On December 30, the US State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism issued a little-noticed statement that excoriated Islamic Relief Worldwide. This organization is the head branch of the Islamic Relief (IR) charitable franchise, a major Islamist charitable network that received over $1.1 million of US taxpayer funds under the Trump administration. The State Department expressed alarm at the “well-documented record of anti-Semitic attitudes and remarks made by the senior leadership of Islamic Relief Worldwide.”
Following State’s pronouncement, others later reported that the federal department had cut off all partnerships with IR.
In contrast to American news outlets, over the past year European media have widely covered numerous examples of antisemitism and overt support for designated terrorists among top IR officials, starting most prominently with a series of investigative articles by The Times. By August 2020, the entire board of Islamic Relief stepped down following the second of four big media pieces demonstrating extremism at the charity. In fact, despite apparent US indifference, skepticism of IR has been growing among European governments for several years, leading to a steady decrease in European government funding for the group.
In America, only one Washington reporter covered the scandals. Around the same time, the Washington Post ran a puff-piece on Islamic Relief, praising its relief efforts and dismissing controversies as manufactured.
The impact of the State Department’s declaration, then, was significant. Shortly afterward, the Netherlands followed suit and cut all ties. Then a little-noticed document put out by the Iraqi government in January, citing terrorism allegations, appeared to ban the “Islamic Relief Organization across the world.”
Notwithstanding these devastating blows, IR now claims vindication after an internal audit and an investigation by the British government’s Charity Commission. Both concluded that recent scandals surrounding officials’ anti-Jewish and pro-terror remarks were merely a failure of “governance.” Such appalling behavior, the reports reassure, can be avoided through bureaucratic reform.
The British findings stand in sharp contrast to the growing concern of governments in Muslim-majority and Western countries, along with decades of examples of terror ties that reveal the Islamic Relief franchise is one of the flagship institutions of Islamist extremism in the West.
At best, the recent British studies represent a failure to understand the extent of Islamic Relief’s agenda; at worst, they are a deliberate whitewash that savvy Islamist activists carefully engineered. Meanwhile, the facts about Islamic Relief, its activities, and the views of its founders and officials leave little ambiguity about its dangerous agenda.
Along with recent decisions by the US and Dutch governments, other countries are increasingly more willing to distance themselves from Islamic Relief’s extremism. Israel and the United Arab Emirates already designated IR as terror financiers. A Tunisian government-sponsored commission accused IR of funding jihadists in Libya. The Egyptian government jailed IR co-founder Essam El-Haddad because of his involvement with the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood regime, with state prosecutors accusing Haddad of “financing terrorism by using global charities such as Islamic Relief.”
Bangladesh banned IR from working with Rohingya refugees because of fears the charity would radicalize them. The German government openly referred to IR’s “significant ties” to the Muslim Brotherhood. A Swedish government report reached similar conclusions. In April 2019, Italy’s Regional Council of Lombardy passed a resolution denouncing Islamic Relief for hosting radical preachers.
What makes the British failure so disappointing is that—along with failing to investigate the reasoning behind the Israeli and Emirati decisions to designate the charity—British officials have been repeatedly warned about Islamic Relief in the past. In April 2017, British media reported that the Charity Commission opened an investigation into IR’s decision to arrange a speaking tour with Yasir Qadhi, an extremist American Salafi preacher who previously told audiences that killing homosexuals was part of his religion. Nothing came of this inquiry.
Later, in 2018, the UK Charity Commission received a comprehensive dossier of evidence concerning Islamic Relief racism, antisemitism, support for terror proxies, and ties to extremist movements around the world. The Charity Commission promised to investigate; apparently, it never did.
In September that year, a report published by the UK’s leading counter-terrorism think tank concluded that Islamic Relief was openly working with terrorist proxies. For instance, it supported the Islamic Zakat Society in Gaza, which “works closely with the Hamas government and is managed by Hamas preacher Hazem Al‑Sirraj.”
How, then, did the official inquiries reach such different conclusions?
An “Independent” Review
Dominic Grieve, a former British attorney general, recently released the results of his “Independent Commission into Governance and Vetting within Islamic Relief.” The commission was established, with Grieve appointed at its head, last September by Islamic Relief Worldwide, in response to the cascading scandals concerning its senior officials.
At first glance to the uninformed journalist or government official, the Grieve audit appears respectable. It does a thorough job of examining Islamic Relief’s internal governance. It discusses how vetting might be improved through reform: new rules, new board procedures, and new qualifications. Grieve additionally lays out how IR could simplify its web of different chapters around the world and make them more transparent, among other changes. These sorts of actions, Grieve states, could rebuild confidence in the badly damaged organization.
But Grieve answers a question that no one outside Islamic Relief asked. Clearly, what IR has in mind when discussing “Governance and Vetting” is so narrowly focused on one bureaucratic aspect of Islamic Relief’s activities that it (quite deliberately) misses the larger issue of Islamic Relief’s ideological agenda.
Much is made about the fact that senior management did not catch or deal with antisemites at the head of the charity. Much is written about what the organization might do to catch such bigots next time. However, the Grieve report never asks the obvious question: Why are so many blatant antisemites and terror supporters working their way up IR’s ranks? Or, indeed, why is one of the IR founders in jail on terrorism charges, while the other has recently been giving interviews to an official media outlet of a designated terrorist organization?
The answers to these questions can be found mostly in what the Grieve inquiry leaves out. For example, the Grieve report admits that concerns were raised in 2015 about IR’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and it mentions in passing that both Israel and the UAE designated IR as terror financiers. It even mentions that three board members left the organization because of these concerns. Yet it digs no deeper into these questions, other than to say that “no specific evidence was put forward at the time to substantiate any criticisms about their views or conduct.” Grieve seems reassured by the fact the chair simply denied any involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood. That extremists, guilty of subsidizing terror, might lie apparently never crossed his mind.
