholarship and dialogue. The occupant of the Swidler Chair will edit the journal.

Halloran said he has given financial support to the JES for the last six years, and has been a member of the JES board for about five years. Halloran said he has known Leonard Swidler for almost 12 years. He called his decision to support the chair “a natural evolution of my interest and appreciation for Len Swidler’s work and the Institute of Interreligous Intercultural Dialogue.”

Halloran said that selection for the chair’s occupant will be determined by a committee consisting of the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, the religion department chair, board members of JES, representatives from the Enlightened World Foundation and other approved faculty.

“It occurred to me that since there was extra money in the foundation, it would be good to keep the idea of the Islamic chair alive,” Halloran said of his decision to contribute funds toward a future Islamic chair.

Halloran also hinted at a collaboration between the religion department and the Fox School of Business, which he said is working to create a class that examines how business and religion relate. Halloran was recently appointed to a board of visitors in the business school and said he hopes to contribute personally to the class.

In December 2007, the International Institute of Islamic Thought withdrew their $1.5 million offer for an Islamic Studies chair.

Temple University spokesman Mark Eyerly issued a statement regarding the decision.

“After much discussion and consideration, Temple decided to neither accept nor reject this generous offer. The university indicated that no decision regarding this matter would be made until post-9/11 federal investigations of the IIIT are complete. The university is committed to attracting private support for teaching and research in the department of religion, including endowed chairs and the Islamic studies program, as part of its ongoing development activities.”

The decision has sparked controversy and an investigation of academic freedom by the Temple Association of University Professionals. TAUP reached out to Hart last week and is awaiting reply.

“We feel very strongly that academic decisions should be made by academics without outside political pressure,” said Joyce Lindorff, vice president of TAUP.

“Temple should do all that they can to be transparent,” said Andrew Mobarak, a senior communications major and president of the Arabic Club.

Mobarak said that he feels that there is a lack of courses focusing on the Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, compared to other religious and cultural studies, particularly Jewish studies. This led him to start the Arabic Club..

IIIT, a private, non-profit Muslim think tank based out of Herdon, Va., was founded by former Temple professor Ismail Al- Faruqi in 1981. IIIT made the generous offer to Temple in the spring of 2007. The intention of the chair was to honor both Al-Faruqi, who was murdered in 1986, and Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub.

Nacy Leque, the lawyer representing IIIT, said she was surprised by Temple’s decision to neither accept nor reject the IIIT’s offer. When asked if the federal investigation of IIIT is still open, Leque said, “Any statue of limitations that conceivably could apply to any criminal act is over.”

Leque also confirmed that all materials taken in the investigation, which was opened in 2002, have been returned to IIIT, and that the organization has not been found guilty of any crime.

Leque claims that Temple’s administration never contacted her or IIIT to inquire about the status of the criminal investigation or share their reason in not accepting the offer. Leque said she and the IIIT are “disappointed and disheartened” by the administration’s decision.

Rebecca Alpert, a rabbi who has been the religion department chair since 2002, said that as a result of the post-Sept. 11 Homeland Security investigation, “Temple was left in a difficult position of ‘what if?’ What if they have ties to terrorists? My perspective was that it was not going to be likely that this group was going to have allegations brought to trial, and the president respectfully disagreed with me,” Alpert said.

Alpert expressed regret over the failure of an Islamic studies chair, especially for Ayoub, who retired from Temple on Dec. 31, 2007.

“He has been a very open person for me in dealing with Jewish-Muslim relations, which is not easy in today’s world,” Alpert said.

Alpert added that replacing Ayoub, who is a noted professor of Islamic studies and comparative religion, will be no easy feat.

“In my view, there was no reason for the chair to be rejected,” Ayoub said. He said that he worked hard to secure a donation from IIIT, which he referred to as a “legitimate American organization that does not have any political agenda at all.”

“The goal of the chair was to have interfaith dialogue and, particularly, to work with the program of Jewish studies,” Ayoub said. The ceremony for the Islamic studies chair was to be held in a Mount Airy synagogue.

Ayoub said he is concerned about how Temple’s dealings with IIIT will affect the university’s relationship with Philadelphia’s large Muslim community.

“We are obviously outraged,” said Marwan Kredie, executive director of the Philadelphia Arab American Development Corporation and spokesman for the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society, located at 1501 Germantown Ave.

Dr. Jim Zogby, a Temple alumnus fellow with a degree in comparative religion, studied Islam under Al-Faruqi. He called the allegations “unfounded and unwarranted.” Zogby said Temple’s dealings with IIIT were “to the detriment of what the religion department has always represented and certainly to the memory of Dr. Faruqi.”

Amina Afreen, a pre-dentistry and business administration major and secretary of the Temple Muslim Student Association said she was concerned about Hart’s fundraising ability.

“I just hope that President Ann Weaver [Hart]’s promise of gaining funds from other sources does not stop short to fund the Islamic studies, a vital source to battle Islamophobia.”

Emily Gleason can be reached at

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