COMMENTARY

The UK must consider further action on Islamic Relief

Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) is a registered charity which was founded in the UK in 1984 but now has branches in over 40 countries. Its stated focus is humanitarian work and delivering aid. Egyptian co-founder, Hany el-Banna, summarises their mission as being to add “Islamic values to the international community of humanitarian organisations”.

However, IRW has had to fight to defend its reputation in recent years after being put under the spotlight by some of the UK’s closest allies regarding what they claim are its links to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood network and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. IRW fiercely contests the claims and is pursuing legal avenues in Israel in what it says is an attempt to set the record straight.

With the charity embroiled in such controversies, the UK government should also consider whether it has struck the correct balance in its dealings with Islamic Relief.

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In June 2014, Israel banned IRW from operating in the West Bank. Then Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said that, “The IRW is one of the sources of Hamas’s funding and a means for raising funds from various countries in the world. We do not intend to allow it to function and abet terrorist activity against Israel.” These accusations were echoed by the UAE.

Naser Haghamed, the chief executive of Islamic Relief Worldwide, pushed back. “What is alleged, as we see it,” Haghamed said, “is not that we materially support Hamas but rather that our humanitarian work makes Hamas look good in the eyes of the local population, and that this is tantamount to supporting terrorism.”

In December 2014, an audit carried out by an unnamed external global audit firm found no evidence that IRW supported terrorism and in a statement to CEG, Islamic Relief said that, “We are appealing through the Israeli courts against the wrongful and unsubstantiated allegation from the Israeli authorities that we are linked to Hamas. This process began in 2015 and we still await our opportunity to present our case to the Israeli High Court and for the decision to be reviewed judicially.”

Islamic Relief’s work in Palestine has previously caused it to face historic reputational challenges thanks to a previous association with the Union of Good, a coalition of organisations which described itself upon its May 2001 launch as “a human relief campaign to expand the circle of support to counter the effects of the impoverishment, the humiliation and the debilitation of the people of Palestine”.

Union of Good maintained its English language pages on a domain used by the British charity Interpal 1 and, as late as February 2003, Islamic Relief was listed as a Union of Good participant on that section of their website (prior to it being taken offline). That became a significant problem in November 2008, when the Union of Good was designated by the US Treasury, which described it as “an organization created by Hamas leadership in late-2000 to transfer funds to the terrorist organization”. For its part, the UK government has described the Union of Good as a “group of charities believed to have Hamas links”.

It seems that there is no contemporary connection between Islamic Relief and the Union of Good. However, the precise circumstances in which how and why Islamic Relief ended up being listed as being part of the Union of Good require further research. When contacted by CEG, Islamic Relief did not provide comment on this specific issue.

As well as accusations from Middle East governments that they are linked to Hamas, the other current albatross around IRW’s neck is allegations of supposed ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (it is no great surprise that such allegations often go hand in hand: in Hamas’s 1988 founding charter, it describes itself as “one of the wings of Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine”).

The Muslim Brotherhood – as described by a 2015 UK government review – was founded in order to bring about “the religious reformation of individual Muslims, the progressive moral purification of Muslim societies and their eventual political unification in a Caliphate under sharia law”.

As an example of IRW and Brotherhood links, Essam el-Haddad – one of IRW’s co-founders – was involved in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt and appointed as an adviser to President Morsi in 2012. He was chair of IRW’s board of trustees at the time.

In a 2020 publication, Kamal Helbawy, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, told George Washington University scholar Lorenzo Vidino that IRW’s leadership are members of the Brotherhood but that the majority of those that work for the organisation – even in senior positions – are not, and would in fact reject the notion that IRW and the Brotherhood are linked.

Naser Haghamed, the chief executive of Islamic Relief Worldwide, has countered that “[an] allegation we strongly refute is that Islamic Relief has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood…I attend every board meeting, every senior management team meeting, and I can personally vouch that no external organisation influences or controls Islamic Relief.”

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Clearly, there is a great degree of disagreement between the charges made by certain governments about Islamic Relief and the subsequent Islamic Relief response.

Where there is more certainty, however, is that elements of Islamic Relief’s recent leadership have had views that made them unsuitable to be trustees at a British charity.

