Think Tanks, weak research and the case of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Australia

Think Tanks, often linked to a party in the nation’s political system, are becoming increasingly popular (particularly in the US and the UK), receive funds, and produce very easily digestible research, ready-made for the rushed politician. Think Tanks do not have to adhere to the same quality standards that university research has to or, when they are supposed to meet similar standards,  there is no effective means of monitoring it. Ethical issues, ethical conduct of research and often methodology remains unexplained in reports written to impress more than explain complex issues. In an era where simplification often resembles “The Complete Idiot’s” guides, Think Tanks provide a fast, public friendly, easy to use policy support for difficult decisions.

If there is a field in which Think Tanks show all their limitations, but also their common sensical and political power, it is when they are in one way or another involved with the Muslim world. In a majority of such cases, the engagement is aimed at sensationalism, where fear mongering  reigns  sovereign. While Think Tanks in the US and the UK (see the famous and controversial, tax-funded but recently in crisis, anti-terrorism Think Tank, Quilliam Foundation) have strongly  influenced the political system, their Australia counterparts are far behind them.

On 13 December 2012, one of these Think Tanks, Future Directions International,  has release a report called  Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Australia: Urgent Need for International Engagement and Counter-Narrative , authored by Mr Mirza Sadaqat. The six-page report concluded that:

The radical Islamist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HUT) could pose a socio-cultural threat to Australia in the short term. It may instigate an increased level of small-scale sectarian violence in the medium term and may indirectly instigate terror attacks by affiliated groups or individuals and create a deeply divided community in the long term.

It also emphasised how HUT is organized and active in 40 other countries and consequently Australia should coordinate with those countries to reinforce the preventive action against the short term HUT threat to the social-cultural life of the country. As part of the solution, the author pontificates that “moderate Islam, societal and cultural values and national identity may be some of the key notions underpinning a counter-narrative.”  Of course, the alarmist report attracted the attention of the mass media and HUT (yet still less than it would have in countries such as the US or the UK)

Here I do not want to discuss HUT Australia or in other countries (although I have research contacts in the UK, Indonesia, Malaysia, and even Singapore, where officially HUT does not exist), but rather the quality of the present report and ask some specific and relevant questions.

The first step in the evaluation of a report is often to question the methodology. The question is: what kind of methodology has Mr Sadaqat employed. Normally, the methodology is clearly stated in a report or analysis paper. Yet in this report, as in many others, this is not the case. Not one word. Hence, the second step is to check the sources (i.e. references) used in the paper. This can provide us with two elements: the methodology which we can perhaps derive deductively and the quality of the sources. Let’s observe the references of this analysis paper, as they are mentioned in the notes:

  1. Bergin, A. and Townsend, J., ‘Responding to the Radical Islamist Ideology: The Case of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Australia’, Policy Analysis, Australian Strategic Policy Institute: Canberra, 14 March 2007.
  2. Neighbour, S., ‘Islamists With Caliphates on their Minds, Not Bombs on their Belts’, The Australian, 2 July 2007.
  3.  O’ Brien, N., ‘Demand for Muslims to Speak Out’, The Australian, 30 July 2007.
  4.  Kugelman, M., ‘Another Threat in Pakistan, in Sheep’s Clothing’, New York Times, 3 August 2012.
  5. Phillips, M., ‘Jihadist Group a Threat to Us All’, The Australian, 6 July 2010.
  6. Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ‘The Security Environment 2011-12 and Outlook’. <>

The first reference is to the work of another Think Tank and the others are to newspapers and a website. It is clear that the methodology is based on secondary sources, and the secondary sources are extremely weak.

So, what we are reading is not an analysis paper or a report, but rather an opinion piece that is no different to that which you may read on blogs, in forums or in the editorial section of newspapers and so forth. In the case of opinion pieces, what is relevant is not the methodology or the sources, but the reputation and expertise of writer. This invites us to check Mr Mirza Sadaqat’s credentials, from relevant qualifications to academic expertise.

Mr Mirza Sadaqat is, accordingly to Future Directions International, “a Senior Research Associate at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Macquarie University, Sydney and a Bachelor Degree from the University of Canberra.” Mr Mirza Sadaqat has some interest in  “multilateral co-operation on non-traditional security issues in South and South-East Asia” and as we can read on another institutional webpage, he “has authored several articles on security issues in international and national publications.”  Mr Mirza Sadaqat has no PhD, but since he declares that he has published several articles in international publications, our next step is to check the quality and academic credentials of such publications. Today this task is very easy: one can start from the database Google Scholar by searching the author “Mirza Sadaqat”.

The result is surprising: there is not one single publication under such a name! Moreover, you can try other databases and the result is the same, zero. In this case, one can search beyond the international academic database and check the infinity of Google. Here you can find another piece from Mr Mirza Sadaqat, on the The Daily Star, published on 14 January 2012, titled Cyber-terrorism: Truth or hyperbole? Again the article is just an opinion, based on very weak, this time not even referenced, views. Then there are lots of traces left by Mr Mirza Sadaqat but none academic, international or even national.

The conclusion of our analysis is that Mr Sadaqat is not an expert in the field and has little knowledge, beyond a couple of newspaper articles and an old 2007 report published by another Think Tank, about the subject his writing about. The analysis and paper must be rejected since it would be substandard even for a level one course essay at any university.

Now the question is why a Think Tank like Future Directions International should trash its own reputation by publishing and disseminating, including to the press, such a weak “associated paper”. This is a very relevant question since the Think Tank deals with other very serious issues. Also why did they publish such a weak paper when they have no particular focus on Islamist threats (check the paper archives)?  Who is supervising the release of the papers? What quality assurance does this Think Tank have to avoid exactly this kind of damaging short report? Why not ask an expert to write the report or, even better, commission or sponsor  a proper research project on the topic?

These questions are not easy to brush aside. Future Directions International has universities such as Murdoch University, University of Western Australia, CURTIN University of Technology, and University of Notre Dame Australia among its sponsors.  Moreover the Board of Future Directions International has very reputable people sitting on it (among which many professors working in Australian universities) who are well acquainted with proper research conduct. Hence, I hope that they decide to review their internal policy for the quality assurance of their “associate papers”.

As an academic with more than a decade of research experience in fundamentalism, Muslim political groups  and movements,  I would strongly advise Future Directions International to withdraw the discussed “Associate Paper” they have published  so to avoid compromising  the quality of their information, publications and work.

In conclusion, as of today, there is no substantive and extended academic research on HUT Australia and consequently any ‘advice’ about the level of real threat or danger posed by such organization remains concealed in the files of Australian secret service and police reports. Yet we know that between the work of the intelligence services and the work of serious academic research there is a substantial difference and one cannot replace the other.  Academic research has (in the majority of cases) the benefit that it is public, clear in its scope and aims, and normally based on ethical, methodologically sound research.

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