Study into suicide bombing curtailed

September 29, 2006

Australia's new anti-terrorism laws are affecting serious research on Islamic fundamentalism, writes Geoff Maslen.

A respected academic who won one of Australia's biggest research grants has been forced to drop plans to interview international terrorist leaders as part of a study into suicide bombers.

Riaz Hassan, an emeritus professor of sociology at Flinders University, Adelaide, who was born in Pakistan, had to abandon the idea of interviewing the leaders after the intervention of Australia's Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock. Mr Ruddock sought a meeting with the academic and told him he should abide by Australia's new anti-terrorism laws.

The organisations Professor Hassan had planned to approach included Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Islamic Jihad in Egypt and Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia. The Australian Government considers each of these groups or their military wings to be terrorist organisations.

The Australian Research Council awarded Professor Hassan a grant worth A$829,000 (£438,000) for a five-year project that includes compiling a database of suicide bombings over the past 25 years. He went to London after the July 7, 2005, bombings to develop contacts within the Muslim community, but he said he would now rely on the results of the inquests.

Professor Hassan told The Times Higher that Mr Ruddock made an appointment to speak to him after the Attorney-General had apparently learnt of his research. Mr Ruddock did not directly warn against conducting the interviews but said that academics should abide by the law.

In an interview on ABC Radio, Mr Ruddock said he did not expect that genuine academics would break the terrorism laws but that under the legislation it was an offence to associate with terrorists. He said academics needed to consider whom they chose to interview.

Professor Hassan said he had modified his research design and would find other ways of obtaining information to achieve his research objectives. He said the first component of the research project was to prepare a comprehensive database of suicide attacks, who carried them out and who was involved. The second stage initially involved interviews with leaders and organisers responsible for the attacks, their members and other functionaries, as well as the families of the suicide bombers and the survivors.

In his application to the ARC, Professor Hassan said Australia's involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor had made Australia a terrorist target. He questioned the link between Islamic fundamentalism and suicide bombing, saying it had fuelled a belief that future September 11-type attacks could be avoided only with a wholesale transformation of Muslim societies.

"This presumed connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is not only spurious but may also be fostering the development of domestic and foreign policies in the US, the UK, Australia and their allies that are likely to worsen the situation," he wrote.

Many academics believe they and their students are now being monitored by intelligence agencies and federal police. At Monash University, a PhD politics student was questioned by federal police after borrowing university library books on the Palestinian conflict as part of his studies into martyrdom.

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