Centre's Saudi gift sparks row

University defends embassy's A$100,000 donation to Islamic research unit. John Gill reports

May 1, 2008

A row has broken out about Saudi Arabian investment in universities overseas after an Australian institution accepted A$100,000 (£47,750) for its Islamic research centre.

The vice-chancellor of Griffith University in Queensland has been forced to defend the funding, which the Saudi Arabian Embassy granted after a request from the university.

Critics have suggested that investment from the Islamic kingdom would compromise the research centre's independence.

One judge has even accused Griffith of becoming an "agent" for the propagation of extremism. Clive Wall, a district court judge who also holds the rank of air commodore in the Australian Defence Force, told The Australian newspaper that he feared that a centre receiving Saudi funding would promote a brand of Islam "similar to many of the madrassas in Pakistan that receive funding from Saudi Arabia".

He said: "They're using the university as an agent to promote their bigoted brand of Islam. I'm concerned that a country that doesn't itself tolerate freedom of religion is promoting its own quite bigoted version here with the acquiescence of our learning institutions."

The newspaper reported that the university had asked the embassy for a grant of A$1.37 million. Griffith even offered to keep elements of the deal secret and offered the embassy a chance to "discuss" ways in which the money could be used, according to The Australian.

However, Mohamad Abdalla, the centre's director, insisted that it was opposed to hardline ideology and in favour of "moderate" Islam.

Ian O'Connor, the vice-chancellor of Griffith, was adamant that there was nothing untoward about asking for or accepting Saudi funding.

He said: "The Saudi Government seeks to moderate reactionary elements in its own society by funding Islamic research centres in prominent Western universities to develop a form of progressive Islam that has credibility and legitimacy.

"Several leading universities of the world have entered into similar Saudi partnerships including the University of Oxford and Harvard University and Georgetown University in the US, which each accepted in 2005 donations of $20 million from a Saudi businessman and member of the royal family to finance Islamic studies."

As Times Higher Education reported in March, deals signed with a £5 billion university being developed in Saudi Arabia by institutions including Imperial College London, Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, prompted concerns among some academics about links to a country seen by many to have restrictions on academic freedom.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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