A lot of counter-extremist work focuses on Islamist charities in the West, which appear to be spend a great deal of money and time in the alleviation of suffering abroad and the pursuit of interfaith dialogue at home.
Are we being fair to Islamist organisations? After all, if orphans in Bangladesh or the Gaza Strip no longer go hungry, or if a Muslim Brotherhood mosque throws open its doors to a delegation of Jews, Christians and Hindus, should that not be celebrated, rather than scrutinised with suspicion?
Politicians certainly seem keen to praise the efforts of Islamic groups. Charities such as Islamic Relief receive tens of millions of pounds from the British government, the European Union and the United Nations. Cabinet ministers, members of the royal family and political parties have all expressed support for the charity’s work.
Islamic Relief is an important component, however, of the global Muslim Brotherhood movement. Its directors have included Ahmed Al-Rawi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who, in 2004, supported jihad against British and American troops in Iraq; and Essam El-Haddad, who is accused by an Egyptian court of divulging state secrets to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, and using Islamic Relief to finance global terrorism.
In Gaza, Islamic Relief funds Hamas front organisations, including the Islamic University of Gaza and the Al-Falah Benevolent Society. Islamic Relief has also received money from Yemeni terror charities, such as the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, which was established by the US-designated terrorist and “Bin Laden loyalist,” Abdul Majeed Al-Zindani.
Despite these connections to extremism and terrorism, Islamic Relief appears to help people survive. Over the past few years, it has provided emergency medicine to millions of Syrian refugees, and provided shelter and food to hundreds of thousands of displaced peoples across South Asia. Even in the U.S., Islamic Relief has delivered boxes of food to families who are “struggling.”
Politicians and journalists appear to think that these humanitarian efforts negate the effect of any extremist connections. For Islamist charities, then, charitable endeavour serves a greater purpose. By advertising their charitable goodness, Islamist networks can curry favour from Western governments and legitimise themselves as the virtuous representatives of Western Islam.
For the Muslim Brotherhood, this approach has worked extremely well. Aside from the millions of pounds of taxpayer revenue and the support of politicians, Islamic Relief has a seat at some important tables. It exerts influence over a number of government ministries, including the Foreign Office, which, in 2009, hosted a dinner for Islamic Relief, which was attended by “over 200 business leaders, prominent ambassadors, heads of major international charities.”
In a recent lecture, the Norwegian academic Thomas Hegghammer examined “the non-military activities” of jihadists. Examining “jihadi culture,” Hegghammer argued, will “shed new light on why people join and stay in extremist groups.”
Hegghammer’s research examines all manner of jihadist lifestyle, from “devotional practices” to “nasheed-listening [Islamic song], video-watching, storytelling, poetry reading.”
Hegghammer reasons that the “litmus test” for whether something counts as “jihadi culture…is how functionally essential it is to the military effort.”
Jihadist groups employ these cultural activities, Hegghammer notes, “deliberately for recruitment purposes.” He cites a letter written to Bin Laden, in which a “jihadist strategist” suggests that nasheed [Islamic songs] and poems should be regarded as an “advertising product that…would cause Muslim feelings to be moved.”
Likewise, to what extent are the seemingly non-extremist activities of Islamist groups essential to extremist agendas?
As with jihadists, “non-violent” extremists certainly make use of poems and nasheeds. The Al Imdaad Foundation is a British branch of a South African Islamist charity, which works closely with Islamic Relief through an umbrella group called the Muslim Charities Forum. One of Al Imdaad’s trustees is Qari Ziyaad Patel, who has written and sung nasheeds in praise of the Taliban.
Similarly, officials of Islamist lobby groups have circulated music videos in support of Bin Laden; and Islamist students at London colleges have recorded prayers and songs advocating killing Jews and supporting terrorists.
But extremist culture amounts to more than pro-terror propaganda. Extremist culture primarily depends on activities that are, as Hegghammer indicates, “essential” to Islamist efforts.
For British Islamist groups, these “essential” activities are the means by which extremist organisations assert themselves as political leaders and moral voices of Muslim communities, and attain influence over politicians and receive positive coverage from journalists.
Thus, Islamic Relief’s international charitable work serves a greater purpose. Similarly, groups such as the Islamic Education and Research Academy, a British Salafist organisation whose officials have talked of a “Jewish stench,” were recently happy to organise an event with the Anne Frank Trust, on the subject of “tackling anti-Semitism.”
As another example, senior British politicians have expressed their support for the Al Muntada Trust, another British Salafist group that runs several schools and provides humanitarian aid to thousands of African refugees, despite its work with ISIS clerics and widespread allegations that the charity funds Boko Haram, the Nigerian affiliate of Al Qaeda.
It seems that regardless of their extremist ties, Islamist organisations can always find ways to exert influence through charity or interfaith work. The Interfaith Network, for example, is a taxpayer-funded umbrella group for religious bodies all across Britain. Following the protests against Salman Rushdie, the Interfaith Network “promoted a core group of activists,” who backed the Iranian regime’s fatwa for his murder, to establish national organizations on behalf of Britain’s Muslims.
Among conservative Islamic sects, such as the Deobandi movement, senior clerics advocate cultural work that affords Muslims with influence over schools, communities and government. Ibrahim Mogra, a Deobandi cleric who is currently the Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, told a youth conference in 1998 that Deobandis must “engage in mainstream politics and activities” in order to “resist” Western culture, and refute the West’s “so-called progress … we can point out to them what they call backwardness is good for society.”
Islamist charities’ work abroad also serves another purpose. Islamist charities’ work in the Gaza Strip, for instance, contributes to a terrorist-run welfare system of da’wah [outreach, proselytising]. By providing welfare services, the terrorist group Hamas works, the Stanford academic Eva Milgrom notes, “to reshape the political consciousness of educated youth.”
The counter-terrorism expert Matthew Levitt writes that the social infrastructure produced by da’wah activities, funded by British Islamic charities, “are crucial to Hamas’ terrorist activity: they provide cover for raising, laundering, and transferring funds, facilitate the group’s propaganda and recruitment efforts, provide employment to its operatives, and serve as a logistical support network for its terrorist operations.”
One of the great challenges for counter-extremism and counter-terrorism analysts is persuading policy-makers that charity can be nefarious, and that even interfaith dialogue can be harmful. To the uninformed, it is a counter-intuitive claim.
But by ignoring the seemingly non-extremist activities of extremist networks, we risk legitimising and funding such groups as humanitarian representatives of Western Muslims. We should not be dazzled by virtuous claims.
 Matthew Levitt, Hamas, London: Yale University Press, 23-24.