The Board of Deputies was on the verge of backing a proposed working definition of Islamophobia devised by a parliamentary group described as “decisively influenced” by the controversial Muslim advocacy group Mend.
A JC investigation revealed that Board staff attended a series of meetings with leading advocates of the definition — including Baroness Warsi, Labour’s Wes Streeting, and Muhbeen Hussain, a leading campaigner from Rotherham who once called for his local community to boycott the police for their “Islamophobic” behaviour during the town’s child-grooming scandal.
Following the meetings, the Board was ready to back the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ working definition of anti-Muslim hatred, which was unveiled at a high-profile Westminster launch last month.
A letter sent to Prime Minister Theresa May on December 1, purportedly from Muslim organisations across the UK from a broad range of backgrounds, called on the Conservative Party to adopt the working definition.
It included the signatures of the pro-Hamas and anti-Zionist Friends of al-Aqsa group alongside Islamic Relief, the charity outlawed by Israel over disputed claims that it has in the past channelled funds to terror groups.
One of the academics responsible for writing the proposed definition of Islamophobia is Professor Salman Sayyid.
The 71-page report, published alongside the working definition last month to show evidence in support of its findings, offers “particular thanks” in the acknowledgements to Dr Antonio Perra, the senior policy analyst at Mend until last July.
He is praised for his “considerable support to the secretariat in the preparation of this report” which “has been immensely valuable”. Mr Perra is the only non-MP thanked.
Asim Qureshi, Research Director at Cage — who once referred to Islamic State terrorist Mohammed Emwazi, known as Jihadi John, as a “beautiful man” and whose website once described the 9/11 terror attacks as an insurance scam organised by a Zionist billionaire — also submitted evidence included in the report.
Mend, which submitted evidence, has long been mired in controversy. Last year, a senior Mend representative asserted that Muslims in the UK face a situation analogous to that of Jews in Nazi Germany before the Holocaust.
The group’s former director of engagement, Azad Ali, is reported to have said in March 2017 that that month’s attack on Parliament, which killed five people, was “not terrorism”.
In February 2018, Sir Mark Rowley, the outgoing Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and former head of Counter-Terrorism Command, said that Mend was “seeking to undermine the state’s considerable efforts to tackle all hate crime’”.
But the JC has learned that were it not for a last-minute intervention by leading moderate British Muslims and concerns raised by the Community Security Trust, the Board was ready as late as November 26 to offer its support to the proposed Islamophobia definition — in time for the Westminster launch only days later.
The Board was willing to back the definition despite being shown the final definition and its accompanying report at the very last moment, leaving it unable to exert any influence over its wording and content.
Moderate British Muslim voices have told the JC this week that the APPG report fell within the “Islamist tradition” in failing to address issues such as sectarian Muslim-on-Muslim hatred and open homophobia from some sections of the community.
They were also deeply critical of the report’s attempt to undermine already existing laws in the UK that already cover racial and religious hatred.
“I was really shocked at the Board’s handling of this issue,” one Muslim source told the JC this week. “Do they want to work with progressives — or do they want to pander to those on the extremes?
“They were going to back the definition and the report when the reality was Mend and others were behind it. Where was the due diligence?”
The APPG on British Muslims announced in October 2017 that it had formally begun work on the establishment of a “working definition of Islamophobia that can be widely accepted by Muslims, political parties and the government”.
Chaired by Conservative MP Anna Soubry and Labour’s Wes Streeting, the APPG, which had been founded earlier that year, aimed to avoid the mistakes of its previous incarnation as the APPG on Islamophobia, which was disbanded after revelations in the JC over its links to organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and iEngage — the previous name taken by the organisation Mend.
The JC understands that following the battle to get the Labour Party to accept the IHRA definition of antisemitism last summer, the Board, along with the Community Security Trust, came under political pressure to publicly support the proposed Islamophobia definition — particularly from Mr Streeting, the Ilford North MP.
