Report Highlights Saudi Links to SOAS

A few days ago, an organisation called Student Rights published a seven-page report entitled “Buying Influence? Saudi Arabia and the School of Oriental and African Studies”. The report – which also highlights links with Libya and Brunei – is presented as being based on the results of a Freedom of Information Request, although it contains very little that wasn’t already in the public domain: donations are openly commemorated with names such as the King Fahd Chair of Islamic Studies and the Brunei Gallery (1). However, the “gift of a set of cufflinks made of Quarter silver Riyals” made to SOAS officials looks shabby and ought to be a source of embarrassment.

The report also draws attention to the presence of the sanguinary Yusuf al-Qaradawi on the editorial board of the Centre of Islamic Studies’ Journal of Qur’anic Studies, along with 32 other names listed on the journal’s website. This has garnered the most media interest, and SOAS has defended his involvement:

Professor Yusuf al-Qaradawi and some other editorial advisers from the Middle East only advise on the Arabic section of the Journal, and not on the English section. His academic peers and Muslim scholars in the UK and across the globe consider him to be one of the most outstanding scholars of the Quran in the Arabic and Islamic world. No political or other consideration was involved in asking him to be on the board.

There is a dilemma when an academic has a reputation for technical competence in a certain area but is also notorious; however, the phrasing “no political or other consideration was involved” is simply dodging the issue, especially if the decision to involve him was made a number of years ago. The fact is that al-Qaradawi’s inflammatory statements, as increasingly revealed over the past few years, adversely affect the credibility and ethical standing of any academic project with which he is now associated.

The question-mark in the Student Rights report’s title is unencouraging: such question marks in titles are often a tacit admission that the case hasn’t actually been made properly. Certainly, the articles published in the Journal of Qur’anic Studies appear to be a perfectly respectable ordinary academic fare. However, I know from my own experience of SOAS that there was some disquiet about how the SOAS Centre of Islamic Studies came into being, and over the scholarly level of some of the events held under its auspices. It seems to me that it’s time for a review.

(1)  Incidentally, I’ve often wondered if the Sultan of Brunei has ever been made aware that the Brunei Gallery is graced with a ludicrous plaque apologising for its architectural style, which is out of keeping with the rest of Russell Square.

(H/T: Harry’s Place)