Comment: 'War on terror' is a hazardous arena

Muslims have always donated to the poor and to charitable endowments set up for the construction of mosques, schools and hospitals, but you'd have to be especially devout or determined to set up an Islamic charity today.

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon

You would have to pass the public benefit test, now that the advancement of religion no longer qualifies automatically for charitable status. And you'd also have to deal with the unofficial presumption that Islamic charities are fronts for terrorists.

There are limited grounds for anxiety. In May 2007, the Government linked eight charities to the London bombings of 7 July 2005 and six more to groups planning attacks. Then there was the news that the Thara Welfare Trust had been hijacked by unauthorised fundraisers collecting for Kashmiri militants. If the Home Office and Treasury report Review of Safeguards to Protect the Charitable Sector from Terrorist Abuse provoked the reasonable complaint that isolated examples aren't proof of widespread abuse, that doesn't mean there is no theoretical risk, as one commentator put it.

But if the Government's right that "while the scale of terrorist links to the charitable sector is extremely small in comparison to the size of the charitable sector, the risk of exploitation of charities is a significant aspect of the terrorist finance threat", who should deal with that risk?

Should it be the Charity Commission, which, with state coercion and capital, has set up the Faith and Social Cohesion Unit to improve governance in the 343 registered mosques and entice the other 850 into the fold?

Quite apart from there being some ambiguity about its role - will the regulator be cosying up or clamping down? - once again, this puts the commission's independence under the spotlight. As if it weren't enough that defining public benefit has thrust it to the political frontier, and as if it hadn't raised eyebrows by buckling to ministerial pressure to allow charities to be political pressure groups, it's now getting involved in the 'war on terror'.

Last year, a controversial book, Arms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World, was pulped because of a technicality. In this hazardous political arena, the commission should proceed cautiously.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: nptseddon@hotmail.com.

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