Mr Streeting was said by one source to have suggested it was vital that the Board and other Jewish groups backed the APPG definition because if it was quickly adopted by the major political parties, it would expose Jeremy Corbyn to further criticism over his antics with the IHRA antisemitism definition.
In April 2018, the APPG began a six-month inquiry, taking evidence from Muslim organisations, legal experts, academics, MPs and other groups, before agreeing on the definition, which states: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
Those who worked on the definition of Islamophobia said they wanted it to capture the idea that, while Muslims are not a race, abuse against them amounts to a form of racism.
On July 10, the Board’s Parliamentary Officer Joel Salmon and Interfaith and Social Action Officer Anthony Silkoff met with Muhbeen Hussain, one of the APPG’s secretariat, for their first official discussions about the working definition.
Mr Hussain, from Rotherham, organised a local Muslim boycott of the police in 2015 over their ‘Islamophobic’ behaviour after the child-sex grooming scandal.
Later that same month, the recently elected Board President Marie van der Zyl met with Baroness Warsi — whose close links to Mend have been revealed by the JC — at the House of Lords.
After the JC revealed the meeting, Mrs van der Zyl said the pair had discussed “the twin evils of antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate, which I have made a priority for my presidency”, while she added that she had told the former Minister for Faith and Conservative Party Chairman that “the Board of Deputies would not work with Mend” — this just a few weeks after Board staff had begun a series of meetings with the Mend-dominated APPG over the definition.
Following further meetings with the APPG, the Board was said by one source to have found progress on the definition “encouraging”.
As the APPG then moved towards publication, Mr Salmon and a senior CST staff member were invited to meet Mr Streeting on November 19 for talks.
According to one source, he is said to have “literally begged” them to back the definition. Both the Board and the CST were also urged to send representatives along to the December launch in Westminster as a show of solidarity with the APPG.
Mr Streeting was described as being caught between a rock and a hard place — keen for his APPG work to carry weight, but aware that its links to Mend could scupper any Jewish communal bodies from backing it.
The subsequent launch was deeply controversial after Lord Nazir Ahmed appeared in publicity photos alongside other parliamentarians at the event, including APPG chairs Ms Soubry and Mr Streeting and Baroness Warsi.
Lord Ahmed, a member of the APPG, once warned of a “Zionist lobby” and claimed a prison sentence he served was the result of a Jewish conspiracy. He resigned from Labour in 2013, two months after he was suspended by the Party for sending antisemitic messages.
A damning assessment of the Islamophobia definition was published after the launch in a Policy Exchange report by Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and Sir John Jenkins, a former ambassador who co-authored a government review into the Muslim Brotherhood in 2015.
Sir John concluded: “It is clear that Mend, an organisation with a tarnished reputation in government circles, has exerted an important intellectual influence on the APPG.”
Referring to the involvement of former Mend activist Dr Perra, he added: “The connection between the APPG report and the Mend agenda is not simply intellectual. Dr Perra was, until recently, also a member of Mend but no mention is made of this affiliation. In a similar vein, the APPG makes reference to evidence it took from the ‘Islamophobia Response Unit’ (IRU). But it fails to mention that the IRU was created in April 2017 by Mend.”
Mr Phillips concluded the new definition would “make life harder” for Muslims in the UK and reduce them to “the status of perpetual victims.”
There has been no official comment from Jewish communal organisations following the publication of the APPG definition and report.
Asked for comment on their decision to cooperate with the APPG’s work up until only a few days before the launch of the definition, a Board spokesperson said: “As is usual with new policy ideas, we considered various options including supporting a definition, or continuing to monitor developments.
“We haven’t yet given our support to any definition. We are aware that there are a number of definitions under discussion in the Muslim community, including the APPG’s, Tell Mama’s, and the Runnymede Trust’s, and we felt it wasn’t the right time for us to endorse any of them.
“We follow the conversation with interest as an ally of the Muslim community against the ugly scourge of anti-Muslim hatred.”
An earlier version of this article about the Muslim advocacy group Mend wrongly stated that Prof Salman Sayyid, heads the research section of the IHRC. That reference was removed once we were alerted to the error.