Begging for Saudi funding. Financing potential terror cells in Australia.

With these messages, The Australian confirms itself as the London Sun in journalist drag, a reactionary broadsheet with tabloid aspirations. But perhaps its editors and contributors, among them its fact-averse chief Chris Mitchell, and communications lecturer Mervyn Bendle, were on to something when they sniffed out Griffith University’s attempt to seek funding from the Saudi Arabian embassy.

The funding, something in order of $1.3 million, was supposedly earmarked for an Islamic unit within the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance of Griffith University. The particular enterprise is headed by an active Mohamad Abdalla, who steers the Islamic Research Unit. Funding, he assures the public, is sought from a diverse range of sources.

University fundraising comes with its hazards. Checks on donations are sometimes omitted; careful investigations can be overlooked. But the question in this case is a broader one: what should an institution do when proffered a sizeable sum of money from a supposedly questionable source. A refusal may often be in order, but the answer is more complicated than that.

Bendle cites (Australian, 29 April) Stuart Levey, the head of the US Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, who notes how Saudi Arabia “remains the location where money is going to terrorism, to Sunni terror groups and the Taliban”. A more specific source is the Central Intelligence Agency’s Illicit Transactions Group. The group estimates that two-thirds of the $70 billion spent by the Saudis between 1979 and 2003 ostensibly on “international aid” was used for purposes of infiltration and promotion – notably of Wahhabism, anti-Israeli and anti-Western propaganda.

Petrodollar bingeing, a product of what has been termed “Petro-Islam”, has long been a hurdle for champion moralists in the West. The Saudis are the providers; the takers are hardly there to complain. Often, they don’t, and even in an environment where a “war on terror” seduces and transfixes the modern neoconservative, the problem remains. The Coalition fights the Taliban; the Taliban receives funding from Riyadh; and Riyadh gets lucrative contract deals with, amongst other countries, the United States and Britain.

Griffith’s Vice-Chancellor Ian O’Connor did not do himself any favours for the defense by revealing either a personal inattentiveness to his writing, or his hiring. “Unitarianism”, courtesy of a devilish entry on Wikipedia, became “Wahhabism”. His wiki-drilled, or drunk research assistant may be the one in need of a good reprimand. That aside, O’Connor’s confusing excursus (printed in that paragon of inattentiveness, The Australian, no less) had misfired.

A glance at university fundraising in Australia reveals a tapestry of interests, not all pegged to standards of ethical awareness. As has been noted by Stephen Crittenden (Religion Report, Radio National, 30 April), Melbourne University has received an amount in the order of $1.5 million from the Sultan of Oman for an Islamic Studies Centre.

The ANU boasts donors from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Iran.

The Australian Catholic University’s establishment of the Fethullah Gülen Chair promoting interfaith dialogue receives backing from the Turkish Muslim Affinity Intercultural Federation. The Federation, amongst other bodies, are not exactly free of Islamic ideological bias, while Gülen has intimated his distaste for Turkish secularism.

Funding a source is not an assertion, let alone guarantee, that the recipient will act according to the wishes of the donor. But The Australian, its contributors gazing through the glass darkly, set to work on the Griffith case, unconvinced by reassurances from the director of the Key Centre Ross Homel that the Saudis had no control over the funding. The paper had apparently found incriminating “documents” showing the contrary.

This evidence, turning on correspondence with Saudi ambassador Hassan T. Nazer, turned out to be paltry: that the contribution might be recognised in various ways, one being the “naming of a particular research fellowship position”. Nothing here about the promotion of “hard line Islam”. This did not convince a suspicious Bendle, who insisted on seeing something extraordinary in the ordinary. Griffith, it seems, is primed to be Australia’s mega madrassah.

What this entire debate has ignored is how desperate the need for creating Islamic centres is. Wars and debates are being waged in the dark, against individuals with names Australians can barely pronounce.

Queensland is lagging behind other states in funding stakes which are poor in any case. Only a handful of scholars man the ship of enlightenment on the subject of Islam, a ship that is often barely afloat. The Australian, with its instinctively shoddy approach to cultural matters, might do well to take detailed instruction. So would the minions in DFAT, Australia’s misguided intelligence agencies, and Bendle, who seems eager to comment on Islam’s darker manifestations with regularity without demonstrable expertise.

The answer to our dilemma on university funding from such sources hinges on the facts. The Saudi-Griffith case is complicated, but denying the Islamic unit a slice of the petrodollar pie will deprive rather than protect. There seems to be a general jitteriness in countries, Australia being no exception, that students who study Islam will take a diploma and martyr themselves with thanks.