As we know, and as multiple foreign governments (including liberal democracies and others) concluded, the links between the Muslim Brotherhood and IR are simply not reasonably deniable. IR’s co-founder Essam al-Haddad was himself a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s guidance council, the Brotherhood’s highest body, and openly worked as the foreign minister for Mohamad Morsi, the former Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt. Countless other officers, board members, and affiliates of Islamic Relief have clear, documented ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements, as noted by governments around the world.
The Grieve report repeatedly mentions Hany El-Banna, the IR founder who endorsed partnership with Hamas, but only in the most fulsome terms. It neither touches upon his long history of ties to radical theocrats, nor mentions his infamous recent comments inciting hatred against the Yazidi minority, a much-persecuted Middle Eastern sect whom Islamists despise. Did Grieve simply not know about El-Banna’s extremism, despite the global media coverage of the comments around the very time Grieve wrote his report?
Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect an IR-hired investigator to look at the wider picture or even consider facts other than those Islamic Relief provided. Regardless of whatever good advice on “governance” Grieve now provides to this radical charity, intentionally or not, it seems clear that he was appointed to mask the real problem.
Charity Commission Whitewash
Commissioning an (ostensibly) independent review is hardly a new tactic for Islamic Relief. It has frequently relied on such initiatives to demonstrate innocence in the face of allegations tying the charity and its officials to extremism or terror. A 2014 review, commissioned in the wake of the Israeli government designating the charity as a terror-financing operation, generated a rather similar whitewash.
In addition to the purported display of transparency, the “independent” review also serves to convince any government inquiry that Islamic Relief is serious about reform. It certainly seemed to help with that. The UK Charity Commission’s remarks approvingly note the existence of the Grieve review and conclude—as Grieve did—that Islamic Relief was merely an unwitting host to extremists and took swift action upon learning of their views.
The Charity Commission has long taken such an inane, self-defeating approach to charity regulation.
In 2013, for instance, the Charity Commission received a tip that an Iranian regime charity was serving as the UK office of Ayatollah Shirazi, a prominent regime cleric and notorious Holocaust denier who issued fatwas for the killing of Iranian dissidents. Despite the charity describing itself as the “office of his eminence Hazarat Ayatullah Nasir Makarem Shirazi,” upon “investigating” the Charity Commission, most extraordinarily, accepted the radical group’s denials. The commission concluded that the charity “has no private or public link with Ayatullah Nasir Makarem Shirazi” and that it “did not intend to provide a platform to anyone who maintains extremist views.”
Similarly, just a year later when the Charity Commission’s attention was drawn to a registered charity that advocated the killing of apostates, an inquiry concluded that the best recourse was to offer the extremist organization pamphlets and advice on “how to manage risks.” Meanwhile, the regulatory body has long refused to take proper action against dozens of other terror and extremist-tied charities. The trustees of one, the British Hamas charity Interpal, openly consort with senior terrorist figures, and the US government designated it as a terrorist group in 2003.
A Charity Commission investigation into Islamic Relief, then, never posed much of a threat. Indeed, the new, US-based chairman of Islamic Relief Worldwide’s Board of Trustees, Ihab Saad, naturally welcomed the findings: “We are determined to do all in our power to make sure this kind of misconduct does not happen again, and we accept and appreciate the clear guidance of the Charity Commission.”
Outside of Emirati media, few noticed that Saad—an American Islamist activist—is an overt supporter of Egyptian Islamists. Despite being appointed to rescue IR’s reputation, in December 2020, Saad tweeted an article published in Qatari-backed media, by the far-left anti-Jewish former British parliamentarian Chris Mullin. The piece argues that accusations of antisemitism are a “trick” to distract from criticisms of Israel, defends a number of prominent antisemites, and claims that a majority of the US Congress is in thrall to a sinister “Israeli lobby.” Saad referred to Mullin’s claims as an “interesting read.” Furthermore, Saad helped run Human Appeal—formerly known as Human Appeal International (HAI)—another Islamist charity that Israel banned in 2008 for being “part of Hamas’s fundraising network” and “responsible for raising very large sums for Hamas activities.” According to a leaked document from the US State Department, “In 2003, there were indications that HAI was sending financial support to organizations associated with Hamas and that members of its field offices in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechnya had connections to al-Qa’ida associates.”
As noted by the Grieve review, Islamic Relief has been challenging its designation in Israel as a terrorist organization. As was previously noted, the timing, coming at the height of a PR crisis and many years after its designation, could not be more suspicious. Naturally, Grieve treats IR’s challenge of the designation as more important than the designation itself. Few also noticed that, once Grieve and Charity Commission finished their inquiries, Islamic Relief quietly withdrew its legal efforts in Israel.
All of these so-called inquiries fly in the face of a growing global consensus that Islamic Relief is, inherently, a rotten charity established to propagate a dangerous ideology. In failing to examine Islamic Relief’s driving extremist ideas, preferring to discount wickedness as mere bureaucratic failing, Dominic Grieve and the Charity Commission’s efforts are nothing but fig leaves. British authorities and IR’s useful idiots have worked, fundamentally, to misunderstand the very nature of this charity—its origins, activities, and intentions.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world is waking up. As noted above, country after country is publicly noting Islamic Relief’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Its branches are being cut off from government grant programs. Moreover, media and politicians on both sides of the aisle are publicly expressing alarm that this radical charity and its hateful leaders have sat at the heart of international philanthropy for so long.
The warnings of the US State Department, the Netherlands, and others show quite plainly that times are changing. British foolishness may delay Islamic Relief’s reckoning, but it will not prevent it.