Foreign Donations to British Universities: Covert & Corrosive Ideological Influence

Oh! what a tangled web we weave

When first we practise to deceive!

(Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, 1808)

The recent publicity surrounding the acceptance of funding from the Libyan dictatorship by the London School of Economics, and the subsequent resignation of the university’s Director, brings once more into the spotlight an issue which has largely remained under the radar of public attention, despite the fact that there has been ample information on the subject available for some time.

A full two years prior to these latest dramatic events, the Centre for Social Cohesion published an extensive report entitled ‘A Degree of Influence’ which detailed foreign funding of British academic establishments and the consequences of accepting donations from some of the world’s less free, and frequently human rights abusing, regimes.

As stated in the report, areas of concern include:

“Censorship of issues pertaining to Islam – There are examples of some aspects of issues dealing with Islam that universities have chosen not to discuss. Members of university staff have publicly stifled discussion on how terrorist networks are funded, and there has been an occasion where a university has been forced to censor a Saudi artist’s work for fear of offending Muslims.”

Attempts to influence the teaching of strategically important subjects – Several undemocratic foreign states seek to influence the teaching of subjects designated as ‘strategically important’ by giving money to universities. This has serious consequences for academia and for the UK as a whole. The most alarming cases examined in this report show university management committees having their personnel selected and appointed by the donors.

Human rights – Universities are accepting money from un-democratic states with poor human rights records. This lends respectability to these regimes, and at the same time raises moral and ethical questions for universities that accept such money.

Propaganda/PR – Through donations, foreign states and individuals are using British universities as vehicles for international diplomacy and are attempting to cast their nation in a favourable light.

Some of the universities named as recipients of foreign funding in the report include Oxford (not least  the Middle East Centre at St. Antony’s College), Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter (Arab and Islamic Studies), The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and the London School of Economics. Neither is this phenomenon a new one: the report shows that in some establishments, foreign funding began as early as the 1970s.

In light of the fact that The Guardian quite frequently commissions opinion pieces for its ‘Comment is Free’ website from British academics, I thought that it would be interesting to see how many of its columnists and contributors on the subject of the Middle East are employed by or studied at universities which have accepted donations from Middle East dictatorships with dismal human rights records.  The following list is not exhaustive, but it surprised even me.

Oxford: Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Hussein Agha, Avi Shlaim, Seumas Milne, Tariq Ramadan, Karma Nablusi, Daphna Baram, Brian Klug.

Cambridge: Ben White.

Edinburgh: Rachel Shabi.

Exeter: Ghada Karmi, Mick Dumper.

SOAS: Gilbert Achar, Arshin Adib Moghaddam, Soumaya Ghannoushi.

LSE: Victoria Brittain.

Although the Centre for Social Cohesion does not cover the subject of foreign patronage of student bodies in the above linked report, it is notable that ‘Comment is Free’ has also provided a platform for officials of the ‘Federation of Student Islamic Societies’ (FOSIS) such as Faisal Hanjraand Nabil Ahmed. FOSIS is a Muslim Brotherhood-linked organization, as shown in an earlier report by the Centre for Social Cohesion entitled Islam on Campus.

Whilst it should be theoretically relatively easy for most readers of ‘Comment is Free’ to recognize the fact that the opinion pieces on the subject of the Middle East by contributors such as Abdel Bari Atwan, Inayat Bunglawala, Tariq Ali or Azam Tamimi may be somewhat lacking in objectivity given their records and associations, the public may be less inclined to question the motives of seemingly neutral academics from prestigious British universities.

The LSE’s ‘Ghaddafi-gate’ will hopefully open the eyes of the public to the fact that a symbiotic relationship exists between various Middle Eastern despots and several other British academic institutions too, and that the Guardian is facilitating the seepage of purchased influence from beyond university walls into the realm of general public opinion by commissioning articles from some of these academics whose objectivity must now be scrutinized as a result of the choices made by their institutions.

The bottom line, both for the human rights abusing dictatorships and for the Guardian, is to mould political opinion and influence policy decisions within Western society. How disappointing it is to see that so many once esteemed British universities have allowed themselves to become pawns in that tangled web of grubby propaganda.

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