UK: Concerns over funding of Islamic studies

A closed meeting called by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) about Islamic studies will take place today amid fears that Saudi and Muslim organisations exert too much influence over UK universities as a result of donations that dwarf government funding.

Private donations, mostly to Islamic study centres, are much greater than government funding for Islamic studies and academics are said to be nervous of the threat to their academic freedom.

The conference will discuss how to improve Islamic studies in UK universities after the government earmarked £1m in funding following the publication of Dr Ataullah Siddiqui's report last June.

Ministers labelled Islamic studies a "strategic subject" and said the "effective and accurate teaching" of it in universities could help community cohesion and counter extremism.

It is expected that the conference will hear calls for more Islamic study centres to be opened at or allied to British universities.

In 2006, Hefce and the Scottish funding council and the research councils for the arts and humanities and economic and social research earmarked £4.5m annually to support area studies and related languages.

This included setting up the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arabic World - a collaboration between the universities of Edinburgh, Manchester and Durham.

Dr Denis MacEoin, Islam expert at Newcastle University, said academics were nervous about handling topics that might upset their sponsors.

"It's part of an overall belief that only Muslims can teach Islam, which in an academic context is entirely wrong. It would soon remove the possibility for genuine academic debate."

He said increasing numbers of students with Salafist - a more traditional form of Islam - backgrounds were taking Islamic studies and could be upset by "proper academic critical debate".

"It does threaten academic freedom and critical thinking," he warned.

But Dr Colin Turner, lecturer in Islamic studies and Persian at Durham University said there was no evidence that the subject was a "puppet in the hands of the extremists".

"There are certain departments in which, owing to the dynamics of their funding, one can find lecturers who avoid criticism of their (Arab) benefactors, but this is an exception rather than a rule; furthermore, if criticism is avoided, it is criticism of political rather than religious stances which is avoided," he said.

"It is usually anti-Wahhabi voices that dominate; the notion that Saudi money is turning Islamic Studies centres in the UK into hotbeds of Wahhabi extremism is completely unfounded," he said.

Prof Anthony Glees, director of Brunel University's Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, claims that eight universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, have accepted more than £233.5m from Saudi and Muslim sources since 1995, with much of the money going to Islamic study centres.

Glees' report, which is to be published by the Centre for Social Cohesion, part of rightwing thinktank Civitas, says this is 200 times the amount the government is putting into Islamic studies and will allow one-sided views of Islam and the Middle East, and anti-democratic propaganda to prosper.

Glees wants all university donations to be made public. He said any money coming into higher education from Islamic organisations should not be used for Islamic studies because of the "clear conflict of interest".

He alleges the government's plan to counter extremism would in fact create a Muslim apartheid in the UK, with Muslims being taught to think of themselves as Muslim first, British second.

There are around 90,000 Muslim students in the UK, of which 700 take Islamic studies. Siddiqui, director of Leicester's Markfield Institute of Higher Education, would like to see "add on" modules in Islamic studies available to all students.

"It would create a completely different culture for British Muslim students who should be encouraged to see themselves as British and blind to ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Universities should be the place in which nationhood is taught," Glees said.

"This is not in the interests of our national security. The government really does need to think again," he said.

Siddiqui said: "I have no relations with any ideological or political organisations. We're running here QAA courses accredited by the local university, Loughborough. The programmes that we run, like chaplaincy, are run with the church jointly. We have teaching and administrative staff who are not Muslim."

He said add-on modules in Islamic studies should be open to any one who wanted to take them.

"Any Islamic studies programme in Britain must be contextualised," he said, "and must include other world views including those of other faiths and no faiths. You can't exclude Islamic studies out of the human experience so it's unthinkable to have a parallel universe of Muslim study and non-Muslim study."

A spokesman for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills said: "Institutions have the primary responsibility for determining and maintaining the standards of the awards they deliver and the quality of the education they provide."

Source: Guardian (English)

No comments: