Channel 4’s ‘Who Speaks for British Muslims’ sparks criticism for its allegations about MEND Muslim advocacy group

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The Programme

In a March 2018 TV programme entitled ‘Who Speaks for British Muslims?’ Channel 4’s Dispatches went undercover in MEND[1], which describes itself as “a not-for-profit company that helps to empower and encourage British Muslims within local communities to be more actively involved in British media and politics”[2]. MEND works with public institutions, including police officers and schools, with what, MEND says, is the aim of creating a more tolerant and inclusive Britain[3].

Dispatches’ aim was to investigate whether MEND is the right organisation to represent Britain’s three million Muslims. It notes the organisation has risen to prominence quickly in the last two years, and that it has a slick marketing message[4].

The programme examined the case of St. Stephen’s Primary School in Newham, London clashing with MEND activists in January of this year, who demanded the school lift its ban on three to seven year olds wearing the hijab, claiming it was an attack on religious freedom and that it stigmatised young girls for wearing the hijab. MEND rallied parents to protest against the ban, and the school received hate mail, although there is no evidence this mail had any link to MEND. The pressure of MEND was felt. The chair of the board of governors was forced to resign after accidently sending an email insulting a local imam, and MEND’s leader said the headteacher had felt the “wrath” of the organisation[5].

According to Dispatches, the school, which has been rated the best primary school in England, said they had introduced the ban as a safety measure to stop the girls getting their scarves caught while playing. The programme pointed out that the ban was not a blanket ban; it did not apply to eight to eleven year olds. It also pointed out that only one in 150 girls put the hijab on after the ban was reversed[6]. (See this article for another criticism of MEND’s reaction to the ban).

The programme also examines MEND’s founder, Sufyan Ismail, as an “outspoken critic of Prevent”, which is part of Britain’s counter-extremism programme, who wants it replaced. It states that Ismail considers Prevent to criminalise the British Muslim community, although criminalisation is contrary to the British government’s guidance on the initiative[7].

Its description of Ismail’s aim of mobilising the British Muslim vote, which he says could affect the outcome of elections, has an element of suspicion about it, as does its examination of MEND’s seeking influence in the public sector, with which it already has a number of partnerships. For example, in Manchester, MEND has partnered with the police and the council to tackle Islamophobia. In Cardiff, they have trained the police to tackle Islamophobia. In Leeds, they have trained NHS staff and they claim to be an official partner of the electoral commission in London[8].

The air of suspicion running throughout this description is explained by Dispatches’ claim that MEND do not always live up to their principles. It reveals its findings of overtly anti-Semitic comments written by trained MEND professionals on social media. MEND’s response featured on the programme said it does not tolerate racist comments or those that incite hatred, and that some of these posts predate MEND. Dispatches questions whether it is right for the public sector to keep working with them given these instances[9].

Along similar lines, Dispatches recounts the case of Sara Khan being called an “Oreo” (which refers to her being brown on the outside, but white on the inside) by a member of MEND after she was appointed Lead Commissioner for the Home Office’s Commission for Countering Extremism. The member subsequently accepted the comments were wrong. MEND itself demanded Khan’s removal from the position on the basis of her views regarding counter-extremism[10].

The programme also details the instance of MEND’s group coordinator for Cardiff, Sahar Al-Faifi, claiming on social media that the Conservative government allowed terrorist attacks to go ahead. Significantly, Al-Faifi sits on the board of Prevent in Cardiff, although not in an official MEND capacity. In response to these allegations, she said she “doesn’t accept” Dispatches interpretation of events, but instead was reflecting anger that signs of radicalisation in some cases of terrorist attacks had been missed, and that the Conservative party was making political capital from terrorist events[11].

While Dispatches notes that there is no suggestion that MEND supports terrorism, it notes the Home Office has described it as being associated with extremism. MEND has always denied this, but Dispatches suggests its undercover footage reveals extremist links[12].

The programme went undercover at a racism and Islamophobia event in Redbridge, East London, where a senior member of MEND was appearing alongside Shakeel Begg, an imam at London’s Lewisham Islamic centre, which is partnered with MEND. Begg has been labelled an extremist by the BBC and has called violence in the name of Islam “man’s greatest deed”. In Dispatches’ undercover footage, he calls Muslims who support counter-terrorism measures “house Muslims”, an offensive reference to black slaves. He accuses them of thinking only of their own interests and being on the payroll of the Prevent agenda. Dispatches implies that these views are examples of extremism, and that MEND’s partnership with Begg thus links them to extremism. In their response featured in the programme, MEND said they do not endorse or share Begg’s views, and that he is not a member of their organisation. However, the programme notes that MEND officials have appeared with him five times since 2013, which they imply suggests otherwise[13].

Undercover footage also revealed the MEND’s founder’s supposed links to the organisation CAGE, which describes itself as a campaign group helping those affected by the war on terror. However, CAGE has been linked with supporting a suicide bombing attack in an Aleppo prison which killed several people. Despite the casualties of the attack, CAGE claimed the bombing had resulted in the liberty of three hundred people, “a price worth paying”. Dr Adnan Siddiqui, the director of CAGE, then backed these comments when appearing in front of MPs at a select committee in 2015. A member of their organisation also favourably reminisced about ISIS member, Jihadi John (also known as Mohammed Emwazi), another reason the programme links it with extremism, in addition to the fact that it has been labelled as extremist by the Home Office. Dispatches says MEND’s founder, Sufyan Ismail, has donated to CAGE personally, linking him to it[14].

CAGE told Dispatches in the programme that it rejected these claims made against it, and that it opposes all acts of unlawful violence. Ismail said that MEND and CAGE do share common principles, in that they want current counter-terrorism policies, which they see as “unnecessary”, to be abolished. MEND told Dispatches it does not agree with terrorist attacks, but that it does agree with CAGE’s stance on Prevent[15].

Dispatches attributes concern to MEND’s interaction with British political officials because of these supposed links to extremism. In addition to noting that in November 2017, prominent politicians lent their support to MEND for Islamophobia Awareness Week, it discusses how Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has worked closely with the organisation, recently persuading Ofsted to listen to MEND’s objections to their plans to question young girls wearing the hijab. This was despite the fact Ofsted had been warned not to engage with MEND by the Home Office because of its supposed links to extremism[16].

In undercover footage recorded by Dispatches, MEND’s founder, Sufyan Ismail, is seen saying that Warsi “practically forced” Ofsted to have a meeting with MEND, and that Warsi suggested that MEND send one of its white members of staff to the meeting so the organisation would be received better. Warsi told Dispatches that the comments attributed to her were “simply untrue” and that she had received a “full and unreserved apology” from MEND. She added that she is “not a friend” of Ismail, and that she has previously criticised the organisation and did not support their stance on the ban on hijabs at St. Stephen’s Primary School[17].

Dispatches concludes that, in the four years since it was set up, MEND has attempted to define Islam in Britain, but that concerns remain about what it thinks and what it does. Amina Lone, from the Social Action and Research Foundation, comments that she does not think that MEND are really promoting the stability, unity, and community cohesion they claim to be because of their association with hate preachers and their stance on Prevent. These factors make their claims about their ethos “problematic”[18].

MEND’s Response

On Twitter, MEND called Dispatches’ programme “politically motivated, factually dubious and sensationalist”[19].

Its press release states that Channel 4 “launched an attack on MEND … as a consequence of our credible and sustained engagement in the public sphere”[20]. It is interesting to note that the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), another Muslim advocacy organisation, has also expressed this concern with regards to their representation in the media. They identify it as part of a larger trend of Muslims being “held to a different yardstick when it comes to engagement in public life”. As a consequence, they are treated with suspicion and over-regulation in comparison with non-Muslim organisations.

In response to the title of the programme, ‘Who speaks for British Muslims?’ MEND’s press release says “firmly and categorically: Muslims speak for themselves”, adding, “MEND proudly advocates for issues that affect British Muslim communities – we have never claimed to represent British Muslims”. It sees its role as empowering the British Muslim community to advocate for themselves when facing issues such as Islamophobia. MEND also points out that the documentary “displayed some of the undeniable achievements of MEND”, thanking its supporters[21].

Its video response to the Dispatches programme features Dr Shazad Amin, CEO of MEND, discussing more specifically the allegations raised by the programme. With regards to MEND’s involvement with St. Stephen’s Primary School’s hijab ban, Amin says Dispatches failed to mention that the parents’ forum at the school invited them to meet with the school over the issue; they did not rally the parents, as the programme claimed. He states the programme’s assertion that the ban was introduced for health and safety reasons is incorrect, as the headteacher of the school stated that it was intended to help the integration of young Muslim girls into British society. In addition, one governor of the school said he was on a “crusade” to stop the “Islamification” of the school, framing the issue as one of religious expression rather than health and safety. The programme also implied MEND forced one of the school’s governors to resign, however Amin states that he was actually forced to resign by the language he used in his email about a local imam[22].

Amin states that Dispatches’ assertion that MEND is anti-Semitic was not based on any tweets or posts from any official MEND social media accounts, implying the accusation is unfounded. He states that four out of five of the social media posts, which were used in the programme in reference to this accusation, predate the authors’ joining MEND, and even predate MEND itself. He said that the programme did not discuss MEND’s vast repertoire of interfaith work, including their work educating about anti-Semitism in schools[23].

In response to the programme’s accusation that MEND is racist, Amin notes that this assertion is based on only one tweet from a MEND staff member, who was not a member of MEND at the time. He argues this tweet, which called Sara Khan an ‘Oreo’, was not racist because the author is a BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) woman making a comment about another BME woman on the basis that she is selling out her community. He points out that the author of the tweet has subsequently accepted that she was wrong[24].

Amin adds that Dispatches used Fiyaz Mughal, from Faith Matters and previously TellMAMA, to qualify this comment as racist. Amin describes Mughal as a long-time critic of MEND, saying he criticised the organisation in Parliament where he had parliamentary privilege (meaning he could not be sued for his comments), but has not repeated these accusations outside of Parliament, suggesting that he is avoiding a lawsuit from MEND, which Amin presumably is suggesting he would lose because his allegations are incorrect[25].

With regards to the programme’s allegation that MEND is linked to extremism because it has shared a platform with extremist organisations and individuals, Amin states that the programme did not base this assertion on any evidence that employees of MEND itself have been involved in extremism. He states that MEND is responsible for its own statements, and those it shares platforms with are responsible for theirs. He also states that the programme failed to mention the many counter-extremism efforts with which MEND had been involved, including raising £38,000 for the victims of the Manchester terror attack of 2017[26].

He concludes by saying that MEND will not be deterred by the attacks made against it on television[27].

CAGE’s Response

CAGE questioned whether Dispatches was really concerned for Muslims, and whether their methods, such as undercover recording, were ethical. It states that its position on counter-terrorism legislation – “that it is counter-productive and discriminatory” – is one shared by many other organisations and individuals, and that it is supported financially by thousands of donors[28].

With regards to the allegations by the programme that CAGE supported the suicide bombing of an Aleppo prison, the organisation states this is “factually incorrect and does not take into account the full context of the conversation”. It states that the statement was made in relation to an operation which liberated prisoners who were being held without due process in prison conditions, which are notoriously amongst the direst in the world. It adds that there were no civilian casualties in the bombing. Thus, framing CAGE’s comments on the matter as support for terrorism “is grossly misleading and simply untrue”, adding that similar conflict tactics have been used by British forces in the past. CAGE insists it has repeatedly warned against ISIS on numerous occasions and “As a point of principle … opposes and rejects all unlawful violence whether committed by state, organisational or individual actors”[29].

Comments by a CAGE official made about Mohammed Emwazi being “a beautiful young man” were not made about his character at the time of his alleged actions, according to CAGE’s press release, which also dismisses its labelling as “extremist” by the Home Office, which it notes has also designated a Green Party peer as “extremist” as well as numerous other organisations whose views do not necessary align with the mainstream, and specifically those, like CAGE, which criticise British domestic and foreign policy. It questions the process by which organisations are given the label of ‘extremist’ as untrustworthy[30].

