THE cheque from the Saudi Government for $360,000 was enclosed in an envelope.
It was a donation, a gift, a part payment to subsidise the construction of a building that would become Sydney's Muslim heartbeat: Lakemba mosque. More than 35 years after Sydney cleric Khalil Shami received the cheque, he insists it came with no strings attached. But while the cheque had no tangible conditions in the form of written instructions or binding contracts, the cleric received a message from his donors several months after depositing it.
"They said: 'Please, can you mention the tragedy of the Palestinian people and what's happened to them in your sermon?"' Shami tells Inquirer. "Which is really a very noble cause, a very noble cause, I couldn't see a negative in their request."
The message Shami received from Riyadh brings into question the influence petro-dollars can have on their recipients, whether the money is bankrolling a religious centre, a clerical allowance or Queensland's Griffith University, which was exposed by The Australian last month for seeking a $1.37 million Saudi grant, of which $100,000 was received, and offering to keep elements of the deal a secret.
The Saudi Government - largely through its embassy - is believed to have funnelled at least $120 million into Australia since the 1970s to propagate hardline Islam, bankroll radical clerics and build mosques, schools and charitable orgnisations.
But the Saudi cash that has flowed into Australia, that also allegedly has paid the allowance of hardline Canberra cleric Mohammed Swaiti, who has publicly praised jihadists, is dwarfed by the $90 billion Riyadh is believed to have pumped into promoting Islamic fundamentalism internationally.
Security agencies worldwide turned their focus on Saudi funding following allegations that the 19 Muslim terrorists - with 15 Saudi nationals among them - who turned commercial airliners into suicide bombs in the September 11 attacks in 2001 were funded from Riyadh.
Counter-terrorism networks also looked closely at the threat posed by Wahhabism or Salafism, a Saudi-pioneered interpretation of Islam espoused by Osama bin Laden, on radicalising Western Muslim communities.
Last October, US President George W. Bush declared that Saudi Arabia was "co-operating with efforts to combat international terrorism". But his administration is divided on the role Riyadh is playing in the West, as are Western intelligence agencies, including Britain's Scotland Yard and MI5.
Last September, weeks before Bush talked up Saudi Arabia's role in curbing radicalism and terror, his Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Stuart Levey, accused Riyadh of failing to prosecute terrorism financiers.
"If I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off the funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia," Levey said. "When the evidence is clear that these individuals have funded terrorist organisations, and knowingly done so, then that should be prosecuted and treated as real terrorism because it is."
Saudi Arabia has argued that it wants to improve its image in the West by using its financial clout to promote interfaith dialogue and moderate, not radical, Islam.
Last November, Riyadh said it had arrested more than 200 suspected al-Qa'ida operatives and several months ago continued its supposed crackdown on terrorism by seizing dozens of men suspected of being linked to bin Laden's network.
But US counter-terrorism analyst Steven Emerson is sceptical. The Washington-based analyst tells Inquirer: "The notion that the Saudis have totally changed their ways and are not disseminating Wahhabist anti-Western literature and propaganda is simply false. The (Saudi) Government has indeed put out some declarations that would give the impression they are interested in interfaith dialogue. But when it comes to reviewing the statements of the clerics, the religious establishment, the educational textbooks, the crackdown on dissidents and the anti-Western propaganda exported by the regime, one can only conclude their efforts to project moderation is an exercise in propaganda."
In Australia, Griffith academic Mohamad Abdalla has defended his decision to seek the grant, saying the money came with no strings attached. But critics, including the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's national security project director Carl Ungerer, say this is naive and the money is part of a Wahhabist "hearts and minds" campaign being waged by the Saudis in the Muslim world.
US-based Middle East expert and author Daniel Pipes says it is wrong to presume that all academics would follow their donor's line merely to keep the stream of funds rolling.
"Academics have a distinct point of view and are not about to be bought and change their point of view for any sum of money," he tells Inquirer. "But they are willing to shape their work and their views. So you can't buy them but you can rent them. So someone who might have been inclined to ask tough questions will do something else. It's subtle. It's not like the Saudis come to town to buy up academics who grovel before them, as was the case with Griffith University."
