The Perils of Mainstreaming Islamism: Sahar Al-Faifi and Plaid Cymru

18th November 2019

In our paper for the Commission for Countering Extremism,  Mainstreaming Islamism: Islamist institutions and civil society organisations, published last month, we considered the energy that Islamist organisations devote to forming links with mainstream institutions, and the risks that those bodies run when they create such relationships.

One of the focuses of our paper was the Islamist advocacy organisation, Muslim Engagement and Development: MEND. We discussed the relationship between MEND and a network of preachers who repeatedly told Muslims that they were under a religious obligation to establish and sustain a Caliphate, which would purify the world. We then considered the various successful attempts by MEND to involve Members of Parliament, political parties, public institutions and other civil society bodies in its activities.

A small part of our report considered the activities of Sahar al-Faifi, the regional manager of MEND in South Wales and West England. Al-Faifi was featured in Plaid Cymru’s recent party election broadcast. Following the discovery of a number of disturbing tweets, she has been suspended “over allegations of antisemitism“.

The nature of MEND’s activity can be illustrated by its repeated championing, defence, and hosting of Haitham al-Haddad. In a 2015 lecture, Al-Haddad explained:

Why do we need caliphate? We need caliphate because caliphate runs the true Islamic system.

He concludes his remarks with this line:

We say that we want the Islamic caliphate because the Islamic caliphate represents the true Islam.

MEND presents itself externally as a civil rights organisation that works for the welfare of British Muslims. For this reason, those who do not fully understand its ideological orientation are persuaded to work with it. They should be aware that MEND devotes considerable effort to attacking Muslims who are politically liberal. A particular target is Tell Mama, which works to combat anti-Muslim hatred. Of this organisation, MEND’s founder, Sufyan Ismail said:

“We don’t want the Government to fob us off with some phony thing called Tell MAMA, which has got a made pro-Zionist pretty much heading it or in a very senior capacity and is making all sorts of comments we might not agree with when it comes to homosexuality, to be recording Islamophobia.”

In the report, we set out the argument against mainstream organisations and political parties engaging with organisations like MEND and their staff:

Critics warned that the vision of society advocated by certain of the preachers who were afforded a platform at these institutions represented a challenge to the liberal values of equality between persons, fundamental human rights and pluralist democracy. A related concern was that visits by public figures to institutions with a history of hosting problematic speakers, and joint ventures between such institutions and civil society organisations would, in turn, strengthen islamist politics in two ways. First, engagement would result in the collapse of the civil society cordon sanitaire, which hitherto had restricted islamist preachers to the fringes of public life. Secondly, it was feared that uncritical engagement would be employed to suggest that concerns about the nature of the speakers hosted by such institutions were misplaced, making it more difficult for Muslims who opposed the promotion of islamist politics to raise the alarm.

The case of Sahar al-Faifi illustrates well the risks presented by ignoring this advice.

Al-Faifi’s Online Activity

Set out below is an overview of al-Faifi’s recent online activity.

The first example is a tweet which consists of a conspiracy theory about “Rothschild Jews”. Followers of conspiracist thinking will be aware that such beliefs are common in far Left, far Right and Islamist discourse. Indeed, the conspiracy theorist David Icke has a particular focus on the supposed role which such “Rothschild Zionists” play in controlling world events.

A separate post shows the leadership of the Islamist terrorist group, Hamas, and includes a theological text which is deployed to call for a “mighty victory” for the militia:

Al-Faifi has also mocked Israelis under attack from Hamas missiles:

In this tweet, al-Faifi suggests that ISIS is an American organisation:

In a long post on Facebook, from 4 June 2017, al-Faifi asks the following question: “London Bridge Attack: Who Is To Blame”. The London Bridge attack was a  terrorist vehicle-ramming and stabbing attack, inspired by the Islamic State, and carried out by Khuram Shazad Butt, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba. Butt had previously attacked Sheikh Usama Hasan, one of the co-authors of Quilliam’s Commission for Countering Extremism report.

Al-Faifi spins a baroque conspiracy theory to explain the London Bridge attack. She argues that:

“Security companies and arms industries make profits of creating threat and fear. They are part of social and political power structures, named as the establishment.”

