On 2 December, the French government shut down CCIF (Collectif contre l'islamophobie en France), a well-known group that claims to fight Islamophobia and promote human rights. This reflects an increased awareness that charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can pose a real threat to society – something that we at NGO Monitor have been documenting for years.
CCIF was shut down not because its leadership was arrested for terror-linked or violent activities, nor for being indicted for similar actions. Rather, CCIF was closed for creating an atmosphere of hate, discrimination, and antisemitism and for spreading conspiracy theories. The French government accused the NGO of using the façade of human rights to advance politically motivated ideologies that involve hate speech, incite to violence, and in certain cases glorification of terror and terrorists.
The government’s decision cites evidence that the senior leadership at CCIF holds extreme Islamist political views and associates with radical Islam elements (including Al Qaida fighters). The decision document goes into great detail and references specific statements and incidents, such as CCIF’s close connection to an individual who justified ritual stoning and described AIDS as a punishment for sinful behaviour. Particular attention is given to this individual also promoting antisemitism and creating an atmosphere that would allow or even call for physical violence against Jews.
Notably, in 2012 during the debate over cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, the NGO shared caricatures by a caricaturist described by the French government as an infamous antisemite and Holocaust denier. The government also underlines CCIF’s failure to reject violence and condemn terror, which is seen as a form of endorsement.
Reflecting these concerns, for years NGO Monitor has pointed to clear connections between terror groups and senior officials at Palestinian NGOs, as well as their public endorsement of violence and glorification of terror. We highlighted multiple cases of NGOs promoting antisemitic tropes, accompanied by an almost blanket failure to condemn terror and the murder of innocent civilians.
Most gravely, five senior employees of three Palestinian “human rights” and “development” NGOs are on trial for the murder of 17-year-old Rina Shnerb in August 2019.
In addition to their anti-human rights agendas, there is another common denominator shared by all these groups. Each has received funding from different European governments. CCIF, too, received funding from the European Union, in a project that finished in January 2020.
When first alerted, most government officials instinctively reject any notion of abuse of their civil society funds or trust. Only after a very public campaign led by members of parliaments, Israel’s government summoning European ambassadors for démarches, and abundant media coverage, did the official position begin to gradually shift.
The EU initiated an internal review of its funding to Palestinian groups but so far has not commented on CCIF. The Dutch government froze all money going to one of the NGOs that employed two of the alleged terrorists from the August 2019 attack. They are also opening an independent investigation.
The key question, however, is why it took so long. Why are donor governments reluctant to take immediate and firm stances and to distance themselves from any individual or NGO that endorses or supports violence and terror?
The question goes beyond the financial issues and touches on Europe’s approach to NGOs and civil society. Despite the obvious problems, many European governments continue to consider such groups as legitimate partners for defending human rights and providing humanitarian aid, without the need for due diligence.
This phenomenon was on the agenda at NGO Monitor’s annual conference last week, marking International Human Rights Day.
The French decision to shut down CCIF is an important precedent and should be studied as best practice. Defending human rights in a democracy is not always an easy job, particularly when the line between defending some rights inevitably means violating others.
This broader context is paramount and requires an attempt to demystify the carte blanche that many groups using the language of human rights are automatically granted. Governments must develop procedures that can isolate extremist and hateful groups. Otherwise, by failing to remove the rotten apples, the whole barrel will go bad.
Olga Deutsch is Vice President of NGO Monitor