Last month, Britain's MI5 director-general Jonathan Evans reportedly told his Government that the Saudi Government's multimillion-dollar donations to universities, along with other funds from Muslim organisations in countries such as Pakistan, had led to a "dangerous increase in the spread of extremism in leading university campuses".
His warning came just days after the Higher Education Funding Council for England held a special meeting to confront fears that Saudi donations were unduly influencing universities. Brunel University's Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies revealed that eight British universities, including Cambridge and Oxford, received more than million from Saudi and Muslim sources since 1995, mainly to fund Islamic study centres.
In 2005, a prominent Saudi businessman, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, was reported by The Washington Post to have donated $20 million to Georgetown and Harvard universities in the US for the study of Islam and the Muslim world to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding.
At Scotland Yard, a security expert cautions that one of Islam's five pillars - Zakat - requires Muslims to give alms and that charity is considered virtuous and essential.
But Emerson, best-selling author of American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, says Saudi Arabia should be allowed to bankroll religious initiatives in the West only when it becomes open to the idea of religious reciprocity. "I think there should be a law requiring religious reciprocity for funding coming from regimes that restrict religious freedom on their soil," he says. "Saudi Arabia does not allow the practice of any other religion, bars the operations of churches, confiscates Bibles ... As such, there should be laws passed by Western governments prohibiting Saudi donations to universities until and unless Saudi Arabia operates a pluralistic religious environment.
"Absent such laws, I believe that universities should be required to register as foreign registered agents - a law we have in the US - that designates the Saudi donors and their recipients as agents of a foreign power.
"That would certainly stigmatise the grant giving and give pause before a university accepts such money."
The most recent insight into the nature of Saudi society came with the release this month of the Human Rights Watch report Perpetual Minors, about the status imposed on women by Riyadh's doctrinaire interpretation of Sura 4, verse 34 of the Koran: "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because God has given the one more (strength) than the other and because they support them from their means."
The report outlines how adult Saudi women generally must obtain permission from a male guardian to work, travel, study or marry, while being denied the right to make even the most trivial decisions on behalf of their children and being segregated from men under laws enforced by the Orwellian-sounding Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the religious police).
In 2004, the UN ranked Saudi Arabia 77th of 78 countries for gender empowerment, defined as the ability of women to take part in economic and political life, ahead of Yemen. Australia was eighth, Norway first.
While Saudi Arabia exports its Wahhabi version of Islam to the world, Saudi society groans under the weight of its internal contradictions. The first class of female law students will graduate from King Abdul Aziz University this year, but the Saudi Ministry of Justice prohibits female lawyers from practising. Judges consider women to be lacking in reason and faith, and have refused to allow them to speak in the courtroom because their voices are shameful.
A Saudi labour code, which came into force in 2006, states that all Saudi workers have the right to work without discrimination, but also specifies "women shall work in all fields suitable to their nature".
Literacy among Saudi women and girls over the age of 15 has risen sharply, according to UN reports, from 16.4 per cent in 1970 to 83.3 per cent in 2005 and Saudi women make up 58 per cent of university graduates (most at teachers colleges), but education is dependent on the permission of male guardians, universities are segregated, and women are excluded from disciplines such as engineering, architecture or political science.
Last year, a 19-year-old gang-rape victim was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months' jail for being in a car with an unrelated man when she was attacked by seven men. In 2002, a fire at an elementary school in Mecca resulted in 15 schoolgirls being burned alive because the religious police refused to let them out of the school without headscarfs.
At the University of Melbourne, Richard Pennell, al-Tajir lecturer in Middle Eastern history, describes Saudi society as opaque rather than transparent.
"It doesn't allow research into its social structure by disinterested people; it doesn't allow disinterested comment about its inner workings; its legal system is closed; it is not a particularly easy society to deal with, partly because it is so stressed," he says. "There are so many things under the surface that are threatening to the regime."
But Pennell is sympathetic to the idea of an educational bridge between Western secular societies and Islamic societies. "We should be taking money from a variety of sources because that is how we get a variety of ideas," he says. "Provided you've got the mechanisms in place so that you don't sing to their tune, I don't think you've got a problem."