MEND’s Response to the Accusations of William Shawcross in the ‘Independent’ Review of Prevent (Feb 2023)
Categories: Latest News
Tuesday February 28 2023
In his widely criticised review of the UK government’s Prevent strategy for countering non-violence extremism, William Shawcross levelled several mendacious accusations against MEND. While MEND and many other Muslim and civic organisations already rejected Shawcross’ findings owing in no part to his past record of anti-Muslim statements, we would like to use this opportunity to set the record straight and respond to many hollow charges Shawcross makes against us. It is also worth noting that many of his allegations are rehashed versions of stale talking points that we here at MEND have previously rebutted.
“In 2018, [Sufyan] Ismail was recorded by Channel 4 Dispatches promoting that he has funded CAGE, adding ‘I think we’re [CAGE and MEND] agreed on principle, its process. We’re very different on process, it’s almost like your means and ends, you know. Our ends are the same’” (Page 36, footnote 58).
In a detailed footnote, Shawcross seeks to undermine MEND’s credibility by citing how its founder, Sufyan Ismail, donated in the past to the UK-based civil society organisation, CAGE.
CAGE is a reputable organisation that has done vital work addressing human rights and civil liberties issues within the context of counter-terrorism legislation. Along with MEND, numerous public bodies and figures, for example the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Max Hill QC, have engaged with CAGE . In 2015 the Charity Commission, led by William Shawcross, initially tried to prohibit other charities from funding CAGE. However, following an application for a Judicial review launched by CAGE, Shawcross was forced to accept that his position was wrong . This episode indicates that, perhaps, Mr Shawcross harbours a longstanding personal animosity towards CAGE.
It must be noted that MEND and CAGE are completely separate organisations, and disagree on some matters. However, when it comes to our concerns about the human rights abuses committed under the banner of the Prevent strategy, both organisations have a similar view. It is stated here for the record that MEND has never funded the activities of CAGE. The donation referred to by Mr Ismail was a personal one. It should be said that there is nothing wrong this, and the lack of a specific allegation here clearly demonstrates that Shawcross is simply continuing his smears against Muslim organisations that stretch back to his tenure as Chair of the Charity Commission
“MEND has a history of partnering with actors of extremism concern. For example, MEND’s former Head of Community Engagement Azad Ali lost a libel case against the Daily Mail in the High Court (2010) which had described him as a ‘hardline Islamic extremist who supports the killing of British and American soldiers in Iraq’” (Page 92, footnote 186).
Shawcross claims that, “MEND has a history of partnering with actors of extremism [sic] concern,” after which he goes on to name former MEND staff member, Azad Ali. In an attempt to substantiate his claim, Shawcross cites an article in the Daily Mail in which Mr Ali is described as a, “hardline Islamic extremist who supports the killing of British soldiers in Iraq.” Shawcross then states: “Ali had praised Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and suggested that he should be the leader of a future Islamic caliphate, and written of his admiration for jihadist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.” It should be noted that these accusations date back more than ten years ago, prior to MEND’s establishment. Furthermore, MEND responded to these spurious accusations in detail five years ago in 2018. To view that detailed response, click here.
However, since Shawcross has decided to rehash such accusations, we will respond here briefly. Firstly, MEND would like to make emphatically clear that our staff members, both past and present, have never made calls for, nor supported calls for, the harming of British troops. MEND wholeheartedly condemns any such messaging. Accusations that promote this idea are duplicitous distortions of old comments made by Mr Ali years before his time at MEND. Specifically, Mr Ali is on record as stating that he has never called for – and never will call for – attacks against British soldiers. It is also worth noting that Mr Ali was reinstated to his post at the Civil Service (Department of HM Treasury) following an internal investigation into his alleged remark. It is inconceivable that Mr Ali, had he actually called for the killing of British soldiers, would have been reinstated to his role at the Civil Service following the internal investigation. The mere fact of his reinstatement speaks volumes as to the hollowness of Shawcross’ claim.
Moving on, Shawcrosss also accuses Mr Ali of “prais[ing] Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and suggested that he should be the leader of a future Islamic caliphate.” These were comments made at a time when the political wing of Hamas was not proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the UK Government. This proscription was made in 2021, a very long time after Mr Ali left MEND. It is worth noting that former UK government officials have themselves met with Haniyeh. For example, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair met with Mr Haniyeh in a series of meetings in 2015 . One is then led to ask, if MEND is guilty of extremism because one of its former employees once made a comment about the leader of Hamas’ political wing, then does that not also render former Prime Minister Blair guilty of the same offence? Shawcross’ silence on such a question arguably highlights the double-standard under which he operates. In response to Shawcross’ accusation that Mr Ali praised cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, it is crucial to note that this accusation overlooks the fact that Mr Ali’s remarks were made before Anwar al-Awlaki joined Al-Qaeda and whilst he was still a respected scholar and seen as a ‘model Muslim’ by the US government. At the time, Al-Awlaki was a fully integrated member of the US Government’s post-9/11 outreach operations, engaging in numerous programmes and even attending an event at the US Department of Defence after 9/11.