In July 2020, Heshmat Khalifa, a trustee at IRW, was revealed in The Times to have posted various incendiary views on social media between 2014 and 2015. This included praise for Hamas; describing Israelis as the “grandchildren of monkeys and pigs”; and calling Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a “pimp son of the Jews”. Khalifa issued an apology and stepped down from Islamic Relief’s board.

An investigation into his replacement, Almoutaz Tayara, which was again published in The Times, revealed that on social media he had described the leaders of Hamas as “great men”, posted a picture of US President Barack Obama wearing a Star of David tie, and glorified terrorist operations against Israel. Tayara was the chair of Islamic Relief Germany, who admitted that it was aware of Tayara’s posts but allowed him to remain as chairman because he had previously issued an apology.

Following these latest revelations, the entire board of trustees at Islamic Relief UK subsequently stepped down. Islamic Relief told The Times that they were “reviewing our processes for screening trustees’ and senior executives’ social media posts to ensure that this will not happen again”.

These incidents had repercussions outside the UK.

In December 2020, the US State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism issued a statement condemning the “anti-Semitic attitudes and remarks” emanating from senior leadership within Islamic Relief.

The Director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance told the Washington Free Beacon website that State no longer partnered with IRW; and that no matter whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump was President, State and USAID should both “act with extreme caution and avoid partnering with IRW in the future”.

Then, the German government put out a statement in response to a question from an opposition party, confirming that it recognised that Islamic Relief had “significant personal connections to the Muslim Brotherhood or related organizations” (the German government had, in the past, funded Islamic Relief for aid projects related to Syria).

Such admissions possibly influenced the Dutch decision, made in January 2021, to turn down a funding application from Islamic Relief. Sigrid Kaad, the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, said that she had learned from the media that Islamic Relief was tied to the Brotherhood and subsequently had decided that her department would not fund them.

In a statement to CEG, Islamic Relief said that, “We have begun a dialogue with the new US Administration about continuing IRW’s positive and long-standing partnership with the US federal government and are seeking opportunities to do the same with the Dutch and German authorities”.

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So there are challenges for Islamic Relief overseas. What about the UK?

Islamic Relief has certainly faced issues in the UK previously: in 2014, HSBC cut off its banking services to Islamic Relief UK. According to then Islamic Relief UK Director Imran Madden, HSBC told Islamic Relief that in order to meet US money laundering requirements, they “needed to ‘manage the challenge’ posed by customers operating in ‘high-risk jurisdictions’”.

The issue seemed to be, in Madden’s words, that as “Islamic Relief’s mission is to alleviate poverty and suffering where most needed… that means we are committed to operating in complex conflicts where proscribed organisations are sometimes active.”

In a statement to CEG, Islamic Relief said that, “we have a positive and constructive relationship with our main bank and other financial institutions with which we work.”

Then, following the discovery of Khalifa’s comments last year, the Charity Commission launched a compliance case to ensure that Islamic Relief was meeting its legal and charitable obligations.

Last month, it reported back on its findings. In total, three individuals – none of whom are now involved with Islamic Relief – were found to have posted “offensive and anti-Semitic social media comments”, apologising and admitting “that their conduct was unacceptable”.

The Commission declared that it had now “overseen significant improvements to the recruitment and oversight of trustees and senior staff” at Islamic Relief and that it “welcome[d] the improvements…made to its governance”. The Commission said it would “continue to monitor” Islamic Relief’s progress.

Shortly afterwards, an independent review into Islamic Relief – carried out at the behest of the charity and chaired by the former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve – gave them a clean bill of health. “We found absolutely no evidence that the reputational issues that have arisen over the conduct of a few individuals has had any link to the way IRW carries out this charitable work”, Grieve concluded.

In a statement to CEG, Islamic Relief said that, “IRW is a purely humanitarian organisation with no political links and no links to any terrorist organisation – including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. This has been corroborated by both the Charity Commission and an Independent Commission… Both also found that the organisation is not institutionally anti-Semitic and has processes in place to ensure that funds reach intended recipients.”

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If the UK government decides that more action is required to induce better behaviour from Islamic Relief, there are a variety of steps it could consider.

