Counter-extremism tsar set to share stage in Abu Dhabi with Sam Brownback, who reportedly lobbied UK over jailing of far-right activist
The UK's commissioner for countering extremism is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech at a conference in the United Arab Emirates alongside a Trump administration official who is reported to have lobbied on behalf of British anti-Muslim activist Tommy Robinson.
Sara Khan, whose appointment to the newly created Home Office role was widely criticised earlier this year, is due to speak on Wednesday during the opening session of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies in Abu Dhabi, according to a conference agenda seen by Middle East Eye.
Critics have denounced the forum as a "PR initiative" to boost the UAE's image abroad, despite frequent criticism by human rights groups, and to call for the citizens of Muslim-majority countries to be "obedient to their rulers".
Also listed to give a keynote address is Sam Brownback, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Brownback earlier this year raised Robinson's case with Kim Darroch, the British ambassador in Washington, after the activist, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, was jailed for a contempt of court conviction that was subsequently overturned on appeal, the Reuters news agency reported in July.
Reuters said Brownback had discussed Robinson's jailing during a meeting with Darroch that covered a range of "religious freedom issues," according to a British official quoted by the news agency. A State Department spokesperson told Reuters that the "characterisation" of the meeting was "completely false".
CNN also said it had confirmed that Brownback had raised Robinson's case with Darroch.
Sharing a platform with someone who called for the release of Tommy Robinson casts serious doubt upon the Commission's fitness to tackle far-right extremism
- Yahya Birt
Khan last week accused Robinson, who has used social media platforms and the internet to promote Islamophobic content, of radicalising Darren Osborne, who last year drove a van into a crowd of people as they were leaving evening prayers at Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, killing one person.
“He had been consuming huge amounts of legal extremist material from the likes of Britain First and Tommy Robinson,” Khan said.
The UK Home Office declined to comment and said that the Commission for Countering Extremism is an independent body to the department.
Khan, however, a day after this article was published, said that she intended to condemn Robinson at the conference in Abu Dhabi.
"I have spoken out against extremism from the Far Right (such as Tommy Robinson) and from Islamists (against both other Muslims and other communities)... when I speak at the conference I will make this point clear," said Khan.
New blog: Sara Khan at #peaceforum2018 founded by Shaykh Bin Bayyah. Extremism threatens religious freedom, tolerance + cohesion. We must challenge it through dialogue, human rights + supporting women’s leadership https://t.co/3jZGjA0Jfe #GlobalPeace #AllianceOfVirtue @ppeaceims
— Commission for Countering Extremism (@CommissionCE) December 5, 2018
"I will argue that, despite disagreements in society, we must respect much more than just faith; we should look to safeguard diversity, freedom and the rights of all."
A spokesperson for the commission also told MEE: “Our Lead Commissioner was honoured to be invited to attend the Forum for Promoting Peace by the respected scholar Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah.
"She will spell out the serious issue of growing extremism in the UK and across the world, and make clear the need to challenge all forms of extremism by engaging in dialogue, promoting human rights and supporting the vital leadership women bring.”
Robinson, who once led the far-right English Defence League, has also been accused of stoking Islamophobia by organising protests against the Muslim community for the last decade.
Yahya Birt, an academic who teaches at Leeds University and specialises in the British Muslim community, criticised the move to share a platform with Brownback.
"Sharing a platform with someone who allegedly called for the release of Tommy Robinson casts serious doubt upon the commission's fitness to tackle far-right extremism," Birt told Middle East Eye.
Tommy Robinson, pictured posing on an Israeli tank in the Golan Heights (Twitter)
In January, a court heard that Osborne, who was jailed for life in February, had read messages from Robinson in the lead up to the Finsbury Park attack.
Robinson now styles himself as a freelance journalist who campaigns for free speech and was recently appointed as a special advisor to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party.
Hundreds of left-wing activists are expected to counter a protest he is due to front on Sunday in support of the UK's exit from the European Union.
Robinson was last week also sued by a law firm representing a Syrian boy bullied at school in Huddersfield, which said he had spread "false and defamatory allegations" about the boy.
'PR initiative' for the UAE
The Forum, founded in 2013, is bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates and headed by Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian cleric.
Other notable religious figures scheduled to speak at the forum include US-born Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf, and Yemeni-born scholar Habib Ali Jifri.
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Usaama al-Azami, a lecturer at the Markfield Institute in the UK, which specialises in Islamic studies, told MEE that bin Bayyah's "service to the UAE has likely made him the Emirates' most sought-after Islamic scholar".
"Bin Bayyah in the inaugural forum spoke of the religious obligation for subjects of Muslim states to be obedient to their rulers and has described the call for democracy in the Arab world as a declaration of war," said Azami.
"Bayyah has recently been placed at the head of a newly formed Emirates Fatwa Council that presents itself as a promoter of "moderate" Islam.
"Both the forum and Fatwa Council form part of the UAE’s armoury for religious legitimation in a part of the world where religion is an integral part of the public sphere."
Abdullah bin Bayyah (L) said that it was a religious obligation for Muslims to be obedient to their leaders (peacms.com)
Walaa Quisay, an academic at Oxford University who also lectures at Istanbul Sehir University, said that Hamza Yusuf had also spoken out against "political dissent and revolution".
"More and more, he is putting out a narrative that political dissent is not from the Islamic tradition and often says this at the mantle of the UAE and other governments who actively try to quash dissent," Quisay told MEE.
"Yusuf champions the idea that stability is more important than justice, and that Muslims should focus on introspection, rather than political dissent."
Khan's appearance at a UAE-backed conference comes at an awkward time for UK-Emirati relations.
Last week, the UAE pardoned and released a British academic, Matthew Hedges, just days after he was convicted of spying for the UK's MI6 intelligence service and jailed for life by an Emirati court.
The UK has also come under fire for supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE as they continue to bomb Yemen in a war with Houthi rebels in which thousands have died and millions face disease and starvation.