Charities accused of links to extremism have had their funding axed and reputations shredded. MEE investigates the claims and the right-wing groups behind them
In October last year the Daily Telegraph newspaper published a story which accused Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, of accepting money from an organisation representing Muslim charities with “alleged extremism links”.
The report concerned a £5,000 ($6,280) donation that Abbott had received from the Muslim Charities Forum earlier in the year.
Abbott said she had used the money to fund a trip to the drought-stricken Somali region of Somaliland in her capacity at that time as shadow secretary of state for international development.
But the Telegraph chose to highlight what it described as “alleged links” between the MCF, an umbrella group for leading Islamic charities in the UK, and “extremist groups”.
It also said the MCF had been “banned from receiving government aid after an investigation suggested links to a group alleged to fund Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood”.
The MCF told the newspaper that it did not have links to extremist groups while Abbott said she had “never knowingly worked with an Islamic extremist organisation”.
Yet the report was a small element in a torrent of similar stories published in almost all British newspapers about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership team.
Corbyn and his allies, Abbott among them, have repeatedly been accused of cultivating unsavoury links with so-called extremist groups.
Stories which attack Muslims are rarely held up to scrutiny, so we decided to look carefully into the Telegraph’s allegations. After all, the suggestion that Abbott had financial links with a charity linked to extremist groups is very serious indeed.
As shadow home secretary she is one of the most senior members of the Labour front bench team with responsibility for Labour’s counter-extremism policy. If she were linked to extremists, she would be hopelessly compromised and indeed completely unable to carry out her job.
Fear and alienation
Our investigation has produced no evidence to support the Telegraph’s claim that Abbott has a connection with extremism. We then asked ourselves an interesting question: where had the smear originated and how had it entered the public domain?
This investigation led us into intriguing territory. We became aware of the ability of shadowy, self-appointed ‘counter-extremism’ think tanks or websites to place alarmist stories – often containing false or inaccurate information – about Muslims in the mainstream British press.
These websites have played a significant role in creating suspicion, even hatred, of British Muslims and an atmosphere of fear and alienation in British Muslim communities.
We also discovered that these organisations have influenced not only press reporting but also British government policy.
In this article we will show how anti-Muslim slurs and smears have started out on their websites and ended up in the in-trays of ministers and Conservative politicians, with devastating consequences for the individuals and organisations targeted.
As we investigated the Telegraph’s story concerning Diane Abbott and the MCF, we very quickly identified one major problem with the newspaper’s reporting.
We discovered that Andrew Mitchell, the conservative former international development secretary, had travelled on a similar trip to Turkey in January last year which was also sponsored by the MCF.
‘I have worked closely with MCF for many years… We were proud of their work and recognise it as a crucial part of Britain’s humanitarian response’
Andrew Mitchell, former development secretary
This meant that if Abbott had “alleged extremism” connections, by the same token, so too did Mitchell.
Why then didn’t the Telegraph report this? Maybe it wasn’t aware that he had also been a recipient of MCF funds. But it would have been easy for the newspaper to discover this fact, because, as MPs must, he had declared it in the public register of members’ interests.
Indeed, the online version of the Telegraph story even included a link to the relevant page of the register in which Abbott had declared details of her trip to Somaliland.
Mitchell, a senior Tory MP is, actually, we discovered, a patron of the MCF along with former international development secretary Clare Short. He has often spoken out in defence of Islamic charities. In February, he even called for an inquiry into how overly stringent laws were hampering Muslim charities’ humanitarian work.
Mitchell told Middle East Eye: “I have worked closely with MCF for many years. Indeed, when the Conservative Party was in opposition, Islamic Relief was a particular favourite of David Cameron’s and mine because we saw the excellent work they were doing in difficult and dangerous places.
“More recently both Clare Short and I joined forces to travel with MCF to the Turkish-Syrian Border to see the vital work they and their constituent members are doing in areas where other humanitarian charities struggle to operate.
”As Former Development Secretaries for both the Labour and the Conservative parties we were proud of their work and recognise it as a crucial part of Britain’s humanitarian response.”