“MEND has a history of partnering with actors of extremism concern … Further, MEND described imam Suliman Gani as a ‘key member within our South London Working Group’ in 2018” (Page 92, footnote 186).
Shawcross mentions how Suliman Gani, “had previously told a rally for convicted al-Qa’ida terrorist Aafia Siddiqui that support for her was a religious duty”and “made disparaging comments towards the persecuted Ahmadi Muslim sect.”
Mr Gani made these comments in a personal capacity in 2010, long before MEND existed. In any case, Mr Gani is not alone in expressing solidarity with Aafia Siddiqui. Ms Siddiqui has been serving time since 2010, but her case remains controversial, with much of her story being “unknown or contested .” During her trial, Ms Siddiqui was declared “mentally unfit, and then fit again .” Furthermore, it is documented that during her trial there were inconsistencies in witness testimonials, allegations, and even evidence gathered from torture . Ms Siddiqui was charged with attempted murder, but she was “never charged with terrorism .” Yvonne Ridley, a journalist who uncovered her story, described Siddiqui as the “most wronged woman in the world .”
“MEND … has a well-established track record of working alongside extremists and campaigning against Prevent” (Page 121, 6.208).
According to Shawcross, MEND, “has a well-established track record of working alongside extremists.” This comment cites as a reference footnote 224 which in turn cites footnote 186. The only alleged “extremists” mentioned here are Azad Ali and Suliman Gani, and we have commented on them above.
Shawcross appears to equate those who rightfully exercise their freedom to voice political views contrary to his own or the Government with extremism. According to the government’s definition of extremism, it is difficult to see how MEND or any of the groups or individuals that it has worked with could be considered in any way extremist. According to the definition, extremism is, “the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” It also, “regard[s] calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.” In deconstructing that definition, it is clear that MEND does not fall into this category:
- Democracy: political participation of British Muslims is our raison d’être. Our ‘Get Out and Vote’ campaign and the educational masterclasses we deliver encouraging political engagement have empowered tens of thousands of Muslims to become politically involved in the democratic process.
- The rule of law and individual liberty: MEND fully supports the rule of law and individual liberty. MEND has worked closely with parts of the CPS and police constabularies across the country to this end. In fact, we successfully lobbied to ensure Islamophobia is recorded as a separate category of hate-crime similar to racism and anti-Semitism.
- Mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs: MEND has developed a series of educational resources and training programs to aid in the teaching of Islamophobia, antisemitism and all forms of hatred. The issues surrounding antisemitism have been frequently mentioned in our previous manifestos and materials, where we have also called for better legal protections against the gamut of discriminations, including against homophobic and disability-related hate crime. Furthermore, there have been numerous occasions when our working groups have shown solidarity and support to Jewish and other communities in times of crises. We have also participated and supported Holocaust Memorial Day.
- Calls for the death of members of our armed forces: As mentioned above, MEND has never made or supported such a call.
“In November 2014 NAMP co-hosted a conference with MEND on Islamophobia, held at the City of London police station” (Page 121, 6.212).
Shawcross states at paragraph 6.212, “[i]n November 2014, during Islamophobia Awareness Month, the National Association of Muslim Police (NAMP) invited MEND to co-host an event titled, Challenging Islamophobia, at the City of London police station. The panellists included representatives of the police and Crown Prosecution Service alongside individuals who have expressed extreme and intolerant views.” While Shawcross attempts to discredit NAMP by association with MEND, it is worthy to note that this event was not only supported by the City of London Police, but that it also featured high-profile guests, including the former Deputy Chief Crown Prosecutor, Gerallt Evants. The event was a huge success, highlighting prevailing trends of Islamophobia; bringing to light anecdotes from victims of Islamophobia; and understanding and furthering the relationship between the Police, voluntary organisations and the wider community in order to tackle Islamophobia on all fronts. The event further evidences MEND’s extensive work with police forces across the UK, who are presumably not “extreme and intolerant.” Ironically, while Shawcross attempts to discredit MEND, citing such events only further adds to MEND’s credibility as experts in this field, and an organisation that the police are happy to partner with.
“[I]n October 2014 at the Zakariyya Mosque in Bolton, MEND’s founding CEO Sufyan Ismail – a speaker at the NAMP/MEND event only a month later – made several disturbing claims, including that of an alleged 300 year old Israeli lobby in Parliament” (Page 121, footnote 230).