She then opines that “Scaremongering is what keeps the power structures alive”, and suggests that “Zionists” and “Tories” are engaging in scaremongering, for profit and electoral advantage:

“Tories are knowingly linked to many corporates, including arms and pharmaceutical ones like MERCK and BAE and funded by pro-Zionists pro-war individuals such as Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), Robert Rosenkranz, John Weston, Lord Ashcroft, Thomas A. Kennedy, and Lord Kalms the owner of Dixons. These people make money from wars and it is within their interest to make the world unstable by funding fear via morons and militias. “

The BBC journalist and documentary maker, John Ware has reported that al-Faifi used racist language to describe Sara Khan, the Commissioner for Countering Extremism, as as “oreo”, in a now-deleted tweet:

“I decided to be politically correct and instead of calling Sara Khan a coconut I will call her an Oreo (i.e. a dark biscuit with a white filling).”

Other tweets illustrate al-Faifi’s sectarian anti-Shia, anti secularist and pro-Islamist perspective:

She also tweeted the following, in support of the executed Jamaat-e-Islami  war criminal Abdul Qadar Mollah, who had been found responsible for over 300 murders during the 1971 Bangladesh Civil War, as “a symbol of resistance against oppression”.

The risks of mainstreaming Islamist organisations

Islamist advocacy groups are desperate for mainstream acceptance. Association with a political party provides both a route to public funding and to respectability. It is the latter validation which such groups crave, most of all. It allows them to point to their engagement with mainstream civil society bodies as a riposte to those who raise concerns about their views and activities.

MEND frequently deploys such relationships in order to attack any criticism of their conduct. For example, in a document that it has ambitiously entitled “MEND Rebuttal to All Allegations“, MEND states:

“MEND enjoys the support of a wide range of political and public bodies and organisations.

It then goes on to list a number of British and international bodies who have worked with MEND, including in particular, prominent British politicians:

“A number of politicians, officials and public personalities have spoken at many of our events, including Home Secretary Amber Rudd, Jeremy Corbyn, Sir Lynton Crosby, Baroness Warsi, Andy Burnham, Diane Abbott, Sir Peter Bottomley, Jack Straw, Wes Streeting, Stephen Kinnock, James Caan, and many more.””

Al-Faifi herself has put particular effort into building relationships with mainstream political organisations. Prior to her association with Plaid Cymru, she had been member of Citizen UK’s Muslim Leadership Group,  and participated  in the production of  a report for that organisation. The foreword to that report was written by Dominic Grieve MP: the former Conservative Attorney General.

The risks that mainstream organisations run when they choose to work with Islamist groups and their leading figures is twofold. First, their conduct helps to legitimise the politics of these groups, which in turn undermines the values of pluralist liberal democracy. Secondly, when the tweets and Facebook posts inevitably come to light, they become mired in scandal.

This is a pattern which has been repeated many times. In 2017, various liberal Tories withdrew from a MEND event, after becoming aware of the nature of the organisation. Certain other Labour MPs attended, but raised concerns about MEND. In 2019, the Tory MP, Iain Duncan Smith also attended and then posted criticism of MEND. He was attacked by that organisation, thereafter. Notably, MEND used its past relationships with other civil society organisations to defend their reputation.

It would not have been difficult for Plaid Cymru to have conducted a small amount of due diligence into MEND and al-Faifi. Her disturbing views were hardly a secret. A simple Google search would have uncovered them all.

Either as a result of its failure to carry out these checks, or as a consequence of discounting the seriousness of the evidence that they uncovered, Plaid Cymru has suffered a serious embarrassment. That experience should serve as a warning to other political parties, civil society organisations, and public figures which work with MEND.

The final word should go to Sara Khan, a repeated target of MEND attacks, in the wake of a Dispatches documentary which exposed the conduct of this organisation:

“People support MEND because they want to fight hatred. The documentary instead reveals vile racist attacks and bigoted conspiracy theories.

Members of the Sunni, Shia and Ahmadiyya communities, the Jewish community and others have spoken to me about MEND’s divisive activism.

I call on MEND’s supporters to challenge their leadership to truly fight all hatred. The Commission stands ready to help everyone do this.”