It also became clear to us that the piece about Abbott was largely based on a previous story in the Daily Telegraph more than two years earlier on 23 September 2014 which made the original accusation about the MCF’s links to extremism.
Stand for Peace
This story, however, was not initiated by the Daily Telegraph. It appears to have been based on work carried out by a little known group called Stand for Peace.
A day before the Daily Telegraph published its story, Stand for Peace ran a similar account on its website containing some of the same allegations against the Muslim Charities Forum.
A Stand for Peace spokesman called Sam Westrop was then quoted liberally by the Daily Telegraph. He denounced government funding to the MCF as “madness”, and accused the UK government of “enabling and funding” extremism.
In fact, as we shall see, Westrop had no evidence against the MCF itself. He was relying on allegations made against five members of this umbrella organisation – claims which were denied.
The MCF wrote to the Daily Telegraph two days after the publication of the article on 23 September 2014, demanding a correction for being labelled an “extremist group”, a claim which appeared in an abridged print version of the online story.
The newspaper ran a correction on 3 October, but many damaging allegations remained about the charities group and its members.
The consequences of this Daily Telegraph report also appear to have been devastating. Six days later the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) told the Muslim Charities Forum to stop its work on a major initiative to promote integration, for which it had pledged a £250,000 grant.
Three months later, in December 2014, the DCLG pulled all funding for the project, citing “allegations made in the press”, presumably a thinly veiled reference to the Telegraph’s story since the story had not been followed up by other newspapers.
‘I did not find the Arabs romantic. I found them interestingly hostile’
Sam Westrop, Stand for Peace
So what is Stand for Peace? In the digital age, anyone can set up a website and write whatever they like, about almost anything. There are no checks on its accuracy. Blogging is unlicensed and unregulated, and a victim of a false or malicious attack has no remedy except the expense and uncertainty of a legal action for defamation.
Stand for Peace describes itself as a “Jewish-Muslim interfaith organisation” with a focus on “social cohesion” and “counter-extremism”. The reality looks different to us.
Stand For Peace has launched a stream of scathing attacks against Muslims over the last few years, many of them well-known Islamic charities and law-abiding citizens, some of whom have actually worked to counter extremism themselves.
It bizarrely accused Islamic Relief, one of Britain’s largest Muslim charities, which receives government grants, of being an “extremist organisation with a pro-terror agenda”, and of having links to Hamas and Al Qaeda.
Even The Council for Arab-British Understanding, a Westminster-based body with strong links in the British parliament, has been attacked by Stand for Peace.
Cocktails with Farage
Its spokesman, Sam Westrop, is linked with, or writes for, a number of other organisations similar to Stand for Peace with a record of criticising Islamic organisations.
These include the Gatestone Institute, a right-wing American website which regularly publishes the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has just been found guilty of inciting discrimination against Dutch Moroccans.
Westrop was quoted by the Jewish Telegraph newspaper in 2011 after a trip to the Middle East as follows: “I did not find the Arabs romantic. I found them interestingly hostile. A mentality of very irrational hatred was evident everywhere, venom regurgitated by government propaganda.”
Yet Westrop, who is in his late twenties, was invited to speak at a House of Lords event in November 2013 on the subject of “Dialogue and the Challenge of Extremism: Has Interfaith Gone Wrong?”
The far-right British National Party has reproduced material published by Stand for Peace on its website
But Westrop’s allegiance may lie with former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, with whom he was filmed with others drinking cocktails through straws from a watermelon during UKIP’s 2008 party conference in Bournemouth.
Another photo from 2009 shows Westrop, then still a student at the University of York, with Farage, who is drinking red wine and smoking a cigar, at a London event hosted by the university’s Freedom Association Society.
Westrop’s links to UKIP don’t stop there. A few years ago Stand for Peace worked closely with the controversial group Student Rights, whose director at the time was Raheem Kassam, Nigel Farage’s former adviser and now editor-in-chief of Breitbart London, the British edition of the American right-wing website credited with rallying support for Donald Trump in last year’s US presidential election.
Recently student groups have distanced themselves from Student Rights, which was established by the neo-conservative Henry Jackson Society, and faces accusations of stirring up anti-Muslim hate.
