One of the benefits of being an academic surgeon is being invited abroad to discuss research. The opportunity to visit a foreign country with all expenses paid is certainly one of the privileges of being involved in academia; however, for most academics, the primary motive tends to be the opportunity to present research to an audience fascinated with learning something new and engaging experts in order to further develop cutting edge research ideas. To aid in planning such visits, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has set guidelines on international travel, which all universities base their expenses claims policies on. Of particular note is paragraph 4c, which advises university staff that ‘value for money should be sought from international travel arrangements and the costs of expenses such as business class flights should be weighed against the potential benefits.’
The guidance also reminds universities that international visits are funded by the public, so there must be justification as to how such a visit is likely to bring public benefit. For an academic conference, this is fairly simple to justify; international conferences are the perfect place for British researchers to sell their work to the international community and establish collaborations that will increase the likelihood of universities giving back to their communities.
Taking all this into consideration, university staff must be able to justify the purpose of their visit and should seek value for money when arranging logistics for their trip. For example, if a staff member travels to a number of countries on an academic visit, they may well be justified in booking a business class ticket on the premise that doing so will allow them to work on the flight, which will help them to save time in preparing for each visit. Perhaps they may need to stay in an expensive hotel due to the proximity and convenience it offers in travel to and from the institution they are visiting. Above all, there is an emphasis on the moral obligation that university staff must have towards public money, as well as reminding them of the dangers of reputational damage should the public become aware of wastage in expense claims.
Coming from an environment where strict procedures are in place on the issue of international travel, it is alarming to hear the demands some Muslim speakers make when being invited to lecture at Islamic conferences. Some insist that they simply do not travel in anything less than business class while others refuse to remain in anything less than a five-star hotel for the duration of their stay. Curiously, some even make demands for their perfectly prepared latte to be hand delivered to them every morning. Some still find room to criticise despite their needs being met, such as beds not being comfortable enough or breakfasts being below expectations. Are such individuals really travelling for the opportunity to engage in discussion and debate on pressing issues affecting Muslims or is it the lure of an all expenses trip abroad, trimmings included?
From my personal experience of working in academia and volunteering with Muslim organisations there is an interesting dichotomy to observe; on the one hand professors and lecturers abide by the established guidelines on foreign travel, and in my personal experience, most academics are aware of their moral obligation towards public money. On the other, a handful of Islamic speakers make luxurious demands, which many of us perhaps will never experience, forgetting that in many instances they are funded by the sadaqah of those who believe that their money will be spent in a sensible fashion.
Perhaps there are legitimate reasons for upholding certain requests. Would it not be entirely reasonable to pay expenses for those things that a speaker is accustomed to in their daily lives? Moreover, given that business class travel, five star hotels and other such luxuries are the norm in the corporate business world, why shouldn’t Muslim organisations offer the same perks to their respected lecturers who travel for the sake of ‘Islamic business’?
Each of these apparent justifications is problematic. With regards to accommodating a speaker’s normative lifestyle, perhaps we should also make the same excuses for MPs who come from aristocratic backgrounds when they claim expenses from taxpayers for food items such as caviar and truffles whilst on parliamentary business. The point about treating Islamic speakers in the same way as corporate business clients is particularly troubling. Corporate businesses are institutions that exist for the purpose of making money, and business clients help multinational corporations to further their wealth. Surely Islamic organisations (many of which are seemingly run as corporations) don’t use speakers as mere commodities in order to make more money? Academic institutions, on the other hand, exist for the sake of bringing benefit to the public (and are thus accountable to them). Hence, I believe if Islamic organisations wish to bring a beneficial model from the secular world into their work ethic, then they should look to emulating the model of academic institutions as opposed to cut-throat corporate businesses.
In light of this, I do feel that part of the blame must lie with Islamic organisations that have allowed such a culture to flourish. The solution to curbing this culture within the speaker’s circuit lies with those individuals within Islamic organisations who offer these speakers platforms. A starting point would be for organisations to establish guidelines on expenses which should be made clear to invited speakers and members of the public alike (the HEFC guidelines might be a good starting template). Organisations should try use local speakers wherever possible; not only will this keep their costs down, but local speakers will always be able to deliver a relevant message to an audience as opposed to an individual from a foreign country who probably has little understanding of local culture. Foreign speakers should only be invited if they have a specific type of expertise that people might benefit from, and which isn’t available locally. Moreover, if such a speaker has a heavy international schedule and it can be clearly justified that Muslims in Britain will benefit from their expertise, then it might be perfectly reasonable to uphold some of their requests, if they will facilitate the speaker performing their work in an efficient fashion. However, by continuing to pander to the unnecessary or illegitimate demands of speakers, organisations do a great injustice to the public who donate their money.
Finally, Islamic organisations need to be transparent with their public donors and should not hesitate if they are asked to justify the expenses claims they uphold. After all, if public institutions are obliged to provide this information through freedom of information requests, why should Islamic organisations be any different if the community they serve requests such information? Above all, we must consider whether the culture of unjustifiable, luxurious demands is in line with godly behaviour. If we conclude that it isn’t, then should it come as any surprise that Muslims continually complain about their struggles in developing their spirituality when it is the speakers from these events who are providing us with our religious narrative?