In a video response to the programme, a CAGE official, Moazzam Begg, recounts a story from last year of one of his old friends coming to visit him in his office and unexpectedly breaking down in tears, revealing he was wearing a wire and a camera after being pressured into recording his conversations at CAGE by a media company, a topic which was also discussed in the organisation’s press release[31].

The CAGE members in the video then discuss the “sinister and desperate” nature of the undercover footage collected in the programme, questioning the motives of the Dispatches team and Channel 4, who they say are known to be Islamophobic and not to be interested in helping British Muslims. Therefore the answer to the question ‘who speaks for British Muslims?’ is definitely not those who attack Islam and Muslims, and attempt to propagate fear and divisions within the community, as CAGE sees the programme as doing. Its press release states, “Surely as someone researching the topic of “Who speaks for British Muslims?”, it is expected of [Dispatches] to engage fully and honestly with all the relevant voices in an earnest attempt to understand the real concerns of communities, and reflect whether organisations and individuals are accurately representing them. This would certainly best answer the question posed in the title of your programme”[32].

Along these same lines, the commentators in the video accuse the programme of questioning the identity of Muslims and attempting to own and shape Muslim narratives. Accusing the documentary of trying to tell Muslims what Islam is about, CAGE questions what makes Dispatches qualified to do this. Begg states the programme does this partly by portraying something that is normal in an abnormal way, suggesting Dispatches creates suspicion around harmless Muslim practices[33].

Begg states that at the same time the Dispatches programme was being put together, he was working with the BBC on a programme telling his own story, and sees the Channel 4 programme as an attempt at pushing back against his narrative and the CAGE narrative of empowerment[34].

CAGE states that it supports initiatives like that of Dispatches that do expose groups that do harm, but that Dispatches was wrong in targeting CAGE, an organisation that empowers Muslims. The fact that some members of the community were prepared to collect undercover footage for the programme shows that there is a great deal of fear in the community which causes them to succumb to pressure placed on them by media companies, according to the commentators, but also that it is difficult to find members of the community who are actually willing to do this[35].

It states that CAGE receives mass financial support by both Muslim and non-Muslim donors, and thus the stigma the programme attaches to CAGE would also have to be attached to these donors, which it suggests is unlikely. Begg comments that CAGE should see the programme as a badge of honour because this kind of smear campaign is to be expected from so-called ‘Neo-Cons’, which CAGE is proud to empower the community in the face of. He states that the organisation should be confident in its identity and its dīn, and in owning its own narrative. He states that the response of Muslims when fellow members of their community are attacked in this way should be to offer solidarity with other Muslims[36].

CAGE’s press release concludes with the message to Dispatches that, “Attempting to cast our organisation and others with sinister intent suggests your agency has no interest in whether we are accurately representing Muslims. Rather it appears you are harbouring ulterior motives that betray the ethical tenements of objectivity and transparency that is expected of good journalism. This approach is the tactic of tabloid sensationalism, and we are confident that on the airing of your programme, our support in the Muslim community and among right-minded individuals will be further bolstered … Having said this, our door is always open to honest interactions for the benefit of all”[37].

Reaction

There appears to have been little coverage of the programme and reaction to it by the mainstream media.

Faith Matters’ Fiyaz Mughal, who was featured on the programme criticising CAGE, issued a statement in response to the programme, stating that Faith Matters “believe that tackling extremism within our own community and working with other groups is an essential part of tackling anti-Muslim hate crime … Our approach so far has been not to highlight divisions”, which he says “is contrary to groups whom Ware investigates” in the Dispatches programme. Mughal explains that groups like MEND and CAGE “play on a divisive approach targeted at British Muslim communities”, and that this is damaging to the missions which they claim to have, which is why Faith Matters chose to contribute to the programme. Mughal writes that Faith Matters “will continue to fight for an inclusive approach to Islam, based on pluralism and where dissent is part of the cornerstone of healthy communities” using a “completely inclusive” approach which involves working in partnership with organisations from other communities who deal with similar issues and challenging intolerance within its own communities[38].

