Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch project, spoke to participants in an August 14 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the dangers posed by Islamic Relief, one of the largest Islamic charities in the world.
Westrop, who has been closely studying Islamic Relief for the past decade, produced an extensive report for the Middle East Forum showing that beneath its cultivated charitable façade, the global organization is a major force promoting the spread of Islamist ideology and indirectly financing jihadist terrorism. "Islamic Relief is the flagship institution of the global Muslim Brotherhood ... [and] Islamism in the West." It is the "primary vehicle" for moving money and providing logistical support for spreading Islamist ideology across the globe.
"Charity and welfare is key to the Islamist ideal," said Westrop. Islamic Relief was founded in the UK in the 1980s by students who belonged to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood movement spread Islamist ideology not just through the mosque, but also by infiltrating community centers, youth groups, and other social institutions that assist the needy. In the UK, Islamic Relief raised money to assist those affected by conflict and famine around the world, but the modus operandi was the same: "advanc[ing] Islamist ideology using charity as a shield, dressing extremists as philanthropists."
Islamic Relief began as a volunteer organization, but it has grown into a global professional NGO that raises over $200 million annually, about half of this in the U.S. alone. Taking pains to "maintain a reasonable reputation" by partnering with other interfaith charities and cultivating its media-savvy profile, Islamic Relief has garnered much support beyond Muslim communities. Over the last decade, Western governments have donated $17 million of taxpayer money to Islamic Relief. Even the Trump administration has donated to the charity.
Despite the organization's undeniable benevolence in aiding the poor, Westrop argued that Islamic Relief has posed a danger in two ways.
First, while "Islamic Relief does not directly fund terrorism that we know about," it "subsidizes terrorism by funding extremist groups that act as support organizations for terrorist organizations," explained Westrop. In the Gaza Strip, for example, Islamic Relief funds "charitable" organizations controlled by members of Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror organization. Because these groups "intertwined with Hamas" are not themselves designated as terror groups, Islamic Relief can fund them without running squarely afoul of U.S. law. In Tunisia, a leaked government report alleged that Islamic Relief funded jihadists on the Libyan border.
In 2013, after Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was overthrown, Essam el-Haddad, Morsi's foreign affairs spokesperson and co-founder of Islamic Relief in Egypt, was prosecuted for allegedly using Islamic Relief funds to support terrorism.
In South Asia, officials and activists tied to Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist movement connected to acts of mass murder, work closely with Islamic Relief.
"Across the world, where there are Islamists, Islamic Relief seems to be present."
Second, even Islamic Relief activities not linked to terrorism have contributed to Islamism as a political force. "Across the world, where there are Islamists, Islamic Relief seems to be present," said Westrop, and this is true in Western countries as well.
In the United States and Europe, Islamic Relief is frequently tied to events hosting extremist clerics who engage in "vile and violent anti-Semitic comments," call for the killing of homosexuals, and preach hatred of women, Shia Muslims, and other minorities. A board member and former chair of Islamic Relief USA, Khaled Lamada, as well as other Islamic Relief officials, have been exposed referring to Jews in disturbingly disparaging terms and quoting hadiths from the Koran about killing Jews. When confronted with evidence of these anti-Semitic comments, Islamic Relief professes to "abhor bigoty and hatred," while acting quickly to sue those who claim otherwise.
Nonetheless, as the facts about Islamic Relief stubbornly surface, governments are beginning to catch on to its double game. A few years ago, the UAE designated Islamic Relief as a terror organization. In Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the U.K., investigations are being initiated to expose Islamic Relief's partnership with extremism. Over the last five years, European government funding of Islamic Relief has been decreasing as the organization comes under closer scrutiny.
Surprisingly, the U.S. government is "lagging behind" Europe in reassessing its ill-advised association with Islamic Relief, continuing to give it access to decision-makers. Funding of Islamist groups masquerading as charitable organizations is higher under the Trump administration than it was under the Obama administration.
The Middle East Forum is raising awareness to Congress and the media about the danger of Islamic Relief and "how pervasive its connections to terror have been for decades." The public can do its part by urging their congressional representatives to find the political will to take a stand against Islamic Relief. Despite the degrees of separation Islamic Relief maintains for its legitimacy, the body of evidence Westrop has unearthed in his investigative work shows that Islamic Relief is part of "the sinister international Islamist network" threatening all Americans.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.