Last night, a number of Labour MPs, including party leader Jeremy Corbyn, attended an event in Parliament to launch Islamophobia Awareness Month.
Their decision to attend was met with strong criticism, not because of opposition to raising awareness of Islamophobia, but because of the nature of the group organising the launch.
Muslim Engagement and Development, or as it is better known, Mend, has sparked concern both in the Jewish community and in the wider world, over accusations that it has previously hosted extremist Islamist speakers.
The Board of Deputies criticised the organisation while giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on Antisemitism last year.
“The approach taken by Mend risks increasing hostility and suspicion between the Jewish and Muslim communities, rather than building trust and empathy,” the Board told MPs.
“We remain greatly disturbed by statements attributed to Mend, such as one by its CEO Sufiyan Ismail, in which he claimed that ‘in 300 years the Israeli lobby has not lost a vote in Parliament’. Given that the state of Israel has only existed since 1948, the ‘Israeli lobby’ in this quote can only be a synonym for British Jews, of which Ismail celebrates that ‘they were battered, absolutely battered’.
The Board continued: “While we have met representatives of Mend in the past, we would not intentionally meet with the organisation again until we are confident that it intends to promote a positive relationship towards Jews, the Jewish community and communal bodies and stands unequivocally opposed to extremism.
“As matters stand at present we are unable to work with Mend on any projects, and recommend that others look for alternative partners – such as Tell Mama - in the work of combating anti-Muslim hatred.”
Last Sunday, at a Board of Deputies monthly meeting, Marie van der Zyl, a Board vice president, made clear it was still the case that the organisation would not work with Mend.
In a strongly worded attack on Thursday, Jennifer Gerber, the director of Labour Friends of Israel, said it was “utterly unacceptable” for Mr Corbyn to have attended last night’s event, describing Mend as “a group which has repeatedly peddled myths about the power of the “Israeli lobby” that play into classic antisemitic tropes”.
So why the controversy?
There is plenty of evidence to back up claims that figures in Mend or with links to the group have made or shared inflammatory statements in the past.
In 2014, Mr Ismail, who was the founding CEO and head of Mend up until last year, made a speech in which he referred to “300 years of the Israel lobby” in the UK – the comment the Board cited in its submission to the parliamentary committee.
Dr Siema Iqbal, the chair of Mend’s working group in Manchester, retweeted a message during the 2014 Gaza conflict which read: “Truce in Gaza? Don’t you believe it! The Jews are shopping around for cheap bombs”.
The group has hosted speakers at their events who have made antisemitic statements in the past. In April, Abu Eesa Niamatullah spoke at a number of events for Mend.
Three years earlier, Mr Niamatullah, a preacher from Manchester, contributed a voiceover to a video on the Gaza conflict.
Quoting from the Koran, he said that Allah “decreed to the children of Israel that if anyone kills a person, unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption across the land, then it is as if he kills all mankind.
“Look at who the verse came down to”, Mr Niamatullah continued. “The ‘children of Israel’. Why? Because they have a track record in this insanity. By Allah, read the Qur’an properly. Understand what Allah tells us about these people. They find it so easy and natural to do what they do. For unjustly killing their prophets, for saying “our hearts are closed”. Allah gave them a specific warning not to kill, knowing this about them, but they didn’t stop.
“Look at them today. Look at the way that they massacre. They blow up babies like as if it’s a computer game. They have no humanity, no morality, no ethics, no deen (religion), no guidance, no light, nothing.”
Mend has also shared articles which deliberately downplay very real antisemitism
For example, here are two from January.
Anti-Semitism is sometimes used as "a political tool" to silence legitimate criticism of Israel policies & practiceshttps://t.co/zBjRV3qf8Q
— MEND Community (@mendcommunity) January 12, 2017
"Some of Israel's supporters saw an opportunity to restrict public debate about Israel, Palestine and Zionism"https://t.co/eyB5W0Khyl— MEND Community (@mendcommunity) January 14, 2017
Written for anti-Zionist outlets by prominent members of the anti-Zionist movement, both articles seek to dismiss the numerous cases of antisemitism within Labour as being nothing more than an attempt by supporters of Israel to silence criticism of the Jewish state.
MPs from the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National Parties had all accepted invitations to Wednesday night’s Islamophobia Awareness Month launch. However, when they were alerted to the concerns surrounding the group, they pulled out.
Conservative Anna Soubry acknowledged that the group did not “have the best of reputations”, while Crispin Blunt (Con), Sir Ed Davey (Lib Dem) and Joanna Cherry (SNP) issued a statement saying: “It has become clear there is controversy over Mend’s record and claims of links between the organisation and extremist views”.
All of were eager to support Islamophobia Awareness Month – but Mend’s involvement meant they were unable too.
Mr Corbyn and his colleagues, it seems, felt no such qualms.