Here, Shawcross deems MEND founder, Sufyan Ismail, to be an ‘extremist’ due to comments he made in 2014 alleging ‘’300 years of the Israel lobby” having an influence in British politics. This has been fully refuted before here. Through this, Shawcross attempts to make the charge of anti-Semitism. However, it should be immediately clear to any observer that Mr Ismail was not making reference to Jews in general as people. Not only does the accusation overlook the fact that a Jewish state has been an objective for Zionists from biblical times and beyond, Mr Ismail’s comments regarding the Israeli lobby were made in connection to the successful vote in Parliament to recognise Palestinian statehood , which many in the pro-Israel lobby had objected to and lobbied very heavily against .
“A 2016 story that was reported widely across the media was a schoolboy being referred to Prevent and subsequently being interrogated by counter-terrorism officers for wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ badge. Yet the school vehemently denied this, outlining they ‘were not concerned about the nature of the badges and wristbands’ and that ‘at no point was the student told not to talk about Palestine in school.’ At the time of writing, MEND was still citing this case on their website as an example of ‘schools excluding students and calling police for supporting Palestine.’” (Page 134, 6.257).
Shawcross complains that organisations like MEND are relying on “debunked stories to encourage misperceptions of the [Prevent] scheme.’ The example that is given, cited above, is that of an incident involving a boy at Challney High School for Boys in Luton. In February 2016, The Independent reported that 17 year-old Rahmaan Mohammadi was questioned by counter-terrorism police because he wore a “Free Palestine” badge to school . Challney High School for Boys denied that Mohammadi was referred due to his support for Palestine; rather, the school claimed that it had raised concerns with the schoolboy for wearing an accessory that is not part of the school uniform. Perplexingly, the school has since said that it is unable to elaborate on why he was referred to Prevent. The school’s silence over Mohammadi’s referral must be met with scepticism. If the school maintains that the issue was not that Mohammadi was supportive to Palestine, it would point to the illogical implication that he was referred to Prevent for not following the school’s uniform code, which would be bizarre. The school must therefore give a more clear response and not hide behind vagueness. Regardless of the reasoning for the referral to Prevent, what remains a fact is that Mohammadi was referred. However, following a visit to his home by the police, it was concluded that Mohammadi was not at risk, and that no further action would be taken against him. Speaking of the experience, Mohammadi commented, “when police come to your house and say, ‘I want to speak to you,’ with this massive folder with your name on it, that’s intimidating. It makes you feel alienated.”
It is evident that this story has been far from debunked and is an excellent example of how Prevent has created an atmosphere of fear and suspicion in the classroom, where behaviours as innocent as infringements of the school uniform policy can lead to a visit from the police. Hence far from being a ‘misperception,’ the Mohammadi case illustrates a wider problem with how Palestinian activism is treated in UK schools. Over a period of a few weeks leading up to June 2021, the Islamophobia Response Unit received 146 reports from students detailing schools taking action to shut down support of Palestine by pupils .
- Students being told that displaying the Palestinian flag equates to supporting terrorism, with one teacher going so far as to compare it to the swastika.
- Incidents where teachers have made statements including that it is Palestine’s fault that they are being bombed; that Palestine does not matter; and, even using Islamophobic language and slurs (such as P**i).
- According to one report, a 14-year-old boy was slapped by his deputy head teacher for holding a sign saying, “PLM [Palestinian Lives Matter], FREE PALESTINE.” The incident left the student feeling unsafe to return to school following the half term break due to the school’s failure to investigate the incident despite CCTV footage.
- A 15 year-old student was excluded from classes and sent to isolation for wearing a keffiyeh, while in another case a Year 12 student was reprimanded for wearing a “Free Palestine” badge and putting up posters with QR codes that directed viewers to educational resources on Palestine.
As a result, Muslims tend to feel the need to self-censor, particularly on the issue of Palestine, due to the fear of being referred to Prevent . Rather than highlighting this, Shawcross attempts to yet again discredit MEND, further exposing the flaws within his report, which failed to address concerns around Prevent inhibiting freedom of speech.
“I also heard that a number of anti-Prevent activists were closely interlinked and certain organisations did not want Prevent to succeed. CAGE and MEND were specifically cited on multiple occasions” (Page 145, 6.261).
It is not a question of MEND and others not ‘wanting’ Prevent to succeed, we are simply highlighting that it has not been fit for purpose since its inception. The Prevent duty has always been, and remains, riddled with flaws, including its lack of evidentiary basis, the lack of training provided to care workers, lack of viable definitions, and its heavy focus on vague notions of extremist ideology. Consequently, civil society organisations, including the likes of Liberty UK, as well as academics, politicians and experts have raised concerns surrounding Prevent’s implementation, with former Met Chief Superintendent Dal Babu describing it as a “toxic brand.”Many have called for Prevent to be scrapped in its entirety. However, Shawcross’ singling out of CAGE and MEND not only exposes the possible Islamophobic nature of this report, but also exemplifies Shawcross’ McCarthyite approach to Muslim organisations, accusing them of subversion, disruption and extremism. Readers might wish to ask why other organisations opposing Prevent, including calling for it to be scrapped, that are not primarily Muslim in nature, such as Amnesty International UK and Liberty, are not criticised in the same way.
