Islamic studies head defends role of academics in preventing extremism

Islamic leaders in Melbourne called a conference yesterday to denounce the violent protests against the film ‘Innocence of Muslims’ in Sydney last Saturday. AAP

Academics involved with Australia’s National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies have had “sleepless nights” tackling the work facing them as the community continues to discuss Saturday’s violent clashes between police and a group of young Muslim youth.

Speaking after James Cook University academic and terrorism specialist Mervyn Bendle accused academia of being “lazy and too lethargic to come to grips with understanding a complex religion like Islam”, Griffith University’s Mohamad Abdalla has defended the work being done by academics.

Associate Professor Abdalla heads the Queensland division of the Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies. He said Dr Bendle’s comments indicate a total unawareness of what’s happening.

“Contrary to the accusation of being lazy, we have been involved at the grassroots level with Imams and young people,” Professor Abdalla said.

Speaking on ABC radio this morning, Dr Bendle suggested the riots in Sydney on the weekend indicated a failure on the part of universities to address the problem of Islamic extremism.

Pointing specifically to the study centre that Professor Abdalla works in, Dr Bendle asked: “Where have they been?

"They’ve had millions of dollars, not just Saudi money, but a lot of government money over the last five years or so to achieve excellence in the study of Islam … Now where is the output? Where are they? Why aren’t they in the media offering a really analytical objective analysis of how we got to the situation where we’re having riots like we did in Sydney.”

Professor Abdalla said he had been interviewed in the media about the Sydney riots, the centre had been involved in many research projects that sought to examine the risk factors behind the radicalisation of young Muslim youth, and he had spent time speaking with young Muslims at mosques about the importance of operating within the rule of law.

“I could cite hundreds of examples where I have been working day and night with the community to build bridges of understanding,” he said.

“By and large we have been extremely successful in Queensland in keeping tensions down and working with the community.”

Professor Abdalla added that Griffith University had not received “millions from the Saudis”, but rather a cheque for $100,000 that was given publicly.

He said in the past the Saudis had funded individual mosques and community groups, but that as part of improving its image the Saudi Arabian government decided to fund a transparent group with no intention of promoting radical ideology.

“They saw the work we were doing in terms of promotion of understanding, promotion of peace – they thought that was good work,” Professor Abdalla said.

Dr Bendle told ABC Radio there was currently a “battle going on within Islam itself”, an issue that was missing from the discussion.

Professor Abdalla said he had been self-critical of the community in media interviews, rather than following the “9/11 rhetoric” assumed by Dr Bendle.

“We need to look inwards at how Islam is being taught in schools or mosques, we need to teach Islam in a way that allows people to live in this context.”

Dr Bendle has not yet responded to a request for comment.