On October 22, the British government announced new funding and legislation to strengthen the Charity Commission's attempts to identify and suppress the misuse of charities for the purposes of supporting terrorism or promoting extremist ideas.
Although the proposed measures appear to be a step in the right direction, they indicate, once again, that the government still does not truly understand the problem of Islamic extremism.
The majority of the new statutory measures focus on tackling the activities of trustees. The Commission will now have the discretionary power to disqualify a person from becoming a trustee simply "where the Charity Commission considers them unfit."
Although a firmer attitude is welcome, the basis for this approach is part of the problem: the government continues to work on the wistful principle that charities promote extremism merely because of one or two wayward trustees.
The Charity Commission and government still appear unable to grasp that charities might be established for the very purpose of promoting extremism.
In 2013, the Charity Commission's annual report recorded a visit to the offices of an (unnamed) charity and revealed that:
"We visited the charity's premises and saw images of the leader of the group that is a proscribed terrorist organisation were displayed on the walls of the charity's offices. We also identified that the charity had organised marches at which supporters of the proscribed organisation were present ... We instructed the trustees to take down the material and to take other steps to ensure they are not appearing to support a proscribed terrorist group. We also instructed the trustees to develop and implement robust controls to manage the charity's activities and the use of its premises." (Emphasis added.)
Rather than address the problem that a British charity -- which, at the very least, is legally required to avoid political behaviour -- was endorsing a terrorist organization banned under British law, the Commission chose instead to find fault with the charity's openness about its inclinations, its failure to conceal them more shrewdly, and a lack of adequate bureaucracy.
The new measures announced this month also include, according to the government's press release, a new £8 million investment to "establish systems for strategic risk profiling, proactive monitoring and investigations... regulatory processes and digitise services to release capacity for proactive monitoring…"
Such bureaucrat-speak sounds meaningless; it is most often worthless.
In a speech given in August, the Home Secretary Theresa May claimed that this government's policy "doesn't just focus on violent extremism, it deals with non-violent extremism too," and that it has established "strict rules and checks to make sure we do not fund and do not work with people and organisations that do not share British values."
While a list of current charities receiving counter-extremism funds is not yet available, we do know that the government has funded the Muslim Council of Wales, which is an affiliate of the Muslim Council of Britain, an Islamist body run by activists from the Muslim Brotherhood and its South Asian cousin, Jamaat-e-Islami. The Muslim Council of Wales has run events with the pro-jihadist group CAGE (formerly known as Cage Prisoners).
In London, the local Council and Metropolitan Police have provided tens of thousands of pounds in grants to the Finsbury Park mosque, a charity which is run by the Muslim Brotherhood, including Mohammed Sawalha, a Hamas operative described by a Muslim Brotherhood website as being "responsible for the political unit of the international Muslim Brotherhood in the UK." The BBC has reported that Sawalha is also "said to have masterminded much of Hamas's political and military strategy" from his base in London.
The Department for Communities and Government, meanwhile, this year granted the Muslim Charities Forum £91,772 of taxpayers' money to "train faith representatives" and "tackle extremist views," among other matters. The Muslim Charities Forum is an umbrella group for a number of extremist charities, including Muslim Hands, which has funded a number of Hamas charitable fronts in Gaza. Muslim Hands' chairman, Musharaf Hussain, stated in 2010 that it is a "wise cause" to fight non-believers "because they are tyrants," and encouraged Muslims to "take part in this jihad."
In addition, between 2011 and 2014, £1.5 million of taxpayers' money was granted to Islamic Relief, the largest Islamic charity in Britain. Branches of Islamic Relief have funded Hamas-run institutions, including the Islamic University of Gaza and the Al-Falah Benevolent Society. Furthermore, Islamic Relief has given platforms to preachers such as Haitham Al-Haddad, who has labelled Jews as "pigs and apes;" Yusuf Estes, who has circulated a description of homosexuals as "deviants" and "devils;" and Abdurraheem Green, who advocates beating women in order to "bring them to goodness."
Although the new measures will, in theory, allow the Commission to shut down problematic charities with greater ease, the National Audit Office has previously noted that one of the reasons for the Charity Commission's foundering is its failure to make use of statutory powers that already exist. Since 2011, the Commission has possessed the discretionary ability to place its own interim manager in charge of a problematic charity. This power, however, has been rarely exercised. It seems unlikely, then, that an option to shut down a charity would be employed.
As long as the Government offers taxpayers' money to fund extremist groups and senior politicians continue to speak at Muslim Brotherhood charities' fundraising events, it is difficult to imagine the Commission could gather the political backing to shut some of them down.
If the Home Secretary were truly serious about "dealing with non-violent extremism," the government would put an immediate stop to providing taxpayer funds to groups that promote extremist preachers and maintain financial ties with terror-linked groups abroad; and would ensure the Charity Commission takes immediate, decisive action by actually making use of its powers.
The main reason the Commission has not done this, aside from the lack of political will, is that the government has evidently failed to define extremism. The Home Secretary recently announced that the Home Office was working "to undermine and eliminate extremism in all its forms." But as demonstrated by the examples presented earlier, this claim is manifestly untrue.
The government still does not recognize, or does not want to recognize, what sort of groups non-violent extremism comprises. The government's examples of "non-violent extremism" are limited to groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Anjem Choudary's Al Muhajiroun, both of which are more flamboyantly extreme organizations. Muslim Brotherhood groups, meanwhile, mostly operate under a humanitarian guise. Their extremism, however, remains thinly veiled. Yet the government is happy for prominent politicians to support these charities and for taxpayers' money to fund them, despite indications that the recent inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood will name some of these charities as part of the global Brotherhood network.
The government is unable to acknowledge that the "soft Islamism" of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami is part of the extremism "conveyor belt" that ultimately turns radicals into terrorists.
Under the previous Labour Government, counter-extremism programs were mostly aimed at violent extremists, which often led, as mentioned earlier, the Home Office and local councils to work with "non-violent" extremist groups. Since 2010, although the Conservative-led government did begin to focus on non-violent extremists, this was typically limited to groups regarded as archetypically bad, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir.
If the Home Office defines "extremism" properly, the Charity Commission can then take appropriate action. This definition should include the smiling Islamist charity activist who attends interfaith vigils during the day but spreads anti-Semitism and rallies for Hamas at night.
Extremist charities pose a serious threat. It is a public health problem. As long as we allow such a façade to flourish, we will be continuing to radicalize British youth.