Thursday, May 17, 2007

Wake Up Australia!

Cut off the Wahabi cash flow
Thursday, May 17, 2007 Greg Sheridan

THE Government of Saudi Arabia is continuing to fund extremists within the Australian Muslim community. It does this partly through the Saudi embassy in Canberra. It ought to stop. Saudi Arabia is a theocratic monarchy that recognises no distinction within its rule between politics and religion. It adheres to an extremely conservative and paranoid version of Islam known as Wahabism, which it tries to promote throughout the world.
It also has a history of funding terrorists. It was the chief bankroller of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the 1970s and ‘80s at the height of the PLO’s involvement in global terror. But it would be true to say that, worldwide, the Saudis tend to fund the precursors to terror rather than terror itself. Since the 9/11 attacks in the US, in which the majority of hijackers were Saudis, the Saudi Government, under intense US pressure, has tried to exercise greater care and control over where Saudi money goes.
The Australian connection is not, however, reassuring. In May 2003 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer visited Riyadh. He saw his ministerial counterpart, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. Downer raised his concerns about how much Saudi money was coming into Australia and the uses to which it was being put. This was a complex and difficult conversation for Downer. The Australian system had long had concerns about Saudi funding of extremists in Southeast Asia.

But tens of millions of dollars of Saudi money had also come into Australia. In the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, this was fairly open. The Saudis funded mosques, Islamic schools and various special courses. They promoted Wahabi literature widely. All of this material promoted an extreme version of Islam, but in those pre-9/11 days nobody worried.
After 9/11 ASIO became focused on the Muslim community and the extremists within it. Through its investigations, and through international intelligence sharing, it discovered a good deal about Saudi money coming here. It was not necessarily the obvious thing to do to raise it officially with the Saudis, because this would tip the Saudis off about what Australian agencies knew, and perhaps how they knew it.
In any event, Downer raised it in Riyadh. The next year, in 2004, Saudi officials came to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with their own proposal. They would in future notify the Australian Government of any Saudi funds coming to Australia. DFAT naturally agreed. This agreement is what allows the Saudi embassy occasionally to claim that its activities in Australia are approved by the Australian Government.
But there is every reason to believe this agreement has been almost wholly ineffective. First, it only covers new Saudi money, it doesn’t cover any existing pre-agreement payments the Saudis might be making. Thus, due to the outstanding reporting of Richard Kerbaj in this newspaper, we now know that the Saudi embassy has been paying an annual stipend, alleged to be about $US30,000 ($36,000), to the imam of Canberra’s Abu Bakr Mosque, one Imran Mohammed Swaiti. Kerbaj has also written that Swaiti has preached sermons in Arabic calling for victory to the mujaheddin, including, but not limited to, victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Australian soldiers are committed in battle, daily risking their lives, against the mujaheddin in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, on the face of it, this is as clear a case of the Saudis funding extremism as you could imagine. And you would think that this was captured under the 2004 agreement. You would be mistaken. The 2004 agreement, even if faithfully implemented, wouldn’t cover such a pre-existing payment. Opponents of Swaiti within the Canberra Muslim community have claimed that the Saudis are funding 20 imams in Australia and at one point offered to fund a replacement for Swaiti.

The 2004 agreement led to a clumsy process whereby groups would write to the Saudi embassy seeking funds. The Saudi embassy would then tell them to write to DFAT, which would pass the letter on to ASIO. DFAT would later tell the Saudis whether it had any objection. The only case in which an objection was lodged was for the proposed funding of an Adelaide mosque in January. Under the 2004 agreement there have been about eight proposals submitted to DFAT and DFAT has registered only one objection. But it is reliably believed that none of these projects has received funding from the Saudis.
However, the agreement is not working, as the Swaiti case demonstrates. Not only is there the giant loophole of not covering existing arrangements, the agreement also specifically does not cover private donations from Saudis, which they consider to be part of their religious duties.
This, of course, could cover anything and could be a vast amount of money. Thus it is reasonable to assume that the bulk of Saudi funding in Australia is completely unregulated.
Given that the Canberra mosque services the Muslim diplomatic community, numerous Saudi diplomats must have attended Swaiti’s sermons and known first hand what he was preaching. This suggests a very relaxed attitude by the Saudis as to who they fund in Australia. I have tried hard to get the Saudi embassy to enlighten me on this, with repeated phone calls and a fax getting no reply. A week ago I faxed the embassy five questions, which, at the time of writing, remain unanswered.

These questions were:
Does the Saudi Government pay a stipend to Sheik Mohammed Swaiti of Canberra’s Abu Bakr mosque and, if so, how much is this stipend?
• How many stipends does the Saudi Government pay in Australia?
• How much money does the Saudi Government provide for Islamic education in Australia?
• Does the Saudi Government inform the Australian Government of each such payment?
• Does the Saudi Government allow foreign governments to subsidise non-Islamic religious activities in Saudi Arabia, in line with the freedom the Saudi Government enjoys in Australia?
Australia is not a poor country and does not need Saudi aid. Our Muslim community is overwhelmingly more moderate than Saudi ideology and can only suffer by being associated with the Saudis. Australian aid to foreign countries is itemised and publicly accounted for in great detail.
The Saudis should provide the same public accountability and detail about the funds they spend in Australia. In truth, the Saudi embassy should not be subsidising any political or communal activism here. That is not what embassies are for.


Post a Comment

<< Home