In his first interview as chairman of the Charity Commission that featured in The Sunday Times, William Shawcross highlighted his concerns about charities being used as vehicles for extremists. Whilst there is little evidence that anything but a tiny minority of charities might be vulnerable to such abuses, the taint of suspicion encouraged by Mr Shawcross's comments has the potential to be devastating for the work of legitimate charities, particularly Islamic charities.
Subsequent coverage of the Sunday Times interview in a wide range of news outlets reduced the detail of Mr Shawcross's interview to sweeping headlines about 'Islamist extremism' and charities, casting aspersions on the valuable work of Islamic charities.
Many charities are getting aid through to millions of people in hugely challenging circumstances - and need and deserve the continued support of the UK public. Negative headlines lacking this kind of context will undoubtedly affect the reputation of renowned and trustworthy charities engaged in humanitarian campaigns in countries such as Syria or Somalia, and by undermining public trust and donations they also hurt the beneficiaries. Broad and negative insinuations risk damaging trust in and support for all charities operating in areas considered to be at high risk.
The juxtaposition of comments on extremism alongside points about funding and government cuts makes it appear to us that the Charity Commission is courting controversy to campaign for increased resources, choosing what will be a headline-grabbing issue to make the case.
The casual use of the loaded word "Islamist" to refer to a very small number of charities who may have been abused by extremists will make it very difficult for the general public to distinguish them from legitimate Islamic charities.
Underneath the big headlines, who is going to appreciate the difference between an "Islamist" organisation and an "Islamic" one? Yet for over a century legitimate Islamic charities have been the backbone of the Muslim community in the UK. The passion and commitment of their supporters has enabled them to build the first mosque in Northern Europe and the largest Islamic humanitarian agency in the world. Those who do not understand and appreciate the value of the charitable work these organisations do can easily dismiss them as 'extremist' - a damning and divisive label for peace-loving people who want to belong and contribute to society.
In a recent survey conducted by the Muslim Charities Forum on the challenges Muslim charities face in their humanitarian assistance and developmental aid work, we found that 88% of respondents had regulations in place to prevent the financing of terrorism and had adopted internal measures to protect against terrorist abuse. These measures, which we asked them to specify, included working with the Charity Commission on developing manuals; risk assessments and due diligence procedures hand in hand with field monitoring visits; implementing vetting procedures that target partners on the ground and volunteers; and limiting access to funds.
As a neutral entity that regulates the sector, the Charity Commission should lead on constructive neutral, independent and impartial dialogue with all charities regardless of faith: we are citizens not strangers.
Ensuring that the good name of charity is not abused is an important task, and it is right that the Charity Commission should take it seriously. But it is also vital to do all we can to help people in desperate need, particularly those in hard-to-reach, conflict-ravaged places like Syria and Somalia. In some places local or international Islamic organisations are sometimes the only groups that can get aid through to isolated areas.
At the end of the day, we are all dedicated British citizens who are here to build and reflect the diversity of our country, and serve humanity.
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