“In a Dispatches documentary from March 2018, it was reported that a member of MEND’s staff called Sara Khan, Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism, an “Oreo” (Page 135, footnote 281).
MEND has already addressed accusations of abuse and intimidation:
“With regard to Sara Khan and Ms Al-Faifi’s “Oreo” reference, like large swathes of the Muslim and wider community, Ms Al-Faifi has deep-seated and legitimate concerns surrounding Ms Khan’s support for the Prevent programme and her recent appointment as the Commissioner for Countering Extremism. It is widely felt within the Muslim community that, in the pursuit of her own political ambitions, Ms Khan has ‘sold out’ and has failed to support their concerns surrounding the highly discriminatory Prevent programme, and has in fact been detrimental to their welfare by actively promoting it. Ms Al-Faifi accepts that the wording she used was wrong. However, this should not distract attention from the wider issue and legitimate criticism that Ms Khan actively promotes a policy that is inherently damaging to Muslim communities. MEND is firmly of the view – which is supported by evidence – that the PREVENT policy is simply not the solution and is proving to be highly counter-productive .”
“On 24 March 2015, the official MEND account called “Muslim groups” that journalist Andrew Gilligan had not attacked as “sell-outs and Uncle Toms” (Page 136, footnote 281).
Shawcross attempts to further imply MEND’s intimidation of groups that sympathise with Prevent by giving the example of a MEND Tweet from 2015. The Tweet itself was a response to an attack on Muslim organisations by journalist Andrew Gilligan, stating that the only groups Gilligan had not “attacked… [are] sell outs and Uncle Toms.” In hindsight, MEND should have refrained from using such terminology. Nevertheless, this should not be allowed to redirect focus away from the fact that Gilligan, a journalist with a track record of Islamophobia, has a history of targeting mainstream Muslim organisations. To illustrate the poor quality and Islamophobic nature of his journalism, In May 2016, the Telegraph apologised and paid substantial damages as part of an out-of-court settlement for defamation due to false claims made by Gilligan in a series of articles alleging corruption surrounding the purchase of Poplar Town Hall by businessman Mujibul Islam from Tower Hamlets Council when Lutfur Rahman was mayor .
“In an open letter on the appointment of Amber Rudd MP as Home Secretary in 2017, MEND CEO Sufyan Ismail urged her to ‘Deal with legitimate Muslim organisations, not government stooges’” (Page 136, footnote 281).
Following the tragic events in Finsbury Park in 2017, former MEND CEO Sufyan Ismail wrote an open letter to then Home Secretary Amber Rudd, calling up her to work with grassroots Muslim organisations . Shawcross references the word “stooges” used by Ismail as evidence of intimidation and abuse. In reality, Ismail was simply advising Rudd to engage with mainstream Muslim organisations that have galvanised grassroots and community support instead of organisations that have been created by government agencies and lack legitimacy in the eyes of British muslim communities. Who was Ismail abusing? Where is the intimidation? He simply wrote a letter to the Home Secretary offering sincere advice on how to reduce Islamophobia in the UK.
This is a nonsensical attack on MEND and Ismail, who also raised the relevant issue of the Government’s policy of disengagement from mainstream Muslim organisations, which was later confirmed in 2022 by Downing Street officials following the Conservative Leadership contest when candidate Penny Mordaunt was lamented for having met with MCB Secretary General Zara Mohammed . Ismail writes in his open letter, “MCB have more affiliates than any other Muslim organisation in the UK and therefore the largest mandate to represent British Muslims; over 90 percent of Islamic societies are affiliated with FOSIS; and MEND has the largest grassroots Muslim presence nationally .” Sadly, the Conservative government’s boycott policy demonstrates the ostracising and silencing of mainstream Muslim organisations from the political sphere, thereby discouraging Muslims from political engagement. Such structural discrimination only renders Muslims as a voiceless constituent of the UK body politic, a definitive example of Islamophobia.
“In November 2015, the anti-Prevent campaign group MEND held an event there, hosted by the students’ union.” (Page 139, The Case Study of Salman and Hashem Abedi).
Shawcross here attempts to make a highly tenuous and defamatory link between MEND and the Manchester Arena mass-murdering terrorist, Salman Abedi. Shawcross notes that Abedi attended the University of Salford. Shawcross then references an event held by MEND at the University of Salford during Islamophobia Awareness Month at the University of Salford in 2015. The deliberate linkage of Abedi and MEND through the University of Salford is pathetic and clearly malicious, and smears organisations such as ours as bearing some responsibility for this atrocious terrorist attack simply for opposing Prevent.