Google, Mend and the Extremist Badlands

8th October 2018

This is a cross post by European Eye on Radicalization

Let Me Google That For You

Internet companies must do more to counter extremism online, politicians across Europe insist.

Nothing is both so easily said and so difficult to define with precision and accomplish widely and effectively. Stakeholders are dealing with vast torrents of data, heated freedom of speech debates, political fights, varying national standards in the context of global technology, and endless legal complications. All these factors come together to make for complexity and conflict, not consensus and progress.

Relatively simple internal issues should instead be easy for top tech companies to handle. So one can wonder why Google in the UK turned to the Islamist campaigning group Mend for “Islamophobia” training in September 2018.

Entryism is Mend’s mission – it craves the legitimacy bestowed by meetings with prominent mainstream figures and institutions. This is why it was keen to promote its Google link in its newsletter, the source of the image above.

This is all the more regrettable when Mend’s record and profile are now widely known. Indeed, the old “let me Google that” internet joke comes to mind here. It runs a search for a user to show how easy it is to discover key facts. Here is a link for searching for the terms “Mend” and “extremist” which yields several informative results:

“Combat Their Ideas Vigorously”

Mend’s critics have quite frank words for the group.

One of the latest to speak up is the former prime minister Tony Blair. In an interview with The Times in September, he stressed the importance of challenging extremist ideas. He noted that the UK’s “Prevent” policies and Sara Khan, the head of the Commission for Countering Extremism, are doing just this. The reason they are “being attacked is precisely because those people who want to propagate those ideas are trying to stigmatise anyone who challenges them as being anti-Muslim, when in fact you’re simply trying to combat extremism”.

Asked about which groups he had in mind, Blair said: “You’ve got very obvious ones like Cage and Mend and Hizbut Tahir. I think what’s important is to combat their ideas vigorously.”

Police Officers Weigh In

Senior police officers have also weighed in.

In a speech at the think tank Policy Exchange in February 2018, the top London counter-terrorism officer Mark Rowley criticized groups that represent “no more than the extreme margins of the communities they claim to speak for” and push “dangerous disinformation and propaganda”. These groups seek “to create and exploit grievances and isolation, by being equivocal in condemning acts of terrorism, undermining efforts to safeguard the young and vulnerable from radicalisation, and spreading disinformation about national security and foreign policy”.

Rowley then named Mend, saying “leaders of MEND have claimed the UK is approaching the conditions that preceded the Holocaust seeking to undermine the State’s considerable efforts to tackle all hate crime and making an absurd comparison with state-sponsored genocide. One of MEND’s former leading figures lost a libel case labelling him as “a hard-line Islamic extremist” in the context of comments he made supporting the killing of British soldiers in Iraq.”

In June 2017, Mak Chishty, a senior London commander and one of the most prominent Muslims in British policing, issued a call to action against extremists: “Islamist extremists may invoke the language of my religion and display the symbols of piety, but they are little more than narcissists, nihilists, murderers and child abusers. We have to take action against them to safeguard and develop a peaceful and progressive British Muslim identity.” He then named Mend: “Without targeting Islamism and naming and shaming Muslim organisations such as Cage and Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend), we risk having our safety and security threatened forever.”

Police officers are right to be alarmed. Above all, Mend is closely aligned with the extremist group Cage, which does everything it can to help both suspected and convicted terrorists and frustrate the government’s efforts to keep the UK safe.

This is how close they are – in an undercover investigation by Channel 4, Mend’s founder and former CEO Sufyan Ismail was filmed saying “I have personally donated to Cage, over the years, for the record, and I continue to do so”. For Ismail, Cage and Mend are a sort of complementary team: “I think we agree on principle, it’s process, we’re very different on process. It’s almost like your means and ends. Our ends are the same, we all want counter-terrorism legislation which is unnecessary to be abolished. We all have the same view on Prevent.”

Furthermore, Azad Ali was a prominent figure at Mend for many years. He is one of the UK’s most notorious extremists. He is so keen on Cage that he has joined it from Mend.

Azad Ali speaking at a Cage event while working for Mend

The company Mend likes to keep beyond Cage is also instructive. In recent years it has promoted several known extremists. They include the hate preachers Haitham al-Haddad, Shakeel Begg, Zahir Mahmood, and Abu Eesa Niamatullah.

Parliamentary Critics

Turning back to politics, Tony Blair is far from Mend’s only prominent opponent . Other politicians too have been critical. In July 2018, the Labour MP Khalid Mahmood described Mend as “deliberate agents of discontent in the UK” and added “they are continuously eroding trust in mainstream society and pushing young people away from integration and the mainstream. People should not be afraid to challenge Mend.”

