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Muslim charities face a perfect storm

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Theresa May, British Home Secretary, wants the government to introduce tougher rules against terrorism. ukhomeoffice under a Creative Commons Licence

A 2013 poll found that Muslim communities give more to charity than any other religious group in Britain, and that Muslim charities form one of the fastest-growing areas in the charity sector.

However, the latter, particularly those seeking to operate or fund projects in conflict areas such as Syria, face a perfect storm of negative press and disproportionate regulation.

Tragically, the recent unsubstantiated narrative on charitable funds reaching terrorists has had a devastating effect on donations and delivery of aid to Syria.

The Syrian crisis is, according to the UN, the worst humanitarian disaster of the century, with half of the population displaced and in need of aid.

I know this first-hand, having relatives trapped in Yarmouk, a besieged suburb of Damascus, without access to clean water, food or medicine, and where people are literally starving to death.

This is only set to worsen – the World Food Programme recently announced that, due to a shortage in funding, it is having to reduce food rations by nearly half.

The media frequently appear to be chasing the latest ISIS-related headline, suggesting that the five inquiries currently opened by charity-sector regulator, the Charity Commission, is evidence itself of these charities funding terrorism. In fact, no such findings have been made.

The Charity Commission has recently taken it upon itself to conduct a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to Islamic extremism, giving the impression that this is an endemic problem within Muslim charities.

A number of charities are currently under investigation by the Commission and recent reports suggest even more are being tagged by it as potentially radical or extremist, without their knowledge.

Some have had their bank accounts closed and have seen their income drop dramatically, tainted by association. Combined with an increasingly risk-adverse banking sector, this is hard-hitting for any charity, Muslim or otherwise, operating in areas such as Syria.

Politicians have also jumped on the bandwagon. Home Secretary Theresa May recently stated that the government is introducing tougher rules and powers for the Commission to prevail against terrorism, including further powers to disqualify trustees and close down charities.

This focus on terrorism, however, is pure populism rather than proper policy-making. There is concern in the sector that these powers may encourage knee-jerk reactions, giving the Commission carte blanche to act now and ask questions later.

For its part, the Commission has sent out mixed messages.

On the one hand, it has provided support and guidance to new charities set up in response to the Syrian crisis (many of them Muslim-led), including running workshops and helping to launch the Help for Syria campaign with Human Care Syria, Syria Relief and Hand in Hand for Syria. At its outreach events, Islamic Relief has been showcased as having exemplary due diligence and monitoring procedures.

And it is no surprise that so many new charities have sprung up during this time of crisis. Our proud tradition of charitable giving is founded on responding to need – huge numbers of charities were established in response to the world wars and, more recently, HIV/AIDS and supporting war veterans.

Indeed, the Commission has produced excellent guidance in its Compliance Toolkit for such new arrivals. Some of them have been set up by members of the Syrian community in Britain – with their intimate knowledge and contacts on the ground, they are often able to access and deliver aid safely to areas where the need is greatest but which other, more established charities are unable to reach.

At the same time, its guidance on Syria states that these new charities are ‘inexperienced and potentially vulnerable to exploitation’ and that the public should give only to established charities.

William Shawcross, the chair of the Commission, has also stated that charitable funds have already made their way to extremists, suggesting that some Muslim charities have themselves been funding terrorist organizations.

However, there is scant evidence of this to date – and if such evidence exists, the Commission should disclose it.

What evidence the Commission has presented, such as in its recent submission to the Home Affairs Committee’s Report on Counter Terrorism, concerned individuals who fraudulently presented themselves as charity fundraisers to members of the public, saying they were collecting in the name of a well-established Muslim charity.

However, this was done without the charity’s consent or knowledge. It is fraud, pure and simple, and it could happen to any charity, It is not evidence of a Muslim charity being a front for terrorist activities.

Ironically, the Charity Commission recognizes that it is not a prosecuting authority and does not conduct criminal investigations; it works with the police and security services where there are suspected terrorism offences.

It is these bodies that should be taking action where there are cases of suspected terrorism, using the wide array of laws available to them under current counter-terrorism legislation.

However, counter-terrorism legislation itself is part of the problem – the breathtakingly wide net of activities that could constitute terrorism continues to have a huge impact on charities working in areas controlled by proscribed (terrorist) groups, as these are places also frequently in great humanitarian need.

The practical reality of delivering food and medicine to civilian populations living in controlled areas means that interaction with such groups might be essential in order to operate there safely and effectively. As it stands, the law potentially criminalizes such interaction.   

Uncertainty in the law has bred a wider climate of anxiety and apprehension, which has contributed to the risk-averse approach adopted by banks. This has seen charities, and particularly Muslim charities, having their accounts closed or services curtailed, often with the charming line that ‘you do not meet our risk appetite’.

As well as potentially discriminatory, this is counter-productive, encouraging the use of less formal transfer mechanisms such as money service businesses or even cash couriers, more vulnerable to abuse by terrorists.

Politicians and the Charity Commission must of course protect the public, and the media have a duty to report the facts.

They should do so responsibly, not by undermining the hard-won reputation of Muslim charities and other charities operating in conflict zones, delivering desperately needed aid in extremely difficult circumstances.

Augustus is an associate solicitor in the charity and social enterprise department at Bates Wells Braithwaite and has a particular focus on organizations working in and around Syria and the Middle East more widely. He has previously lived in Palestine and Syria and speaks Arabic. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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