Editor’s note: The author of the article below, who is a British counter-extremism practitioner working in the public sector, requested anonymity because of the sensitivities involved in speaking out while in their position. In rare instances, European Eye on Radicalization will grant anonymity to contributors in order to allow our readers to access information and analysis from well-placed sources without endangering those sources, professionally or otherwise. As ever, EER’s primary aim is to publish a diversity of perspectives that allow readers to make up their own minds and as such does not adopt or endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
Within British counter-extremism circles, a debate which should have ceased long ago frustratingly continues, namely the utility of engaging deeply troubling organisations as community partners. An important case-in-point is Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND).
Defining the Problem
Perhaps feeling liberated by the prospect of leaving office, in July 2019 former Home Secretary Sajid Javid delivered an unusually rousing speech against extremism, even naming and shaming the worst offenders:
Extreme views can be found on all sides of the spectrum, from Islamist organisations like Hizb ut-Tahrir and IHRC [Islamic Human Rights Commission], to far-Right groups like Britain First and Generation Identity.
And those that spread intolerance and division from all corners are often given a platform by media and political figures. Supposedly mainstream groups can be guilty of that, too—groups like MEND. They aren’t always as intolerant of intolerance as they may claim to be.
Despite the Home Secretary’s clarity, there remains a great paradox at the heart of Britain’s efforts to counter extremism: while the Home Secretary expresses deep concern over intolerant and extremist-linked groups, practitioners who deliver the strategy on the ground work as partners with the very same malevolent actors.
Thanks to their mainstream veneer, described by Javid, many well-intentioned people remain uncertain or confused about MEND. As things stand, responsibility is deferred to local counter-extremism practitioners, who decide whether they should or shouldn’t engage constructively with the group as a partner. This is the wrong approach.
After repeated charges of antisemitism made against them, MEND have repeatedly stated it is unfair to judge them on the views of their numerous volunteers. With a charming litany of quotes like, “They never let you forget [the Holocaust]” from supporters, one can appreciate their concerns. In truth, though, they are right. If we could feasibly hold any large organisation responsible for the views of supporters or volunteers, few organisations—least of all the three major political parties—would survive. But we can and should hold organisations responsible for how they respond to such incidents, how they respond to criticism, and, most pertinently, the statements of leadership figures.
The Nature of MEND
A brief glance at MEND’s website shows it bristling with slick corporatism, reflecting its impressive rise from relative obscurity to, arguably, one of the go-to British Muslim organisations. But how could an en vogue organisation, boasting speakers like Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Jones, with an increasingly large local and national influence, be problematic?
One might start by talking about their views of democracy. MEND states that one of its aims is to “encourage British Muslims within local communities to be more actively involved in British media and politics”. Fine in so far as it goes. But what kind of politics do MEND encourage?
The political tactics MEND employs during elections are far from encouraging. According to respected BBC journalist John Ware, MEND promoted, across three successive elections, a blog called Ilford North Elections, which then-contesting Jewish MP Lee Scott described as “one of the nastiest things I’ve ever encountered in politics”. Ware details antisemitic abuse directed at Lee during the elections, rising to the extent that Lee installed a panic alarm in his house.
While there is no evidence to suggest that MEND or its employees were responsible for the abuse itself, one remains perplexed as to why they would continually promote a blog notorious for being partially responsible for it. The mystery only deepens when it is recalled that MEND claims it is “politically neutral … we have no policy of endorsing one party over another”. This policy was apparently forgotten—for three consecutive elections—while MEND chose to sponsor such a blog.
Political lobbing seems to increasingly be a MEND speciality. They went to great lengths to support the infamous All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) definition of the term “Islamophobia”, which was to be adopted by government until it was rejected for fears that its capaciousness “could mean people who criticise aspects of Islam might be prosecuted under discrimination laws”. Coincidently, blasphemy laws are the policy bread-and-butter of Islamists worldwide.
MEND has an intriguing way of responding to criticism. After a damning dispatches documentary, Who Speaks for British Muslims?, by Ware, aired in March 2018 on Channel 4, one might have expected some contrition, perhaps even an apology. But this was hardly the first time. After the previous MEND response to a separate Ware documentary was entitled, ‘Panorama’s John Ware Embarks on Another Witch-hunt’, one’s expectations were left suitably low. Within their four page response letter, MEND were largely unapologetic and even claimed some of the program’s most concerning assertions—made from direct quotes of its senior employees—were misinterpretations.
One could forgive this response as organisational naivety. But the response to the revelation that a MEND employee publicly used a racial epithet against Sara Khan, the Lead Commissioner for the Home Office’s Commission for Countering Extremism, could not have been more feeble: “Ms. Al-Faifi accepts that the wording she used was wrong”.
For an organisation which claims to work towards a world in which “anti-Muslim prejudice is regarded just as socially unacceptable as antisemitism and other forms of racism”, the absence of a serious public apology to Ms. Khan, or any kind of punishment against Al-Faifi, should have been the end of its consideration as a partner organisation.
MEND also has the distasteful tendency to misrepresent the character of its critics and is alleged to have attacked rival organisations. Mainstream think-tanks criticising MEND’s record, such as the Henry Jackson Society, are dismissed as “Islamophobic”, while Policy Exchange is branded as “neo-conservative”. The founder of Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks), Fiyaz Mughal claimed that MEND attacked his organisation for working with the Jewish community, while his colleagues at Faith Matters have also been described as Islamophobic by officials linked to MEND; these are strange charges to level against the employees of an organisation which aims to tackle anti-Muslim bigotry.
Few organisations face enough allegations to warrant publishing a sixty-nine page response, but MEND managed it. MEND claims this is a case of the “Islamophobia industry” at work against them, but is it really? One might expect this “industry” to target other groups, especially rival organisations like Tell MAMA that focus on Islamophobia, yet this is not the case. Other groups tend to attract conspicuously less criticism. Could it be that MEND simply brings this criticism on itself?