Approaches tried in the past have not been entirely successful. For example, in recent years, the Department for International Development (DFID, now part of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office – FCDO) had been working behind the scenes to help bring Islamic Relief’s behaviour above reproach while praising and partnering with them in public. The Times revelations from last summer demonstrate the limits to this approach.

Instead, the government could pay closer attention to how it hands out funding.

Islamic Relief partners with UK Aid Match, the scheme which allows that for every £1 donated to certain appeals, the UK government will also donate £1 (up to £2 million). For example, in April 2019, the UK matched the £2m Islamic Relief had raised for providing access to water in Ethiopia.

Then, in July 2020, the UK government announced that – via UK Aid Match – it was doubling its support to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) Coronavirus Appeal, which supported the work of 14 charities, including Islamic Relief’s work in Somalia.

Therefore, via contributing to DEC, the UK government is indirectly funding Islamic Relief.

Considering recent events, having its budgets doubled by affiliation with UK Aid Match feels like an unearned privilege. Islamic Relief doubtless does important charitable work in poverty-stricken areas. But perhaps the government could examine whether it was practical to stop future Aid Match partnerships with Islamic Relief until the reforms that impressed the Charity Commission are proved to have worked.

If possible the same should go for Gift Aid, which allows charities to claim an extra 25p from the government for every £1 donated to them.

In a statement to CEG, the FCDO stated that, “The FCDO has no current direct funding relationship with Islamic Relief Worldwide. We are aware of the serious allegations against some of the senior staff and board members of IRW. The UK Government does not tolerate antisemitism, hate speech or any support to terrorist groups. All organisations that receive FCDO funding are subject to rigorous due diligence checks and we have strict auditing and monitoring controls in place to ensure all funding is used as it should be.”

Then there is the Charity Commission.

Islamic Relief was not subject to a statutory inquiry – the most serious form of inquiry the Charity Commission undertakes – and there is limited information about previous Islamic Relief controversies on the Charity Commission website. The Islamic Relief entry on the Charity Commission’s online register simply shows that the charity’s reporting is up to date. There is no clue it has just been subject to a compliance case where the charity was found to have posted material “contrary to the charity’s code of conduct and fell far below the standard the public expect of charity trustees and staff”.

In response to a question over whether the Charity Commission had sufficiently flagged Islamic Relief’s past governance issues on its website, a spokesperson told CEG that, “Where we open a formal inquiry, this is clearly marked against the charity’s register entry, as is the publication of the subsequent inquiry report. This is precisely to ensure that those seeking information about a charity via the online register can see that we have had cause to open a statutory inquiry. We do not, however, mark against the register other less formal regulatory engagements with charities, of which we conduct several thousand every year.”

Whether it is practically feasible to mark compliance cases against a charity’s register entry online is an issue for the Charity Commission. But the status quo seems insufficiently robust. An alternative could be a ‘three strikes’ approach where, if the Charity Commission deemed it necessary to launch three separate compliance cases over a specific period (eight years, say, the length of two terms for a Chair of the Charity Commission) against any one charity, it then had to flag these cases in their online register.

There is also a broader point here about the charity’s ethos here which the Heshmat Khalifa and Almoutaz Tayara episode highlighted. Islamic Relief’s decision to replace a trustee implicated over his views on terrorism and antisemitism with someone had already had to previously apologise for his views on terrorism and antisemitism suggests that, while there is new management at Islamic Relief, we should not assume that all its problems have been fixed.

We should, however, hope they have. Islamic Relief has now been largely exonerated in the UK, but several of our closest allies are far more wary of involving themselves with the charity. If more evidence were to emerge that our allies’ caution was correct, then public trust in both the use of taxpayer funds and the regulation of UK charities will diminish.

  1. In August 2003, the US Treasury listing Interpal as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, describing it as “a principal charity utilized to hide the flow of money to HAMAS”. Interpal has vigorously contested this charge and successfully sued those in the media who repeat the claim. Interpal and its trustees reject the US claims, saying that they are an aid organisation for Palestinians in need and pointing to their continued lawful and Charity Commission approved operation in the UK.