The National Union of Students condemned its activities two years ago with critics saying it exaggerated the threat of extremism on campuses.
The Islam Channel
Stand for Peace has also played an important role in attacking a prominent UK Muslim, Mohamed Ali Harrath, the founder and CEO of the Islam Channel, Britain’s most prominent Muslim TV station.
Court documents show that Stand for Peace relied on two principal sources for its claim: a blog in French on a website called reveiltunisien.org, and a Red Notice Interpol alert about Harrath.
In its defence, Stand for Peace said that Harrath, in June 2005, was sentenced in absentia to 56 years imprisonment by a Tunisian court for being a member of a terrorist organisation and for terror-related offences.
Harrath was a member of the Tunisian Islamic Front (TIF), a violent group which aimed to bring down the dictatorship of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
He denies that TIF was even a violent group. As a dissident, he was tortured and imprisoned in the 1980s and 1990s, before fleeing to London in 1995 as a refugee. In a politically motivated move, Tunisian authorities added him in 1992 to Interpol’s Red Notice list, a database of suspected international terrorists and criminals.
He admits he was convicted of belonging to an illegal political party in 1992 – almost all political parties were illegal in Tunisia back then – but maintains he has never been convicted of any terror offences.
It is true that Harrath and his television station are not beyond reproach.
Six years ago his Islam Channel was censored by Ofcom after its presenters were found to have advocated marital rape and violence against women.
Then-Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly banned Sayeeda Warsi, then the chair of the Conservative Party, from attending the Global Peace and Unity Conference in 2010 organised by the Islam Channel, which invited speakers who held unacceptable views about homosexuality.
However, these do not justify the accusations of Stand for Peace.
Harrath is seeking damages and wants a full retraction and apology printed by Stand for Peace.
In April last year, High Court judge Mark Warby ordered parts of the defence be struck out because they “have no real prospect of success” and instructed Stand for Peace to pay costs of £21,500 ($27,100), which it failed to meet a deadline to pay.
It might be that Stand for Peace, a limited company, and Westrop, have no assets and therefore cannot pay costs or damages. Harrath, though, is undeterred and has already spent over £50,000 ($63,000) on legal fees. He says he wants to clear his name.
In October Stand for Peace’s lawyers, Seddons, stopped defending their client and the court has debarred the defendants from defending proceedings.
Sam Westrop’s lawyers at the time said he now lives in the US. Oddly, though, when contacted by MEE in July, Westrop was quick to answer Stand for Peace’s UK number.
He declined to comment on the grounds that legal proceedings were ongoing. When asked about his website’s anti-Islamic content, he immediately hung up.
Since embarking on this investigation we have e-mailed and called him repeatedly but there has been no reply.
If Stand for Peace was wrong to claim that Harrath was a convicted terrorist, how true is its very serious claim that the MCF is linked to extremism and terrorism?
‘Union of Good’
Let’s now return to Stand for Peace’s allegations about the Muslim Charities Forum – which appear to have inspired the Telegraph stories
The Telegraph claimed that five member charities of MCF – Muslim Hands, Human Appeal International, Human Relief Foundation, Muslim Aid and Islamic Relief – were “early participants” in an organisation called the Union of Good, which it said had links to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
The Union of Good was an umbrella organisation of around 50 charities based in Saudi Arabia, and was designated by the US in 2008 as a supporter of terrorism because of its alleged close ties to Hamas, which America designated a terrorist organisation in 1997.
We set to work to find out whether these charities did indeed have ties to the Union of Good. This was crucial, because, after all, this 2014 piece by the Telegraph was damaging.
‘We published the article, the charities complained, they’ve actually backed down because they didn’t have much of a case and obviously the government agreed because they cut their [the MCF] funding off the back of it’
Camilla Turner, Daily Telegraph
Not only did it result in the MCF losing government funding, it also saw the charities group have an event cancelled at the Conservative Party conference in 2015 after yet more claims – this time in the Sunday Telegraph– that it had terrorist links through the Union of Good.