Imam Shakeel Begg, the man labelled as an “extremist” who appeared on the programme as sharing a platform with MEND, responded to the accusations presented by Dispatches, rejecting them as disregarding “rationale, two decades of evidence to the contrary, and the judgement of countless Muslims and non-Muslims that I have worked so closely with for the last 20 years and continue to work with who know full well that the Judgement is a wholly incorrect representation of me”, adding that he will continue his efforts to speak in defence of the Muslim community[39].

Islam21c.com wrote that the programme “attacked” Muslim organisations and activists “in another failed attempt to smear their works, but this time many noticed a relative weakness compared to past attempts”. It dismisses the programme’s tactics of using undercover recordings and historic social media posts from those related to the organisations as “cheap”, and points to its failure to interview any representatives from MEND or CAGE as “highlighting a lack of balanced journalism and biased reporting”[40].

Amaliah collected some critical responses to the programme from Twitter. Some responses criticised the programme for disregarding journalistic standards, while others stated that it highlighted the need for the continued empowerment of the Muslim community in order to change the anti-Muslim narrative which some view as having fuelled the approach of the programme. Many point out that this empowerment is exactly what MEND is working towards, and criticise those featured in the programme as calling out MEND for being unrepresentative of the Muslim community[41].

Some called out the programme’s presenter, John Ware, for his record of ‘Islamophobic’ programmes, including on the Panorama documentaries, such as ‘The Battle for British Islam’ in 2015. Meanwhile, one Twitter user, @cjwerleman, framed the programme as part of a wider Islamophobic narrative in the left-wing: “British media seeks to squash groups like @UK_CAGe and @mendcommunity , because liberal discourse welcomes only quiet, toe-the-line, conformist Muslims. That’s how Islamophobia from the left works. Media fears Muslims who criticize the excesses and injustices of the state”[42].

Writing in the Middle East Eye, Arzu Merali also raises these points. She writes that John ware “has made a career out of exceptionalising Muslims, their political activities, calls for equality and actually just general day-to-day doings, as things utterly alien, extraordinary and sinister”. The ‘findings’ he uncovers through his reporting in the Dispatches programme is actually the simple idea “of Muslims having any sort of political agency”, Merali says, fitting his pattern of “Variously describing [Muslims] as extremists and occasionally racists, his arguments seek to alienate us in whatever form from the political establishment … and to denounce any foreign policy concern any of us may hold”. Merali writes that Ware’s arguments and questions why this kind of journalism is allowed to continue. She observes it as part of a trend in which Muslims are not allowed to have expectations or demands, but must instead “capitulate to the demands of a society hell bent – it seems – on a new form of puritanical unanimity”[43].

The hashtags #WhoSpeaksForBritishMuslims and #MuslimsSpeakForMuslims trended after the programme, with users stating that the representatives of the Muslim community featured on the programme are not those they would choose to speak for the community[44].

However, others on social media took the view that the programme “exposed” MEND and its connections to public institutions[45].

Analysis

A twenty-six minute programme was never going to be enough time for Dispatches to comprehensively address the question of British Muslim representation, but its attempt to do this was unnecessarily superficial, ignoring many of the nuances of the position of Muslims and Islam within the UK.

Take the example of the hijab ban at St Stephen’s Primary School, which the programme opened with: whichever reason is attributed to the ban, the debate about whether young girls should be able to wear items of religious clothing to school is especially relevant given Ofsted’s decision to question primary-school age girls wearing the hijab, an initiative they say will protect against extremism in schools. For some, the regulation of girls’ clothing raises issues of religious freedom and the singling out of the Muslim community for securitisation. The appointment of Sara Khan as the chief of the government’s Commission for Countering Extremism (CEE), which MEND has also criticised (as the programme details), draws the same lines of argument between counter-extremism measures and the rights of religious groups in the UK.

