Monash defends study of terrorism

August 26, 2005

An Australian university has defended the right of academics and students to research terrorism after one of its students was questioned by police when he borrowed books on the Palestinian conflict.

Monash University said academics and students, who are being monitored by security and police officials as the federal Government prepares to announce new laws against terrorism, should not be singled out for investigation.

The politics PhD student borrowed books from Monash and Melbourne university libraries and bought books over the internet.

Monash vice-chancellor Richard Larkins said that while the university recognised the need for vigilance in identifying potential terrorists, it was important to maintain a reasonable balance with the retention of personal and academic freedom.

"Academic inquiry into the rationale and thought processes of terrorists is important if we are to achieve better approaches to the problem," Professor Larkins said. "Academic staff and students undertaking such studies should not be singled out for inappropriate attention."

The student, who calls himself Abraham after converting to Islam three years ago, said he was questioned by a federal police officer at home late at night about the books he had borrowed. Abraham said he was the only student on his course to be interviewed.

David Wright-Neville, his lecturer and a former intelligence official at the Office of National Assessments, said he had told students in his politics department of the change in climate. "I've warned students that they probably are being monitored," Dr Wright-Neville said. "I have an ethical responsibility to do that."

The police action angered academics, who said it set a dangerous precedent and threatened academic freedom. Dr Wright-Neville said the incident was indicative of the sort of paranoia "that is taking root in society" after the London bombings.

Abraham was studying martyrdom and terrorism among Palestinians and had borrowed books on the subject. He said the police asked about the library books and the books he bought on terrorism and why he was reading them.

Dr Wright-Neville said random targeting of individuals, apparently on the basis of having a Muslim name, was unfair and unnecessary.

Clive Williams, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, said a balance was needed between civil liberties and keeping tabs on people who posed a threat.

But Mr Williams said a university was not an appropriate place to be pursuing those kinds of inquiries. Foreign students studying sensitive subjects, however, were a different issue and universities needed to review their protective security arrangements.

He said foreign governments were using students to target sensitive technologies useful to them. Problems had arisen in the past with students from countries such as Iran and China targeting valuable technologies, he said.

"I think we need to be cautious about people who come here apparently to study something such as physics and then switch to leading-edge biotechnology studies or other sensitive areas," Mr Williams said.

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