We began by approaching the journalists responsible for the two Daily Telegraph pieces about the MCF. Kate McCann, the journalist behind the later Abbott story, told MEE that her report “had been legalled quite closely” and that she “was satisfied with the story”. She said that she was not familiar with Stand for Peace.
Then we asked her colleague Camilla Turner who had written the earlier story which relied on Stand for Peace what evidence she had that these charities were linked to the Union of Good and to what extent she investigated the claims made by Stand for Peace.
She said she had “pretty solid evidence” but that this evidence was “publicly available online and there wasn’t anything that I had that no one else has”. She repeatedly declined to say if she had checked the Stand for Peace allegations.
“We published the article, the charities complained, they’ve actually backed down because they didn’t have much of a case and obviously the government agreed because they cut their [the MCF] funding off the back of it,” she said.
Like the Daily Telegraph, we also only have access to public information and after examining this carefully, we grew concerned.
The first troubling aspect is the Daily Telegraph’s source for the Union of Good claims.
It cites the Nine Eleven Finding Answers Foundation (NEFA), a highly partisan, right-wing think tank set up in the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to probe groups allegedly funding terror. NEFA’s website displays almost no information about it.
We approached Islamic Relief, Muslim Hands, Muslim Aid, Human Relief Foundation and Human Appeal. They all strongly denied that they had links to the Union of Good and say they were wrongly listed by the organisation as participants or members.
They said that some charities’ logos were reproduced without consent on Union of Good marketing material. Even though their names were removed when the error was flagged up, NEFA appears to have seized on it and linked all five charities to the Union of Good.
Charities never sanctioned
A black cloud has hung over these charities for years tarnishing their reputation and, at times, impacting on their work. None of the charities were ever sanctioned by the UK or US governments, or the EU. Nor did the Charity Commission take any action after looking into the matter.
The Charity Commission said: “In 2009 the Commission engaged with Muslim Hands, Human Appeal International, Human Relief Foundation and Muslim Aid about their alleged membership of the Union of Good and was satisfied that they were not members.”
It added: “At this time we weren’t aware of any allegations or evidence that warranted us engaging with Islamic Relief on this issue.”
Senior charity sources have pointed out that the regulator lacks resources to conduct wide-ranging probes and that it’s not the commission’s job to give charities’ a clean bill of health and to adjudicate on the allegations made in the press.
However, the Commission has powers to intervene against charities with links to extremists or those which engage in unacceptable political activity. It has used these against other charities. It would have acted against the five charities linked to the Union of Good if it had had cause to do so.
Limited information from the early 2000s about exactly how the Union of Good was started make facts about the organisation and who was part of it hard to establish.
But we have conducted detailed research into the subject, spoken to all the charities concerned, the Charity Commission, those instrumental in the setting up of the Union of Good, and consulted other charitable and legal sources who are familiar with the issue. We have established the following.
An organisation called the 101 Days Campaign was formed about a month after the second Palestinian Intifada, around October 2000. Three charities mentioned in the Telegraph article – Muslim Hands, Human Appeal and Muslim Aid – attended a series of meetings under the 101 Days Campaign in London.
Islamic Relief says that it attended one meeting and then cut all ties to the 101 Days Campaign. Like the Disasters Emergency Committee, 101 Days was a broad coalition of charities pledging coordination and cooperation in response to a crisis, the suffering in Gaza, and not an official fundraising campaign.
About three to four months later, in early 2001, the Union of Good was formed out of the 101 Days Campaign. The extent to which these charities were affiliated, wished to be part of it and, latterly, knew of their involvement with the Union of Good is unclear.
Muslim Aid, in its 2001 annual report, made reference to the Union of Good as follows: “The desperate humanitarian situation in Palestine brought together major Muslim charities in the UK to form the Union for Good UK 101 Days Campaign in June 2001, with the aim of raising funds to provide employment, medical care, education, agricultural inputs and income generation projects for the Palestinian people.”
Muslim Aid said it attended a series of meetings as part of the 101 Days Campaign. But it “became aware that it had been falsely listed as a member of the Union of Good and took immediate action to demand its name was removed from all marketing material,” the charity said.
It added: “Muslim Aid had not participated in or funded any projects or activities arranged by the Union of Good.”