Reactions – whether from the perspective of health and safety, religious freedom, or counter-extremism – to issues such as these are based on very real concerns about the impact of such measures on members of society, and it’s obvious that those with different experiences are going to have different understandings about these impacts.

Whether Dispatches likes it or not, MEND does act as an advocate for at least some members of the Muslim community, for whom it presumably represents their interests. However, the programme failed to even explore, let alone empathise with, the rationale for MEND’s (and its members’) response to issues such as the hijab ban in a Newham school or the appointment of Sara Khan. This approach prevented the programme from properly answering the question it was posing about British Muslims.

Dispatches also failed to appreciate that debate around these issues is not defined by the dichotomy of those who agree with them versus supporters of MEND. British Muslims are not a homogenous entity, and neither are British non-Muslims. MEND might be one organisation representing British Muslims, but as the debate around the appointment of Sara Khan demonstrates, there are plenty of advocacy groups representing British Muslims that are governed by different ideas. In the same way, the experts interviewed in the programme represent just one part of the spectrum of discourse on related issues. It is more than reasonable to have expected this spectrum to have been at least acknowledged, which the programme failed to do.

The programme also demonstrates a superficial understanding of extremism as it picks up on MEND’s disagreement with the Prevent initiative as linking it to extremist ideas. While many support Prevent, a significant number do not. The agenda, and related counter-extremism measures, has prompted criticism not just from the Muslim community, but also from academics, security experts, teachers, and healthcare workers. Disagreement with this initiative is not grounds for associating someone with extremism because this is not how extremism is understood. A more nuanced understanding of this should have been incorporated into the programme, especially as its nature was to put forward allegations about another party.

Added to the criticism of the lack of nuance in the programme could be its seemingly tenuous links between the social media posts used to criticise MEND’s activities and the organisation itself, but this is just another part of the superficiality of the programme’s analysis which let it down. It is a shame that more time and attention was not paid to Muslim representation in Britain, which is a fascinating and incredibly significant concept to explore. Whether you agreed with Dispatches’ assertions or not, from the point of view of methodology, it could have been a lot better.

[1] Dispatches, 2018.

[2] Mend, 2018b.

[3] Dispatches, 2018.

[4] Dispatches, 2018.

[5] Dispatches, 2018.

[6] Dispatches, 2018.

[7] Dispatches, 2018.

[8] Dispatches, 2018.

[9] Dispatches, 2018.

[10] Dispatches, 2018.

[11] Dispatches, 2018.

[12] Dispatches, 2018.

[13] Dispatches, 2018.

[14] Dispatches, 2018.

[15] Dispatches, 2018.

[16] Dispatches, 2018.

[17] Dispatches, 2018.

[18] Dispatches, 2018.

[19] Amaliah Writes, 2018.

[20] Mend, 2018a.

[21] Mend, 2018a.

[22] Mend, 2018a.

[23] Mend, 2018a.

[24] Mend, 2018a.

[25] Mend, 2018a.

[26] Mend, 2018a.

[27] Mend, 2018a.

[28] CAGE, 2018.

[29] CAGE, 2018.

[30] CAGE, 2018.

[31] CAGE, 2018.

[32] CAGE, 2018.

[33] CAGE, 2018.

[34] CAGE, 2018.

[35] CAGE, 2018.

[36] CAGE, 2018.

[37] CAGE, 2018.

[38] Faith Matters, 2018.

[39] Lewisham Islamic Centre, 2018.

[40] Islam21c.com, 2018.

[41] Amaliah Writes, 2018.

[42] Amaliah Writes, 2018.

[43] Merali, 2018.

[44] Twitter, 2018a; Twitter, 2018b.

[45] Bolton Clowncil, 2018.

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Sources

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Merali, A. (2018) ‘The banality and boredom of anti-Muslim witchhunts. Or beware John Ware’. [online] 29 March. http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/banality-and-boredom-anti-muslim-witch-hunts-or-beware-john-ware-278930946. [Accessed 19 April 2018].

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