Means and Ends
Tell MAMA is a subsidiary organisation of Faith Matters. Faith Matters have delivered and advised on counter-extremism measures, while remaining robustly critical of Prevent. While healthy competition between NGOs is expected, the aggressive posture which MEND takes towards rivals like Tell MAMA or the Quilliam Foundation is suggestive of something more than bureaucratic rivalry. Rather, it suggests deeper ideological differences.
It is equally suggestive to look at organisations which MEND has distinctly more cosy interactions with. Hope Not Hate and HJS have underlined that MEND has repeatedly promoted the work of CAGE and appeared alongside the organisation on numerous platforms, despite CAGE’s alleged pro-terrorist stance.
The opening line of the British government’s definition of extremism is “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy”. It is interesting to learn then, that Azad Ali, who joined MEND as early as 2012, where he held various high-level positions before leaving for CAGE, said the following: “Democracy, if it means not implementing the shari’a, of course nobody agrees with that.”
One could take Ali’s statements on democracy generously as an unfortunate statement made two years before he joined MEND, though such benefit of the doubt doesn’t feel warranted when he also has a proclivity for quoting on social media from the father of the Afghan jihad, Abdullah Azzam, or speaking of his admiration for Anwar al-Awlaki, one of Al-Qaeda’s most important propagandists and organisers of anti-Western terrorism. After joining, Ali enjoyed a long career at MEND, but (perhaps more suitably) left MEND to work for CAGE, an organisation so extreme that even the Home Office consider them to be beyond hope in terms of “community engagement”.
One wonders why the Home Office is reluctant to go the same way with MEND, especially given that Sufyan Ismail, the founder of MEND and its CEO until 2016, bragged of having, “donated to CAGE over the years”, before adding with a wry smile, “I don’t know many people who have donated as much as I have”.
Most people understand the principle of “evidence against interest” and will therefore be sceptical when the oil industry disparages the feasibility of green energy, or private medical practitioners bash the National Health Service (NHS). Curiously, this understanding seems to evaporate when it comes to assessing why extremist groups like to rail against counter-extremism work. Prevent is far from perfect and can certainly be improved—but not by following the advice of people who want it to fail. Make no mistake, we are not dealing with good faith actors offering constructive criticism: MEND and CAGE are branches of the same ideological family tree.
When asked about the difference between MEND and CAGE, Ismail was once again exceedingly helpful in demonstrating the point: “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.”
This suggests that behind the front of its more appealing public persona, MEND is very much guided by the same ideas and goals as CAGE. The crucial advantage this allows MEND is to appeal to naïve British Muslims, who would be likely to turn away from open radicalism. Similarly, MEND’s posture allows it to get through the door to meetings with politicians, police, and local authorities, where they present as a grass-roots community group partner, before promptly assuming the role of a shrewd lobbying group. But lobbying for what?
As Ismail said, unknowingly to an undercover reporter, “we all want counter-terrorism legislation to be abolished, we all have the same view on Prevent”. One remains perplexed, then, at what advice MEND representatives contribute to the various Prevent Advisory Groups they are invited to sit on by local councils around the country. Perhaps farmers should consult with their neighbourhood fox to ascertain how their chicken coups might be better reinforced.
A Challenge to Democracy
Running parallel to this, long-term demographic shifts are changing the political discourse of local authorities from which Prevent is run. Constituencies like Tower Hamlets in the East-End—which, coincidently, is where MEND trains volunteers—are largely, or even completely, run by Labour councillors; regardless of your politics, a lack of opposition is not good for democratic culture.
It is no surprise, then, that constituencies like these produce miniature mayoral despots like Lutfur Rahman. Without changes to the directly-elected mayoral system, Rahman could run again as an independent after the expiry of his electoral ban—and could win. Lutfur’s administration saw MEND (then-known as iENGAGE) given £25,262.40 in June of 2014. More worryingly still, it received monies as part of the Prevent Delivery framework and action plan of that year.
As the historic home of the notorious proscribed group Al-Muhajiroun, which is frequently touted as the group posing the largest domestic terror threat, Tower Hamlets cannot afford to have its counter-extremism programs stifled. Last year, a Faith Matters representative resigned in protest from Redbridge council’s Prevent Advisory Group, after MEND were voted in to advise on local Prevent work.
Ultimately, writing this piece is an exercise in frustration. Much of this information is not new or secret, yet the situation remains the same. The police, Home Office, and local authorities seem to repeat the same mistakes that were advised against in the timely Policy Exchange report, Choosing Our Friends Wisely: Criteria for Engagement with Muslim Groups, all the way back in 2009—a dispiriting eleven years ago.
What is changing, though, is that MEND is increasingly building relationships with local authorities, police, politicians, and mosques across Britain, and these relationships are making the delivery of Prevent by local authorities increasingly difficult – at just the moment Britain is dealing with the returnees from the Islamic State’s “caliphate”, among other things.
Take the recent case of the police considering dropping the term “Islamist terror”, a term long accepted as central by academics in the field, which specifically differentiates religion from the politicisation of it. One begins to wonder who the police are listening to. Another instance: after public pressure, the Civil Service narrowly backed down from inviting MEND’s aforementioned CAGE-funding founder to speak at the Civil Service Muslim Network.
This is not a game of cat and mouse we can afford to play. Prevent is about safeguarding. We cannot afford to let these groups influence our institutions or policy and risk jeopardising public safety.
With these disconcerting trends in mind, the Home Office will need to have a serious re-think. They should think on how we can continue to keep the public safe while our work is increasingly stultified and misrepresented by supposed partners.