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The puzzle of Baroness Warsi's links with Islamist group

In part two of John Ware's detailed examination of MEND, the fastest growing and most active Muslim advocacy group in Britain today

    Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is a puzzle. The Muslim former Minister for Faith and Conservative Party Chairman says she is strongly opposed to sectarianism within Islam, homophobia, antisemitism and extremism of all kinds.

    She wants to “continue on our journey towards liberal values.”

    Yet her opposition to the Muslim woman who has campaigned for a decade to take us on that journey is positively visceral.

    “Deeply concerned” was how Warsi greeted the recent appointment of the Commissioner for Counter Extremism, Sara Khan. When pressed, Warsi lets rip in a way that sounds almost personal.Khan is dismissed as a “Home Office construct” — and this from a former Conservative Cabinet minister.

    Warsi is referring to a series of anti-Isis rallies in 2014 inspired by Khan’s anti-extremism organisation, Inspire. Aimed at helping British Muslim mothers protect their children from the toxic ideology of ISIS, ‘Making A Stand’ was a roadshow to which the Home Office provided logistical support — something Inspire openly acknowledge.

    Why would Warsi oppose anyone who stood for human rights and female empowerment in the face of brutal theocratic extremism — with or without government assistance?

    Should Khan now say “I am so sorry for running an anti-ISIS campaign?”.

    As I say, it’s a puzzle.

    More puzzling still is Warsi’s relationship to an organisation she admits has accommodated views that “although not illegal, are clearly illiberal.”

    That organisation is Mend, Muslim Engagement and Development, the fastest growing and most active Muslim advocacy group in Britain today.

    Mend insists it’s striving for a harmonious, integrated, cohesive, stable society. The Baroness says Mend “has the potential for real change” and has called for “broader and deeper engagement with British Muslim communities, both individuals and organisations.”

    But the Home Office is wary of “engaging” with Mend and a web trawl shows why: multiple examples from its supporters of rampant antisemitism including nasty and idiotic conspiracy theories about Jews; vicious sectarianism against fellow Muslims like Khan who dare to challenge Mend’s opposition to the government’s anti-radicalisation programme Prevent, and partnerships with clerics and organisations who have expressed views that are antisemitic, homophobic, anti-western, sectarian and occasionally in support of terrorism.

    But that hasn’t put Warsi off being one of Mend’s most popular parliamentary guests. By my count Mend has invited her to seven events since 2015, two of them fundraising dinners.

    Mend is headed by the Bentley chauffeured multi-millionaire Sufyan Ismail who made his pile from a tax consultancy called OneE Tax Ltd where “E” is for ethical.

    My recent TV investigation into Mend shows that Warsi has been advising Ismail on how to give the organisation a “makeover” — to make Mend more presentable to MPs, government and civic society generally in the hope that they will regard Mend as a representative voice of British Muslims with whom they should “engage”. But why, when polling suggests that no single Islamic organisation in Britain today can plausibly claim to represent more than some 4% of Muslims?

    Covertly recorded conversations also show a simmering resentment among some senior members of Mend at Warsi’s suggestion that they should take more care over their social media messaging.

    “Warsi said we need to control our tweets and I said: ‘Who is she to tell us?’” said Heena Khaled, then a member of Mend’s Waltham Forest branch.

    Khaled was having supper with Mend colleagues who also blame Warsi for advising Ismail to get rid of Mend’s head of Community Development and Engagement, Azad Ali, because he came with “baggage”.

    Included in that “baggage” was a 2010 libel court finding that Ali had used his personal website to justify the killing of British troops in Iraq.

    The crunch over Mend’s makeover came last November when Mend launched its annual Islamophobia Awareness Month in the House of Commons.

    The Metropolitan Police told Ismail they wouldn’t attend if Ali did, so Ismail told Ali he would have to stay away.

    As part of Ismail’s “engagement” strategy it was evidently more important for him to be able to say the police gave Mend their imprimatur than to stand by Ali’s loyal three years’ service to Ismail.

    Hurt to the point of tears, Ali then left Mend and promptly joined the extremist organisation Cage — which famously described Jihadi John as “such a beautiful young man” before he left to become ISIS’s most notorious cutthroat.

    Because Ali never hid some of his other extreme views from the public — such as support for Hamas, a Caliphate, Friday prayers for the Mujahedeen — he attracted criticism of Mend, damaging its prospects of “engagement” with government. “In that respect it’s a blessing he’s with CAGE” the ruthlessly pragmatic Ismail can be heard to say in one recording. That is not to say that Ismail has a problem with CAGE. Far from it. Ismail boasts that he still believes in CAGE, having helped fund it “over the years, and I continue to do so. I don’t know how many people have donated as much as I have but it’s not a small amount.”

    Still, influenced by Warsi, an Islamist considered by the government to be an “extremist” had been side-lined by Mend in the hope that the authorities would find it more presentable. So far so progressive — assuming, of course, that Warsi and Ismail’s clean-up is more than just a cosmetic attempt to tempt them into “engaging.” And this is where things get complicated.

    According to Khaled, Warsi and Ismail are “apparently good friends”. However, Warsi’s private office told me: “Baroness Warsi is not a friend of Mr Ismail.” Then again, Sufyan Ismail talks in terms which suggest he thinks they are.

    Addressing a handful of Mend members in an Ilford mosque, Ismail says it was Warsi who managed to persuade the schools inspectorate Ofsted to “engage” with Mend — Ofsted having first decided against this after reading a Home Office assessment of Mend.

    Mend wanted to dissuade Ofsted from conducting an inquiry into the growth of primary school hijabs. Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman had said publicly that she was concerned some parents might be conditioning their daughters to be sexual modest even before puberty. “Sayeeda practically forced them (Ofsted) to get someone from Mend,” says Ismail.

    However, the advice Warsi is said to have offered about how to talk Spielman out of the hijab inquiry isn’t exactly what one might have expected from a progressive enjoining her fellow Muslims to join her on a “journey towards liberal values”.

    Here’s what Ismail says the Baroness told him: “‘Sufyan, don’t be offended by what I’m about to tell you’. I said: ‘No, you know me, we know each other well enough’. She said: ‘I think rather than you, a brown bearded guy and Shazad [Amin, Mend Chief Executive] a brown bearded guy, going to see Ofsted for the first meeting, send your white girl instead. I think it will go down a lot better with Ofsted, they’ll probably receive you a lot better and there’s a bit of institutional islamophobia there as well.’”

    Warsi has categorically denied having said anything of the sort. Her statement to me said: “The comments and actions attributed by Mend’s founder to Baroness Warsi are simply untrue and she has received a full and unreserved apology from Mend.”

    On the other hand, someone or something propelled Sufyan Ismail to send a “white girl” instead of a “brown bearded guy” because the person who met Ofsted was indeed white. Her name is Isobel ‘Issy’ Ingham-Barrow, head of Mend Policy and Research.

    Heena Khaled was very angry about this and made her feelings known at a Mend get-together with Sufyan Ismail and the Mend Board, staff and core volunteers.

    In this recording, Khaled explains how Ismail justified his decision: “…he (Sufyan) said, ‘Look, Baroness Warsi said: Send a white blonde girl…you’ll get more leverage.’”

    Khaled and ‘Issy’ then have a sharp exchange about Ismail’s decision to choose her to represent Mend with Ofsted.

    Khaled says: “We said [to the Mend Board], ‘Why did you send Issy to this meeting? Because that’s like reverse… that’s Islamophobia from ourselves, right?’. Issy defended herself and said, ‘Actually I went to meet my [Ofsted] counterpart, policy officer...on the same level as me and it was where my expertise was necessary and that’s all it was.’ And all I said [to Issy] was, ‘You don’t need to leverage your white privilege because you’re putting us all down, right?’.

    “But Sufyan seemed very fine about saying, ‘send a white girl’. We were saying: ‘Why are you listening to Baroness Warsi who’s telling you to send a white girl? Because you gain more leverage on that table?’”

