THE revelations over the past week that Griffith University aggressively pursued funds from the Saudi Arabian embassy to finance its Islamic studies unit illustrates a major problem facing all liberal democracies confronted with the vast reservoir of petro-dollars controlled by the Saudi Government.
"Saudi Arabia today remains the location where more money is going to terrorism, to Sunni terror groups and to the Taliban than any other place in the world," according to testimony given by Stuart Levey, the head of the US Treasury's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, at a US congressional hearing on April 1, 2008. This money is channelled through complex networks of private, government and charitable organisations.
Saudi Arabia also funds the ideological war within global Islam in support of Wahhabism, the sectarian and fundamentalist form of Islam that serves as the Saudi state religion.
Although a minority tendency within Islam, Wahhabism's enormous financial muscle allows it to overwhelm traditional forms of Islam. This is especially the case among the Muslim diaspora in Western countries, where petrodollars fund the educational, social and cultural infrastructure used to promote Wahhabism and related forms of Islamic fundamentalism.
The funding available for these activities is stupendous. One investigation estimated that the Saudi Government and related organisations spent $70 billion between 1979 and 2003 on "international aid", with two-thirds of this being used to infiltrate institutions and promote Wahhabism, and anti-Western, anti-Israeli propaganda.
Another reliable estimate indicates that by 2005 the Saudis had spent some $90 billion to export Wahhabism globally, or twice the estimated rate of $1 billion per annum spent by the Soviet Union on propaganda during the Cold War.
This campaign of "petro-Islamism" has hit Western societies hard and most remain off balance. Britain "is in denial, having allowed the country to turn into a global hub of the Islamic jihad", Melanie Phillips observed in Londonistan. And British courts are being used to suppress details of the complex mechanisms utilised by Saudi interests to fund extremist groups, with at least two books falling victim to Saudi legal action.
In Australia, Wahhabi influence is also expanding. The estimated $120million spent by Saudi Arabia since the 1970s has funded mosques, schools, paid imams, sponsored Australian teachers and clerics to train in Saudi Arabia; financed youth groups and camps; and provided literature, overseas speakers, videos and other propaganda. One notorious video featured an Arabic song used by al-Qa'ida to promote jihad which contains the lines "with the swords we shall exterminate the infidels and death is the desire of the pure". In another infamous incident in 2007 a sheik gave a lecture on the Rulings on Performing Jihad, telling his students that it was permissible to kill children in battle.
Petro-Islamism is also having a big impact in the higher education sector. As Walid Phares, an expert on global terrorism remarks in The War of Ideas (2007), globally, "a wave of oil funding hit university after university, college after college, and research centre after research centre. The objectives were fully ideological: further the cause of Islam, support the Palestinian cause, and plant the seeds of the concept of an illegitimate West."
In Britain, a report by Brunel University's Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies revealed that eight British universities, including Cambridge and Oxford, have accepted more than $491 million from Saudi and Muslim sources since 1995, mainly to fund Islamic study centres. Not surprisingly, the director-general of MI5 has warned that this funding had led to a "dangerous increase in the spread of extremism in leading university campuses".
In Australia, a Saudi plan for a $2.7 billion scholarship fund was revealed last year, apparently to facilitate the entry of Saudi university students into Australia in the face of restrictions on their entry into the US and Britain.
This occurs as Islamist activity on Australian campuses increases, involving not only students but academics. For example, the hardline anti-Western Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir distributes a magazine on university campuses, targeting bright, highly committed recruits, while the sheik behind the group advocates coups and revolutions against non-Muslim governments. Significantly, four of the seven suspects in the thwarted London and Glasgow terror attacks were linked to a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell in Cambridge.
The grip that Saudi financial power can have on universities extends to their elite centres of learning. As The Australian revealed, Griffith University "practically begged" the Saudi embassy for $1.3 million, offering to "reshape" its Islamic Research Unit in accordance with Saudi wishes.
These donations are already paying off. Last month, Griffith hosted the controversial Islamist ideologue Tariq Ramadan, as keynote speaker at a conference pointedly called The Challenges and Opportunities of Islam in the West: The Case of Australia. The symbolism at the conference was clear: the chairman of the opening ceremony was the head of the unit, whose salary is supplemented by the Saudi grant, and the Saudi ambassador made the welcoming remarks.
To protect its reputation Griffith University should refund the money. However, it seems it wants to tough it out. The claim in The Australian by its vice-chancellor, Ian O'Connor, that the Saudi official religion should be called "unitarianism" rather than Wahhabism and is somehow moderate is disingenuous. In fact, the term "unitarian" is used by Wahhabis in a sectarian manner to distinguish themselves from other Muslims who by implication are not unitarian: that is, they don't recognise the absolute unity and oneness of God (Tawhid), and are therefore not proper Muslims. The term will also come as a shock to the Unitarian churches in America, who have distinguished themselves for several hundred years from other Christian churches by their rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity.
In comparing Wahhabism to Christian theonomy and reconstructionism O'Connor scores an own-goal. These groups are among the most reactionary sectarians in American religious life. Various theonomists and reconstructionists have called for the universal rule of theocratic republics governed entirely according to Biblical principles, with non-Christians excluded from voting and citizenship. Under such regimes, homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, idolatry and "false religions" would be punishable by death. It is a revealing comparison to make.
Tragically, faced with the vast sums mobilised by petro-Islamism, it is unlikely that Australian universities will long resist the temptation to accept Saudi funding. Nor is it likely that they will resist Saudi pressure to regulate their teaching and research.
Only public vigilance and political pressure will protect Australia's moderate Muslim communities and liberal democratic traditions.
Mervyn Bendle is senior lecturer in history and communications at James Cook University.