Response from Professor Amin Saikal AM, Director of CAIS at ANU
The Australian National University's decision not to host a Ramsay Foundation-funded Bachelor of Western Civilisation on academic grounds has led certain media commentators and figures, supporting the Ramsay Foundation project, to seek to disparage the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies - CAIS (the Middle East and Central Asia) at ANU and my standing as the Director of the Centre. The assault on us has primarily been along the lines of why does the ANU have a Centre such as CAIS, purportedly funded by the UAE, Iranian and Turkish governments, yet rejects the Ramsay project. As well, CAIS and myself have been accused of working in the interests of the named donors. All this cannot be further from the truth, and seems to be driven by ideological and political motivations.
CAIS is the largest centre of its kind in Australia, with an impeccable academic record of teaching, research, outreach and public policy input at the national and international levels. Ever since its establishment as the Centre for Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies in 1994, with a change of name to CAIS in 2000 purely for intellectual reasons and on the grounds of a division of labour between Australian universities and nothing else, it has had bipartisan support. In both its establishment phase and change of name it has had government and opposition representation on its Advisory Board, which in its earlier years also included a prominent Jewish academic, the late Professor Alan Crown, Head of the Department of Semitic Studies, University of Sydney. This Board endorsed in 2000-2001 a one-off donation of $2.5 million from the Al-Maktoum Foundation in Dubai, $650,000 from the Iranian reformist government of Dr Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and $430,000 from the Turkish government.
All these donations were matched by the ANU dollar for dollar and enabled the Centre to construct a dedicated building and to endow four academic positions in the areas of Arab and Islamic studies, and Persian and Turkish languages out of a total of 12 academic positions that the Centre enjoys currently. All the donations have had no strings attached and have been entirely under the control of the ANU. Similarly, the Centre's appointments, curriculum, research and outreach activities have been conducted according to the ANU's rules, regulations and standards, with the donors having had no say in them. The Centre's donations and its academic activities have been in the public domain from the very beginning.
The Centre's growth and my contributions, along with those of its other dedicated and highly qualified academics, to the debate of vital issues concerning areas of the Centre's coverage have periodically been accused in some circles, more prominently the pro-Israeli lobby in Australia and abroad, of being biased towards spreading Arab, Iranian and Islamic views. This accusation is totally false. The Centre and I personally have never strayed from the principles of academic objectivity. In all our activities we have accommodated diverse views and perspectives, with at the same time an eye on providing the alternative analyses to what has been out in the public domain.
For example, we opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and condemned the subsequent rule of the Taliban and any form of terrorist activities, but have voiced serious concerns about the US-led NATO approach to handling the Afghanistan conflict and the 'war on terror'. Similarly, I personally opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, not for what it achieved by overthrowing Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, but rather for what it did not accomplish in bringing peace and stability to Iraq. In addition, I have opposed the Assad regime in Syria, and Iranian and Russian involvement in support of that regime. Beyond this, I have been critical of the Iranian government for its handling of the 2009 protests and human rights violations, and have endorsed the position of those groups which have sought a reformation of Iranian politics and its system of governance. This is all on the public record.
In relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I have always stood fast for the internationally backed two-state solution and have been critical of Israel's settlement expansion, and division within the Palestinian nationalist movement between the Palestinian Authority and the Islamic group Hamas. I have argued that if Hamas is not part of a solution it can be in a position to wreck any potential resolution, but this does not mean an endorsement of Hamas as an organisation. I have been critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his opposition to the the Oslo peace process and assertion that there will be no independent Palestinian state under his watch. Further, I opposed the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war for the reason that it would be counter-productive, as Hezbollah's survival of the conflict could only make it stronger, and have been critical of Israel's blockade of Gaza on humanitarian grounds.
The Centre has been criticised for having invited public speakers, such as Professor Richard Falk, who have not been charitable towards Israel. In the case of Falk alone, he delivered a lecture for us on the Palestinian issue five years ago in his capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on "the situation human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967" and as professor emeritus of International Law at Princeton University.
It is also important to be reminded that CAIS's focus is primarily on the coverage of the Muslim Middle East and Central Asia. There are several other outfits in Australia that cover Israel and expound its perspectives.
CAIS is a preeminent Centre recognised nationally and internationally within the prestigious ANU. Its contributions in educating the public and policymakers about the complexities of the politics and society of the Muslim Middle East and Central Asia have met a critical demand fairly and objectively in this country. Its stance is not to serve any particular groups, organisations or governments, but to provide informed analyses and services in support of the common good. Those who accuse us of a lack of objectivity or sound perspectives are influenced by nothing more than their own biases. We stand by the soundness of all our activities and continue to be one of the best centre's in teaching, research and outreach in the world, as is befitting of an institution like Australia's National University.
This is an amended version of a letter sent to The Australian on Tuesday 26 June.