Essam Mustafa, a trustee of the large British Muslim charity Interpal and a founder of the Union of Good, said that there was no formal engagement or membership agreement between these charities.
Union of Good marketing and campaign reports in Arabic from 2001 that MEE has reviewed contain no reference to any of these charities or their board members.
An Islamic Relief spokesman said: “Islamic Relief was never a member of the Union of Good, never participated in it and never supported it. We were wrongly listed as supporters on its website for a while by those who wanted to claim our support, but we took action to have our name removed from the list.”
Human Appeal said: “In 2001 it appears that meetings of UK Muslim charities which worked in Palestine took place to discuss the troubles in the region, and Human Appeal was present at a number of those meetings.”
“Human Appeal did not have any further involvement with any of the attending charities after the initial meetings, nor with any organisation known as the ‘Union of Good’. Human Appeal did not have knowledge of a website being launched and its name being included together with its logo, or that it had been linked to membership of the Union of Good. When we became aware, we took steps to remove our name from the website.”
A spokesperson for Human Relief Foundation said: “Human Relief Foundation has no links to the Union of Good. The charity was also previously mistaken for an organisation called ‘Humanitarian Relief Foundation’, who operated directly within the Palestinian territories and whose name, when translated into English, is the same as our own. Due to this confusion, our name was printed on their members list in error.”
The charity promptly requested Union of Good to remove its name from its member list.
‘This case exemplifies the damaging position Muslim charities are forced into: defending their name and incurring huge costs through battling in the courts with intransigent media organisations or seeing their reputation trashed and government funding withdrawn as a result’
Muslim Charities Forum
Muslim Hands also denied it had been a member of the Union of Good.
The truth therefore is complicated. There was certainly a fleeting link between at least some of the MCF charities and the precursor to the Union of Good for a brief period in 2001.
Importantly, this was seven years before the group was designated as a terrorist organisation by the US. However, it is clear that the simple claim that all five MCF charities were “early participants” in the Union of Good is untrue.
We asked the Daily Telegraph why they had reported unsubstantiated claims from Stand For Peace and why they had chosen not to report Andrew Mitchell’s MCF-sponsored trip early last year.
A spokesperson for Telegraph Media Group said: “Following The Telegraph’s investigation, the Government launched a formal review of the Faith Minorities in Action project which was being run by the Muslim Charities Forum. According to Eric Pickles, the then Communities Secretary, the review concluded that: ‘The Muslim Charities Forum has failed to reassure us that they have robust measures in place to investigate and challenge their members. Concerns have also been raised about events held by member organisations, at which individuals with extremist views have been invited to speak. This has undermined their work and means they are no longer able to deliver on the Faith Minorities in Action objectives.’ Funding was then removed from the organisation.”
The MCF’s flagship interfaith project is still terminated and its members continue to be tarnished by allegations that it is linked to terrorism, peddled by Stand For Peace and the Daily Telegraph.
Many questions remain unanswered. Why did the government use a speculative press article and cite a partisan report as the basis for its attack on the MCF? When we asked whether the government properly investigated those allegations a DCLG spokesman said: “The Government ceased funding as we did not have confidence in the ability of the MCF to deliver its aims.”
This is not a convincing statement that the government did its due diligence on the Muslim Charities Forum and its members thoroughly.
A spokesman for the Muslim Charities Forum said: “The claims of links of our members to the Union of Good were grossly incorrect when they were first made in 2014 by the Telegraph, and remain so two years later.
“No MCF member has ever been a member of the Union of Good. Back in 2001, some of our members’ logos were wrongly included in the Union of Good marketing materials, for which permission was never sought. When members were made aware of this, they immediately demanded that they be removed.
“Unfortunately, such persistent smears have real effects on the ground, in MCF’s case, the cancellation of funding for an important initiative aimed at improving cross-faith integration and the cancellation of events at the Conservative party conference.
“The continued proliferation of these attacks attempts to force MCF, an important Muslim voice in the UK, further to the periphery of political life. The work of MCF and other Muslim charities relies on continuous and long-term political engagement in order to advocate on behalf of those in most need here in the UK and around the world. With every attack on the Muslim charity sector, this becomes increasingly difficult.