In October 2017, four MPs who were scheduled to speak at a Mend meeting in Parliament withdrew from the event. Conservative MP Anna Soubry, who had prominence as co-chairwoman of the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims, said Mend “don’t have the best of reputations”. For their part, Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, Liberal Democrat MP Ed Davey and Scottish National Party MP Joanna Cherry observed that Mend actually “distract” people in the fight against Islamophobia and noted “controversy over Mend’s record and claims of links between the organisation and extremist views”.

The Labour MP Stephen Kinnock decided that he would attend the meeting, but he too was critical, noting his “grave concern” about Mend’s record. “I strongly disagree with the tone and content of the comments that have been highlighted”, he said, adding that “I would like to make it absolutely clear that I unconditionally condemn any and all language that could be construed as divisive, aggressive, or contrary to the values that we should all cherish: inclusion, peace, justice and the rule of the law of the land.”

Antisemitic “Bad News”

Mend figures, including the founder and former CEO Sufyan Ismail, have also been accused of antisemitism. In July 2018, Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was forthright, saying “MEND is bad news. Current and former MEND representatives have spread hateful and idiotic messages about Jews, including tweets about “Rothschild Jews” and sympathy for the proscribed terrorist organization Hamas.”

Moreover, van der Zyl saw “no sign of remorse or a desire to change” from Mend, so she counselled MPs to stay away from the group: “As President of the Board of Deputies, I will always take a robust stance on organisations that spread hate against the Jewish community. I am unequivocal that no parliamentarian should ever give MEND the appearance of legitimacy, by appearing at MEND events or participating in their projects.“

Sufyan Ismail brags about “battering” the “300-year-old” Israeli lobby in Parliament. The Jewish community security group CST found these words disturbing: “To talk of an “Israeli lobby” being present and organised in Britain for 300 years is nonsensical. It only makes sense as a synonym for British Jews, which Ismail then counterposes with “the Muslim community.” This risks increasing hostility and suspicion between the two communities, rather than building trust and empathy as CST tries to do via our work with Tell MAMA and other Muslim organisations and individuals.”

Liberal Muslim Targets

As readers of European Eye on Radicalization know, Mend reserves some of its bitterest vitriol for liberal and secularist Muslim activists.

As MPs withdrew from the Parliamentary meeting, Henna Rai of the Women Against Radicalisation Network spoke up. She called Mend “a deeply problematic organisation which regularly labels any Muslims collaborating with the government on counter-extremism initiatives as ‘bad Muslims’.” She too urged MPs to be more careful, observing that the meeting was an “example of extremism being hosted in the heart of our democracy. I think our elected politicians have to exercise due diligence and be more critical in deciding who is worthy of being given such a platform.”

In July 2018, Fiyaz Mughal, the head of the anti-racist campaign group Tell Mama, was slurred in a Mend report on Islamophobia. He was understandably furious, saying the report was “scandalous and scurrilous”. Like others, he added that Mend actually make challenging Islamophobia more difficult: “to call me a facilitator of Islamophobia is perverse in the extreme and actually reflects on MEND, their factual accuracy and their tactics. Such tactics do deep damage to the work of tackling anti-Muslim hate.”

The anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation is another bugbear for Mend. Quilliam’s CEO Haras Rafiq knows why and said so in July 2018 : “Attacking Muslims who are liberal is the primary purpose of MEND. They do so because we stand up against the hate preachers, who teach a polarised vision of Islam, with whom they have consistently allied themselves and whom they have promoted.”

Before she was appointed to the Commission for Countering Extremism, Sara Khan led Inspire, a prominent anti-extremist activist group. In a submission to Parliament in 2016, she was no rigid hawk, saying “the government has a duty to work with a wide range of Muslim voices, to prevent young people from being drawn into violent extremism”. Mend, though, was clearly beyond the pale for Khan: “Yet the poisonous narrative that has been peddled by certain Muslim organisations including MEND around government funding and inaccuracies about the Prevent Strategy itself does little to actually address extremism and serves only as a distraction. This does not serve the interests of our national security, Muslim families whose children have become radicalised, and UK communities.”

Khan too had advice for MPs in the submission: “We would encourage those politicians who endorse and share platforms with MEND including Naz Shah to question why such groups have deliberately lied about Inspire to Muslim communities and have sought to mislead people about our work.”

In 2017, Khan took anti-racist groups to task for assisting Mend: “As a Muslim, I find this to be nothing but outright hypocrisy by anti-racist groups who, consumed by identity politics, are unable to see the wood for the trees. Although they are prepared to challenge traditional far-Right extremists, they are not prepared to call out far-Right Islamist extremists in the erroneous belief that to do so is Islamophobic. This is the dismal out of touch state of our anti-racist movement today.”

Nice Tool, Now Use It

It is indeed “dismal” that Google’s UK arm too has disregarded Mend’s troubling record and aided its quest for legitimacy.

The irony is that the internet in general and Google in particular are excellent tools for charting extremist terrain. One must hope that Google and others will use their very own tools more carefully in future to steer well clear of the extremist badlands.