UP to $1 million will be pumped by Saudi Arabia into an Australian university, sparking fears the money will skew its research and create sympathy for an extremist Muslim ideology espoused by al-Qai’da.
Muslim leaders and academics have attacked Queensland’s Griffith University for accepting an initial $100,000 grant from the Saudi embassy, which they accused of having given cash in the past to educational institutions to improve the perception of Wahhabism – a hardline interpretation of Islam.
The Australian understands the Griffith Islamic Research Unit will in coming years receive up to $1 million from Saudi Arabia, which has injected more than $120 million into Australia’s Islamic community since the 1970s for mosques, schools, scholarships and clerical salaries.
A former member of John Howard’s Muslim reference board, Mustapha Kara-Ali, accused the Saudis of using their financial power to transform the landscape of Australia’s Islamic community and silence criticism of Wahhabism. “They want to silence criticism of the Wahhabi establishment and its link to global terrorism and national security issues,” he said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade does not keep tabs on money from Saudi Arabia to Australian universities, despite having mechanisms in place to monitor official funding from the kingdom to local mosques.
James Cook University’s Mervyn Bendle, a senior lecturer in the history of communication and terrorism, said Saudi Arabia would not provide funds to any Islamic initiative without wanting to propagate its own agenda and version of Islam.
“Historically, Saudi funding around the world has been used to promote Wahhabism,” he said.
“It would be naive to just accept on the surface that this is not the case as far as this money is concerned.”
Griffith Islamic Research Unit will also receive a “collection of Islamic books and other materials”, according to the university’s website.
But the director of Griffith’s key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance, Ross Homel, defended the Saudi grant the university received on August 23, saying it came with “no strings” attached.
He said the grant – which was not solicited by Griffith but followed “negotiations” between the university and the embassy – would help fund research scholarships at the Islamic centre, promote moderate Islam and supplement the salary of the body’s director, Mohamad Abdalla.
Professor Homel said some of the research being conducted at the Islamic centre focused on domestic violence within the Islamic community and “the way Muslims are demonised”.
He said the Islamic books promised by the embassy were classic texts.
“Saudis have indicated that they are prepared to provide substantially more (money),” said Professor Homel, whose department is responsible for the Islamic centre. “They are not controlling the money, the money is very much controlled by us through the university, so they have really no influence over the way we spend our money.
“In fact, we wouldn’t accept the money if it was for … hardline (purposes) … well, I’d like to believe we wouldn’t.”
Additional reporting: Milanda Rout