    The Baroness, though, would have none of this. Not only did she deny to me ever having suggested to Ismail that he send a ‘white’ girl to Ofsted, Warsi’s office said she “vehemently denies she met with Ofsted either at the behest of or on behalf of Mend and any allegations to the contrary are completely untrue”

    And this is where it gets really puzzling.

    Government sources are equally categoric that the purpose of Warsi requesting a meeting with Ofsted was to try to persuade them to meet Mend. It was “absolutely” at Warsi’s “suggestion and instigation.”

    Sufyan Ismail says likewise. According to him, Warsi told Ofsted: “‘You’re absolute lunatics if you don’t meet Mend, you’re never going to get to the bottom of this issue’…so Ofsted and Amanda Spielman had a meeting with Sayeeda Warsi. She expressed her concerns about the hijab, she used our briefing as well.”

    I am told Warsi met Spielman, together with her Director of Corporate Strategy, Luke Tryl, for breakfast.

    When Spielman told Warsi that an Ofsted official would give Mend a hearing, Warsi is said to have texted Issy to confirm the arrangement. Warsi “basically forced” the meeting, I am told. This is the language Ismail himself uses entirely independently of my sources: “Sayeeda practically forced them [Ofsted] to get someone from Mend.”.

    So what precisely is the Baroness’s relationship with Mend?

    Her private office told me she would decide “what, if any, future engagement she has with Mend” after watching my programme.

    The mystery is why Warsi didn’t come to a decision back in September 2015 when Mend organised a roadshow around Britain to promote the crackpot ideas of Bath University’s Professor David Miller, in his publication about the causes of Islamophobia — what he calls the “five pillars of Islamophobia.”

    One of these pillars is what Miller disdains as “left/liberal currents such as the pro-war or ‘decent’ Left”.

    I think he means those on the Left who didn’t share the radical Left’s schadenfreude that the West pretty much got what it deserved on 9/11 because of its imperial past.

    I’m not for a moment suggesting Baroness Warsi agrees with that. So why have anything to do with an organisation that does?

    Deep clean or cosmetic clean, let’s be clear about what Mend actually want: in return for Muslim votes, Mend’s “Muslim Manifesto” seeks from parliamentary candidates “proactive engagement” with organisations like Mend, an expansion of Sharia compliant finance, more Muslim faith state schools, a review of all counter terrorism legislation, the scrapping of Prevent, the reintroduction of what comes close to a blasphemy law, and “primary legislation” defining “hate speech online”, no doubt an attempt to define trenchant criticism of Islamist ideology as hatred of all Muslims.

    Related: Read part one of John Ware's detailed examination of MEND

    Muslims, says Sufyan Ismail, are the “kingmaker…the Muslim vote is the most powerful in the UK — more than the Gay vote, or Jewish vote, any vote you care to imagine.” Because Muslims are “densely populated in 40 or 50 seats, our ability to unseat or re-elect an MP who does or does not represent our views is remarkable...

    “We should look at who has the best policy on Palestine. Who has the best policy on Syria. Who has the best policy in terms of not extraditing Muslims to another part of the world. And based on who gives us most as a community.”

    So just how “progressive” is the former Conservative Party Chairman’s own thinking?

    Her analysis of the violent protests in 1988 when 20,000 Muslims took to the streets because the author Salman Rushdie had satirised the Prophet offers a clue.

    Warsi blames Muslims for failing to understand how, over the centuries, Britain had moved from its “historic outrage against all things against God” to a “liberal commitment to freedom of speech”. On the other hand, she blames non-Muslims for not having even begun “to understand the depth and sincerity of belief within Muslim communities.”

    And her advice to government? To hold “its Muslims close…show them that they mattered...treat them like they belonged.”

    Mend want to belong. But on their terms. Their ambition to embed Islam in Britain as a political and cultural ideology would further divide an increasingly divided society were it to succeed.

    Identity politics holds no future for this country except culture wars. Yet the Baroness seems to have held Mend rather too close for comfort, inviting the conclusion that she is either very confused or that she is at heart more Mend than mainstream.

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