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
Editor's Note:In the article entitled ‘A very British witch hunt’, published by Middle East Eye on 1 February 2017, reference was made to the Tunisian Islamic Front (TIF) - an organisation which was dedicated to opposing the dictatorship of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and which was described in the article as a 'violent organisation'. This description was based on what we now understand to be unsubstantiated information which we accept is unsafe. The co-founder of TIF - Mohamed Ali Harrath has made clear that the organisation was committed to non-violence and contrary to certain misguided reports, the activities of TIF - which ceased operation in the late 1990's, at no time involved or supported acts of violence. We have since corrected the article and apologise for any inconvenience or distress that it may have caused.
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.
'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
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.
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.
Muslim Charities Forum patrons Andrew Mitchell (centre) and Clare Short (R) pictured during an MCF field trip to Lebanon in 2016 (MCF/Facebook)
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 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.