“MCF did not back down from pursuing legal action due to a lack of a case against the claims made. MCF could simply not justify fighting repeated and costly battles over smears with resources that would be better spent on its beneficiaries, in places afflicted by poverty, war and famine.
“This case exemplifies the damaging position Muslim charities are forced into: defending their name and incurring huge costs through battling in the courts with intransigent media organisations or seeing their reputation trashed and government funding withdrawn as a result.”
It is true that over the past 15 years, since the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, a dark cloud of suspicion has hung over Muslims. They are subject to growing harassment and often a trial by hostile media.
As we have seen here, allegations made by an obscure website have been recycled by a broadsheet newspaper and used to smear prominent Muslim charities and well-known politicians and businessmen.
We do not for one moment challenge that charitable donations can be diverted for a variety of illegal purposes, including funding terrorism. We would be the first to agree that any charity which backs terrorism should at once be closed down, and its officers arrested.
But speculative, poorly sourced claims that mainstream Muslim charities support terrorism should never be accepted as true without serious scrutiny.
The problem is that these allegations were not substantiated by hard evidence. We have found nothing to justify the claims that the MCF or its members have links with terrorism or were participants in the Union of Good.
Instead we found a chain of false accusations, in which allegations against some charities are used to smear an umbrella organisation of which they are members, which are then used to smear a senior politician.
Questions need to be asked of the government’s response as well.
Did the Department for Communities and Local Government properly examine the very serious Telegraph claims against the Muslim Charities Forum before it cut funding? We have discovered no evidence that it did.
And this causes a serious injustice. The member organisations of the MCF all do important humanitarian work across the Middle East, and Muslims are famously among Britain’s most generous charitable donors.
They naturally give generously to their co-religionists overseas, just as Christians do. It is utterly wrong that the charities they support should be subject to casual smears.
The innuendo against leading Muslim public figures such as Mohamed Ali Harrath is also troubling. Harrath struggled against Tunisia’s western-backed dictatorship, facing torture and jail before seeking sanctuary in Britain.
At this point he was placed by the Ben Ali regime on the Interpol Red Notice list. This was an abuse of a system designed to aid the detection of criminals on the run and not to target political opponents of dictatorship.
Yet those determined to portray Harrath as a terrorist have repeatedly used that Interpol list against him.
We have focused in this essay on the Daily Telegraph, and the websites Stand For Peace and the Nine Eleven Finding Answers Foundation.
However, it would be misleading to single out these organisations alone. It is sobering to reflect that many British newspapers, and numerous websites suffer from related problems.
Remorseless work in recent months by Migdaad Versi, assistant secretary general at the Muslim Council of Britain, has exposed a production line of false news stories about Muslims in numerous British newspapers and media outlets.
Versi has secured almost 20 corrections in the last two months alone, showing the scale of the problem. The offenders include the Times, Sunday Times, The Sun, Express and MailOnline (part of the Associated Newspapers group for which one of the authors of this article writes a column).
The visceral Islamophobia of many websites is an even greater problem: note the recent untrue inflammatory Breitbart story that a Muslim mob set fire to a German church on Christmas Eve.
Once again we fully agree that those who aid and abet terrorism in Britain should be exposed and arrested.
Yet the allegation that a man or woman is an “extremist” or a “terrorist” is extremely serious. The consequences for those slurred in this way are severe. Their reputation s are ruined, their bank accounts may be closed, they may be barred from travel and suddenly find it hard to get jobs and to lead normal lives.
Likewise it is outrageous that a prominent politician such as Diane Abbott should even have to defend herself against baseless smears about a charity, which funded a humanitarian trip to Africa while she was shadow international development secretary.
By the same token, leading Islamic charities must be allowed to continue their important work in some of the most difficult areas of the world without having their names dragged through mud.
Alex Delmar-Morgan is a freelance journalist in London and has written for a range of national titles including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, and The Independent. He is the former Qatar and Bahrain correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones.
Peter Oborne was named freelancer of the year 2016 by the Online Media Awards for an article he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Source: Middle East Eye