Kerbaj is supposed to be a journalist. His job is to report. His job is not to engage in a crusade or a jihad. Yet his stories concerning Griffith University and its Islamic Research Unit (GIRU) are generally little more than the presentation of one side of a debate. Clearly Kerbaj is taking sides.
Those who have followed Kerbaj’s reporting on these issues will note that he has never quoted from myself on any of these issues. I’m saying this not to big-note myself. However, it is the case that, since April 2005, I have had some involvement in public discussion on these topics. Yet I refuse to go on the record when asked to do so by Richard Kerbaj. I simply have no confidence in his ability to understand or even accurately report what I tell him. That I must say this about the reporter of our national broadsheet is quite disturbing.
Kerbaj must understand that his role is to report. It isn’t to take sides. If he wishes to write opinion pieces, his opinion editor is just a phone call or an e-mail (or perhaps even a few desks) away.
The strangest thing about so much of Kerbaj’s reporting is that he claims to have some kind of expertise in Muslim affairs. He presents himself as an expert due to his untested Arabic language skills. But when asked about where he studied Arabic or what degree of proficiency he has, Kerbaj is rather coy.
I have no objections to Kerbaj reporting what he sees or heard or reads. Whether it is embarrassing to Muslims or Arabs or Lebanese or Sudanese or anyone else is really immaterial to his role. But when he begins to enter the realm of opinion, often citing anonymous sources in the same manner as his cousins at FoxNews, Kerbaj opens himself up for criticism.
Kerbaj’s repeated errors on even the most basic Islamic theological matters show that so many of the sectarian, ethnic, linguistic and other nuances are way out of Kerbaj’s league. The results can often be embarrassing.
For instance, in his report yesterday, Kerbaj claimed that Dr Mohamad Abdalla, the convenor of GIRU, is a follower of the Tabligh Jamaat (TJ). At the same time, Kerbaj has been attempting to show that a measly $100,000 donation from the Saudi embassy shows that Saudis will expect the promotion of Saudi-style wahhabism. Yet if that was the Saudi’s goal, why would they make their donation to a man whom (as Kerbaj suggests) is associated with a group that Saudi religious authorities regard as deviated and even promoters of idolatry?
In today’s piece, Kerbaj again displays his ignorance of religious doctrine, this time of Christian doctrine. He cites Stephen Crittenden as suggesting that, by using the term “Unitarianism” as a translation of Tawheed, the Vice Chancellor of Griffith was associating Wahhabism with the Unitarian movement that arose in England and the United States.
Had Kerbaj any basic knowledge of comparative theology, he would have seen the absurdity of this alleged claim by Crittenden. Kerbaj also attributes this claim to another ABC religion presenter, Rachel Kohn. I find it impossible to believe that Dr Kohn would subscribe to such nonsense.
Professor O'Connor faced further criticism yesterday from a trio of long-time ABC religion journalists and commentators - Rachael Kohn, John Cleary and Stephen Crittenden - who said he had confused the Christian doctrine of Unitarianism with the Islamic sects of Wahhabism and Salafism in an opinion article published in The Australian. Professor O'Connor wrote: "Unitarianism is also known by its critics as Salafism or Wahhabism, after an 18th-century Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab."
The ABC commentators responded by saying: "Ian O'Connor's equation of Wahhabism and Salafism with Unitarianism is utter nonsense.
"Unitarianism emerged as a liberal Christian movement and gained ground in the early years of American democracy."
Indeed, to even describe Unitarianism as a Christian doctrine is sheer madness. Orthodox Christianity (and by that term, I don’t just mean Eastern Orthodox, but include Catholic and Protestant churches) is a strictly Trinitarian affair. The Unitarianism of the medieval theologian Arius or of latter day Unitarians such as Isaac Newton or Joseph Priestley bears little resemblance to the Athanasian Creed.
Tawheed is a basic Islamic doctrine which argues that God is One. Wahhabi/Salafi doctrine takes this concept further in some respects than mainstream Sunni and Shia doctrine. Yet essentially Tawheed is a doctrine replicated in Judaism and in Unitarian forms of Christian belief which mainstream Christianity regards as heresy.
All this should be obvious to anyone with even elementary knowledge of the doctrines of the Abrahamic faiths. I doubt religious affairs reporters like Linda Morris or Barney Zwartz would make mistakes on this kind of stuff, even if it involves quoting a Radio National presenter. I think what has happened is the Kerbaj has tried to make a mountain out of a mole hill of split hairs. He has more than likely misunderstood something he’s been told by Crittenden et al and has reported his misunderstanding in an attempt to find something contradicting the Griffith VC’s op-ed.
So what is the real issue? Is it whether the Griffith VC understands the difference between Wahhabism and a form of nominally Christian belief that virtually all Christians regard as heresy? Is it whether Dr Abdalla is associated with an Indian Sufi missionary movement? Is whether human rights in Riyadh will form part of the curriculum?
Let’s put this in perspective. We are talking about $100,000. Compare this to the amount invested by the Australian government in the Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies, of which GIRU forms a part.
At the end of the day, we are talking about a postgraduate research unit. It is a place where people go to pursue their doctorates. They already have a particular topic in mind which is somehow linked to Islam or Muslims. GIRU provides them with an environment where they can pursue their research interest.
Until Kerbaj is able to show examples of students being hampered whilst pursuing ...
*topics critical of the Saudi government; or
*topics critical of wahhabism
... his continued pursuit of this issue will be deemed little more than another witch-hunt.
Perhaps a good note to end off this piece would be with a letter to the editor published in today's Australian which addresses the heart of the issue.
YOUR front-page reports attacking Griffith University over partial funding of an Islamic Research Unit smacks of McCarthyism. Open-ended funding of research positions is not a form of payola: how many chairs are endowed by businesses without strings attached? It’s more than possible for a diplomatic arm of a nation with which we and the US have strategic and diplomatic ties to give such funding.
Saudi Arabia, for all its flaws, just happens to be home to the key spiritual sites of Sunni Islam. Will your newspaper condemn the ethics of academics working in Catholic universities, as if they were answerable only to the Vatican? Will you support full, independent public funding of research, or will you continue to encourage universities to rely on private funding but foment scandal when the funding comes from politically incorrect sources?
TC Beirne School of Law
University of Queensland
Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf
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