Islam and the West need to engage

Sydney, Austrailia - The aim of Griffith University's Islamic research unit, established in 2005, is to promote a balanced and contextualised understanding of Islam and Muslims.

The unit has established strong partnerships to provide a forum in which scholars and intellectuals can discuss issues facing the Australian, Muslim and wider communities and to cultivate informed public opinion that will lead to a more sustainable pluralistic Australian society.

The early success of the unit was recognised in January last year when it was included in the first National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies, established by the Howard government with a grant of $8million. The centre also includes the University of Western Sydney and isled by the University of Melbourne. The director of Griffith's unit, Mohamad Abdalla, recently attended the 2020 Summit and has 11 PhD students including former deputy prime minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim.

The most recent controversy has been over the university's solicitation and receipt of a donation of $100,000 from the Saudi Arabian Government. Critics claim the Saudi Government used the donation to advance its official religion, Unitarianism, the belief espoused by the unifiers of Islam or Muwahiddun. Unitarianism is also known by its critics as Salafism or Wahhabism, after an 18th-century Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab.

The primary doctrine of Unitarianism is Tawhid, or the uniqueness and unity of God. Wahhab also preached against a perceived moral decline and political weakness in the Arabian peninsula and condemned idolatry, the popular cult of saints, and shrine and tomb visitation.

Like many religious denominations, Unitarianism has many shades of belief, but some are thought to be ultra-conservative. Unitarianism is espoused by many Saudi scholars, both religious and secular. But like many religions, it is also espoused by those who seek to advance their beliefs with violence or terror.

Some more conservative or reactionary Saudis appeal to the most conservative tendencies in Unitarianism to mobilise against the Saudi Government, which they believe to be too progressive. This movement is analogous to Christian reconstructionism or theonomy, which asserts that modern, secular governments operate in opposition to God's law and should be replaced by institutions that acknowledge divine law as the only proper basis and rule for human political organisation.

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.

The Saudi Government can appeal to the product of these Islamic research centres as a legitimate alternative to their country's more conservative policies and perspectives. The Saudi Government imposed no restriction or demand on the use of the funds it donated to Griffith's Islamic research unit. The university followed standard practice in sourcing and accepting this donation, which has been on the public record since the day it was made.

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

Griffith and the unit do not advance Unitarianism, still less its imposition on non-believers.

This is attested by NSW lawyer Irfan Yusuf, who wrote in Crikey on Tuesday that the unit's most recent conference was virtually stacked out with anti-Wahhabists.

It is also supported by Queensland senator Andrew Bartlett, who wrote: "From my experience, their approach pursues exactly the sort of reasoned, open engagement and discussion of contemporary issues surrounding Islam that so many people call for (including The Australian on many occasions). Any suggestion or inference that they promote Wahhabism or any other extremist or violent form of Islam is not consistent with the extensive body of work this unit has openly engaged in."

This is not the first time Griffith has accepted a donation to establish facilities for religious study. In May 2002 the university opened its Multi-Faith Centre with donations from various faith communities, including $1 million from the master Chin Kung of the Amitabha Buddhist Association of Singapore, which has not attracted the controversy that follows Islam's interactions with the Christian West. Griffith University will continue to promote mutual understanding between all religions.

The violent animosity between Catholics and Protestants has finally been calmed and we hope to encourage a similar rapprochement between Christianity and Islam. Clearly we have a way to go.