Hat tip:Rachel Ehrenfeld
Richard Kerbaj | April 22, 2008
A PROMINENT Australian university practically begged the Saudi Arabian embassy to bankroll its Islamic campus for $1.3million, even telling the ambassador it could keep secret elements of the controversial deal.
Documents obtained by The Australian reveal that Griffith University — described by vice-chancellor Ian O’Connor as the “university of choice” for Saudis — offered the embassy an opportunity to reshape the Griffith Islamic Research Unit during its campaign to get some “extra noughts” added to Saudi cheques.
The revelation comes despite a claim last year by Ross Homel — then director of Griffith’s key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance, which manages the Islamic unit — that the university did not chase money from the embassy and that the $100,000 down payment was offered with “no strings” attached.
While the Brisbane university says its unit, run by director Mohamad Abdalla, is designed to promote moderate Islam, the Saudi Government espouses a hardline version of the faith, policed at home by the Mutaween, the country’s religious police notorious for enforcing strict Muslim laws. Women are subjected to particularly harsh treatment in Saudi Arabia, and foreigners face severe punishment for not obeying the religious laws.
The Saudi Government — largely through its embassy — is believed to have funnelled at least $120 million into Australia since the 1970s to bankroll radical clerics, build mosques and propagate hardline Islam.
When presented with the documents, Professor Homel admitted the university had asked for the money. “Yes, the university sought the funding,” he told The Australian.
He said Dr Abdalla, as the unit’s director, and his team were always “proactively” seeking funding from a range of sources, including foreign embassies.
“Mohamad Abdalla and his colleagues in the Islamic Research Unit are always looking for funds,” Professor Homel said.
“So the Saudi funding was one of a number of sources of funding that the (unit) has received.
“They’ve always been proactive about seeking funding.”
The Australian revealed last September that some in the Muslim community feared Griffith’s $100,000 Saudi grant would skew the university’s research and create sympathy for an extremist Islamic ideology — Wahabbism — which is espoused by al-Qa’ida.
Professor Homel maintained the Saudis had no control over the university funding, but documents obtained by The Australian reveal that Professor O’Connor, among other staffers, offered the embassy a chance to “discuss ways” in which the money could be used.
Professor O’Connor says the money would go towards funding research fellowships and PhD scholarships.
“We would be pleased to discuss ways in which your contribution could be recognised through, for example, the naming of a particular research fellowship position,” says the letter to Saudi ambassador Hassan T.Nazer, dated September 11, 2006. “The university is actively seeking to attract additional support from governments, industries and other benefactors to allow us to enhance the activities of the unit.
“As you may be aware, Griffith is rapidly becoming a popular ‘university of choice’ for students from Saudi Arabia … and we look forward to seeing a greater number of Saudi Arabian students on our campuses in the future.”
Dr Abdalla even offered Mr Nazer the chance to keep the Saudis’ financial contribution a secret if he did not want the embassy, “a core sponsor, to be acknowledged in the Griffith’s newsletters, promotional material and seminars”.
“Anonymity will be respected, if preferred,” Dr Abdalla says in the May 8, 2006 letter to Mr Nazer. “We would, of course, welcome the opportunity to discuss any requests from sponsors for particular recognition of donations.”
James Cook University’s Mervyn Bendle, a senior lecturer in the history of terrorism, yesterday attacked Griffith University for accepting the money and accused the Saudi embassy of wanting to promote hardline Islam.
“A country awash with oil revenue is using its massive wealth to promote a minority and sectarian form of Islam,” hesaid.
“Australian universities using such funds threaten not only the traditional values of academic freedom and scholarship but also threaten our moderate Muslim communities.”
Dr Abdalla denied the money would be used to promote Wahabbism, saying he would not have accepted the money if it came with such a condition attached.
“People can make accusations as they like,” he said. “All they have to see is what we do and realise that we don’t follow that line (Wahabbism).”
The push to obtain Saudi funding is also revealed in an email exchange between Dr Abdalla and Griffith’s Centre for Ethics research and business development manager, Jenny Wilson, who congratulates the Islamic unit’s director on obtaining the $100,000 cheque, believed to be the first payment towards an expected $1.37 million grant sought by the university.
“Congratulations, Mohamad,” she writes in the email sent on July 12 last year. “Now how do we get the extra noughts on this cheque.”
In another email, Ms Wilson writes to the vice-chancellor’s correspondence secretary Kelly Collyer: “I understand the Saudi embassy has sent a letter … to VC inviting him to accept $100,000 for Griffith. For your background, I believe this might be a part of a far bigger commitment as there are discussions ongoing with the Saudi Government and embassy for $1 million – fingers crossed, anyway!”
Dr Abdalla defended Ms Wilson’s enthusiastic approach to obtaining funds, saying: “That’s a normal response of any university. If you get funding, you’d like to see if you can get more funding – that’s absolutely normal”.
Griffith University yesterday said the Islamic unit had not received and was not expecting the remainder of the $1.37 million the university sought.
“At this stage, we do not expect further funds, nor have we received any additional funds,” a spokeswoman said. “The Saudi Government has not at any stage sought to influence how this donation is allocated.”
The Saudi embassy did not return calls yesterday.