UK anti-extremism commissioner condemns invite to ‘divisive’ Islamist lobbyist to speak at Whitehall event

Sara Khan tells The National Sufyan Ismail, founder of Mend, is ‘unsuitable’ to address civil servants

GR8WXG Sara Khan, the British Muslim human rights activist and the director of Inspire, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Edinburgh, Scotland.
28th August 2016. GARY DOAK / Alamy Stock Photo
Powered by automated translation

Britain’s counter-extremism commissioner has criticised as “divisive and unsuitable” plans to host a talk for Muslim civil servants by the founder of a high-profile pressure group after a controversy forced the organisers to abandon the event.

Sufyan Ismail founded the lobbying group Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend) in 2013, which opposes the UK’s anti-radicalisation strategy and is alleged to have funded the advocacy group Cage, which has been accused of supporting terrorists, and of “disparaging” anti-extremism groups. Mr Ismail denies this.

The businessman, from the northern England town of Bolton, was due to speak at an event on Thursday hosted by Whitehall’s Civil Service Muslim Network on the topics of Islamophobia and racism.

Government officials have now chosen to scrap the event, but not before the decision came under fire.

Sara Khan, the head of the UK's counter-extremism programme, told The National Mr Ismail was an "unsuitable" choice to speak about Islamophobia.

Since her appointment in 2018, Mend has repeatedly called for her sacking, accusing her of “selling out,” and one of its senior members, Sahar Al Faifi, accused her of being an ‘Oreo’ – a racist slur describing a biscuit which is brown on the outside but white inside.

Mend has campaigned against the UK’s deradicalisation policies for decades.

“Anti-Muslim hatred and discrimination has no place in our society. The Lead Commissioner has spoken out against the harm of anti-Muslim hatred and has engaged with Muslim organisations to ensure we counter this scourge in our society,” a spokesperson for the Commission for Countering Extremism said.

"Mend is a divisive organisation. While it claims to counter anti-Muslim hatred, staff members have themselves engaged in hatred against Muslims as our report Challenging Hateful Extremism evidenced.

“Sufyan Ismail has made disparaging comments about Tell Mama, an organisation which does vital work supporting victims and countering anti-Muslim hatred.

“In 2018 it emerged Mr Ismail has been funding Cage. In our report, we have evidenced how Cage has supported convicted terrorists, and has also published or invited Al Qaeda ideologues to speak at its events.

“It is the Lead Commissioner’s view that Mr Ismail’s divisive approach to Islamophobia demonstrates his unsuitability as a speaker at this event”.

“This invitation should never have been issued,” a spokesperson said.

Mr Ismail has also previously been criticised for making insensitive remarks about Jews.

Following a vote by MPs to recognise Palestine, he claimed it was the first vote lost by the Israeli lobby in parliament for 300 years.

Both Mend and Mr Ismail say they “condemn all forms of anti-Semitism”.

In a report published last year, Ms Khan said Mend staff had “posted hostile messages on Twitter” relating to some Muslims involved in counter-extremism work, and that “the public messaging of Mend’s founder describes civil society groups involved in counter-extremism as ‘government stooges’.”

The report also said Mr Ismail was a supporter of another activist group, Cage, which campaigned on behalf of prisoners in Guantanamo and elsewhere.

“In 2018 it emerged Ismail has been funding Cage. In our report, we have evidenced how Cage has supported convicted terrorists, and also published or invited Al Qaeda ideologues to speak at its events,” Ms Khan said in the report.

In a statement Mend told The National that Mr Ismail was not linked to Cage. "Mr Ismail confirms that he does not fund Cage," it said.

The organisation added that Ms Khan's accusations were untrue, adding that the Commissioner was not a consensus figure.

"We have never called for hatred and violence towards other Muslims, socially liberal or otherwise," it said.

"Sara Khan is herself a highly divisive figure in the Muslim community and beyond.

"In 2018 over 100 Muslim organisations and individuals complained about her suitability and qualifications for her appointment as Commissioner for Countering Extremism, including Mend."

The Civil Service event was due to be held to mark Islamophobia Awareness Month.