x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

UK Muslims call for boycott of banks

After Lloyds and Barclays target organisations linked to Hamas, Muslim organisations try to boycott two of the country's biggest banks.

LONDON // Muslim organisations in Britain are trying to organise boycotts of two of the country's biggest banks. The move follows decisions by Lloyds TSB and Barclays to close the accounts of two major Muslim charities after US claims that, indirectly, the groups were funding Hamas terrorist activities. Lloyds announced last month that it was closing the account of Interpal, a charity dedicated to helping needy Palestinians, particularly in Gaza.

Interpal, however, has already been branded as a Hamas front organisation by the US Treasury and has been banned for the past five years in the United States, Canada and Australia. It is the subject of an investigation by the Charities Commission, the UK's charities' watchdog. Now Barclays has announced that it is closing the account of the Ummah Welfare Trust (UWT), a charity based in Bolton, Greater Manchester, which says it helps one million people in 25 nations with food aid, medical supplies and sponsoring orphanages.

It has, however, donated more than £200,000 (Dh1.06 million) in the past four years to Interpal and has also given grants to the Al Salah Society, which Adam Szubin, the director of the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said last month was one of the organisations that Hamas used "to finance its terrorist agenda". Many British Muslims, however, feel no hard evidence has been produced and that, anyway, working with Hamas might often be the only way that charities can deliver the aid that is needed to the impoverished and now besieged residents of Gaza.

For their part, the banks are under enormous pressure not just from the United States - which has shown itself ready to prosecute charities and their bankers if they are suspected of financially assisting terror groups - but also from the UK authorities. Under Britain's Proceeds of Crime Act, introduced in 2002, any banking institution that suspects one of its customers has dealings with organised criminals, including terrorists, must report its suspicions to the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and, unless it receives the all-clear, close the account.

However, the Muslim Council of Britain has protested forcefully over the latest account closures and has called on Gordon Brown, the prime minister, to intervene in the absence of evidence of either charity financing terrorism. "We are astonished and angered by these developments because, in every reported instance, no explicit reasons are given by the banks," said Daud Abdullah, the deputy secretary general of the council.

"Clearly, those worst affected would not be the officials who administer the charities but the tens of thousands of impoverished people who rely on their humanitarian aid and support." Mr Abdullah said there had been no breach of British law or the statutory regulations governing their charitable status. If the banks knew of such breaches, they should spell them out, he added. "Given the growing anxiety caused by the actions of the banks, the Muslim Council of Britain urges the prime minister to ensure that no pressure from any foreign government or agency is allowed to cause detriment to any Muslim charity unless there is evidence of wrongdoing."

The Muslim Public Affairs Committee, a UK civil liberties group, called for a boycott of the banks and yesterday began an online petition protesting their "outrageous, unfair and arbitrary" actions. Muslim students have joined the protest, too, with the Federation of Student Islamic Societies describing the UWT as being "at the forefront of providing essential relief work in politically sensitive regions".

Qasim Rafiq, a spokesman for the federation, said: "Such actions [by the banks] send out the wrong message to the Muslim community in the UK and set a dangerous precedent that any organisation working in a politically sensitive region can have its account closed, without reason, at any time." Ibrahim Hewitt, the chairman of Interpal, described the banks' actions as "the latest case of Islamophobia within the banking sector. This is purely another attack against the Muslim community."

The UWT, which has previously been cleared by the Charities' Commission of accusations that it was funding Kashmiri separatist groups, says the nations where it is operating include Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Kashmir, Kosovo, Chechnya, Sudan, Iran and Iraq. Mohammed Ahmed, the UWT director of operations, said: "We are deeply concerned with Barclays Bank's decision to close our accounts without any justification.

"This decision will not only affect the great work carried out by UWT but will affect millions of people who rely on UWT. "This decision sets a dangerous precedent of disrupting British charities without any substance, especially as Interpal is in the process of having its bank accounts closed by Lloyds TSB. "Targeting charities in this way shows there is a concerted attempt to stop the good work in politically sensitive regions by leading British Muslim charities."

The charity is urging supporters to inundate Lloyds' chief executive with protest letters and e-mails in a bid to get the bank to change its mind. Mosques that have accounts with Lloyds or Barclays are also being pressed to close them. Neither Lloyds nor Barclays would give any reason yesterday for the closure of the accounts, describing it as a matter of client confidentiality. dsapsted@thenational.ae