The country’s most prestigious university for the study of the Middle East provided one-to-one English tuition to Mutassim Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan dictator, who acts as his national security adviser. It also hosts the controversial Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi on the editorial board for its Journal of Islamic Studies.
The information from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies is contained in an answer to a Freedom of Information request from Harlow MP Robert Halfon, and Student Rights, an organisation that tackles extremism on campus.
The college confirmed that Mr Gaddafi received private tuition at SOAS for a four-week period in 2006, for which the college received £5,500. The SOAS response also confirms that a distance-learning deal was struck with Al-Fateh University in Libya, just months before the Arab Spring uprisings, in which SOAS received £148,000 for course materials and teaching.
A report from Student Rights, based on the disclosures, shows that SOAS also received donations of £755,000 from the Saudi royal family over the past four years. That money was used to fund the college’s Islamic Studies Centre, and a Journal of Islamic Studies. The editorial board of the journal includes Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has supported suicide bombings and acts as the spiritual inspiration for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone caused outrage when he invited Sheikh al-Qaradawi to London in 2004. He has since been refused entry and is also banned from the United States and Israel. In February he returned to Egypt where he led Friday prayers on Tahrir Square.
The university has issued a lengthy response to the Student Rights report. On the issue of Sheikh Al-Qaradawi’s membership of the editorial board of a journal hosted by SOAS, it said: “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.”
It added that comments attributed to Yusuf al-Qaradawi in the Student Rights report, endorsing suicide bombings and the killing of pregnant women were “not compatible with SOAS’s values, or our views on hate speech, and would not be allowed on campus”.
Since 2007, the Saudi royal family’s investment in SOAS has increased from an initial £100,000 a year to £200,000 in 2008 and £230,000 in the last tax year. Saudi funding, including gifts from Saudi Arabian Oil and the King Saud Foundation, now accounts for nearly 14 per cent of all donations to the institutions. The director and pro-directors of SOAS also received a gift of cufflinks made of Saudi riyals (the official coinage), which are worn on official occasions.
The lion’s share of the funding went to the Islamic Studies Centre at SOAS, which is headed by Professor Mohammed Abdel Haleem, who also edits the Journal of Islamic Studies. Professor Haleem is widely regarded as a moderate and received an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2008.
However, he is also a trustee of the Saudi-funded King Fahad Academy in East Acton, which was discovered to have used textbooks describing Christians as “pigs” and Jews as “apes”.
Fellow trustees include the Saudi ambassador, Prince Mohammed al-Saud, and several other members of the Saudi diplomatic mission. In 2007, the school’s principal, Dr Sumaya Alyusuf admitted on the BBC’s Newsnight programme that the textbooks were used, but said the passages concerned had been misinterprested. At the time, Jewish MP Louise Ellman said the school was part of a concerted initiative by the Saudi government to instill extremism in the UK Muslim population.
Mr Halfon said: “I am deeply concerned at the findings of this report by Student Rights, following the recent Freedom of Information request that I made to SOAS. I will be raising this further in parliament at the next opportunity and will be writing to the vice-chancellor of SOAS asking for an explanation".
The Harlow MP has been at the forefront of the campaign to force universities to reveal their funding from Middle East sources. He led the charge against the London School of Economics, which took a £2.2 million donation from another son of the Libyan dictator, Said al-Gaddafi. In March, the LSE’s director Sir Howard Davies was forced to resign as details of the relationship came to light. Mr Halfon’s own grandfather, an Italian Jew from Tripoli, was forced to leave the country after a series of antisemitic pogroms.
The revelations will be deeply embarrassing to SOAS, which has worked hard to allay its image as a centre of Islamist activism.
SOAS fiercely denied that the Saudi donations compromised academic freedom or bought influence. Its spokesman insisted: “SOAS goes to great lengths to ensure that academic and editorial decisions are made with integrity. We do not permit donors or funders to influence academic work (research content or teaching) or the selection of academic staff, scholarships or any other students.”