Over recent years, some Muslim charities and representative groups have become uneasy about the attention focused on them by the Charity Commission because of the war in Syria. Some go as far as to say privately that there is a witch hunt going on, although none have yet produced examples that would justify an accusation of this kind.
In this context it’s welcome that Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the sector chief executives body Acevo, has met some Muslim leaders and is going to raise with the Charity Commission their perception that the attention it focuses on Muslim charities is disproportionate. It’s a subject that merits more public debate.
Bubb is right to emphasise the distinction between fact and perception. One of the problems with the facts is that most of them are not out in the open, for reasons that are often understandable: some of the commission’s work in this area is linked to covert investigations by the police and security services.
So we are left only with the occasional incident that comes to light. We know, for example, that a British man who drove a truck bomb into the gate of a prison in Aleppo travelled to Syria with a charity convoy; we also know that the police confiscated money from an aid convoy, presumably because they had evidence it was going to be used for purposes other than humanitarian aid.
Beyond that, we are largely in the dark. In his recent interview with Third Sector, Peter Clarke, the Charity Commission board member who used to be head of the Anti-Terrorism Branch of the Metropolitan Police, declined to give even a ball-park indication of the extent of suspected links between charities and terrorist activity. And without access to the facts, it is hard to assess whether or not the attention is disproportionate. Instead, we are invited to take on trust what the commission says about it all.
The commission, in response to Bubb’s blog about his intention to raise this matter with it, categorically rejected any suggestions of bias in its investigative work. It said it was alert to the sensitivity of the subject and was careful in the way it discussed it, but could not control how its comments were reported in the press.
The latter remark is presumably a reference to a Sunday Times article, mentioned by Bubb, in which the chair of the commission, William Shawcross, was quoted saying that Islamic extremism was "potentially the most deadly" problem the regulator faced. The suggestion in the commission’s statement that the press might choose not to report remarks of this kind is somewhat disingenuous.
Indeed, some of the perceptions raised by Bubb might relate to the current composition and background of the commission’s board. Shawcross has written extensively on geopolitical affairs from a fairly hawkish point of view; and, when the rest of the board was appointed, some commentators pointed out the relatively low proportion of members with sector experience. It is, on balance, a fairly hard-nosed board, and some would argue that this is what the regulator needed.
So do we take on trust the commission’s reassurance that there is no bias in its investigations? Unless and until evidenced information comes to light of unjustifiable action on its part, it is difficult to do otherwise. If charities feel they have been wrongly targeted, they should come forward and say so.
It is right that the commission should not be put off its key task of dealing with wrongdoing in charities of whatever stripe. But, one way or another, the concatenation of recent decisions and statements has created a situation where Muslim charities feel they have been singled out for undue attention and are concerned that their fundraising will be harmed in the crucial month of Ramadan. Perhaps a modified rhetoric and some bridge-building are in order.