The JC and the ‘jihadist’

Last week’s Jewish Chronicle – the same issue that included Geoffrey Alderman’s column applauding the murder of Vittorio Arrigoni at the hands of al-Qaeda – also featured a front-page splash by its political editor Martin Bright, who reported that:

“An organisation which hosted an associate of 7/7 ringleader Mohammed Sidique Khan in the House of Commons has been bankrolled by one of the UK’s most prominent Jewish philanthropists, the JC can reveal.”

The charity referred to was Forward Thinking, which aims to encourage greater understanding between Muslim communities and wider society, promote peace in the Middle East and facilitate dialogue between the religious and secular worlds. And the Jewish philanthopical organisation was the Pears Foundation. The “jihadist” who spoke at the reception in parliament was Tafazal Mohammad, the head of an organisation called Muslim Youth Skills which advises clients such as the Metropolitan Police on how to engage with young Muslims.

The purpose of Bright’s report was clearly to warn off sections of the Jewish community who might be inclined to associate with organisations that take a more balanced view of the Palestinian resistance than the JC does. As Bright explained: “Forward Thinking was founded by William Sieghart, who has called for a reassessment of the West’s ‘distorted image of Hamas’.” (The reference is to an article published in the Times in December 2008.) Yet despite this the Pears Foundation had – shock, horror – given £23,000 to Forward Thinking between 2008 and 2010.

In an accompanying comment piece Bright expanded on his criticism of Forward Thinking: “the people who run the organisation have always spent most of their energy trying to persuade the rest of us that we should spend more time opening up a dialogue with Islamists, especially Hamas. I have always thought Forward Thinking were cavalier to the point of recklessness in their attitude to political Islam.”

Bright declared himself to be nevertheless “shocked that they did not carry out more rigorous checks when they invited Tafazal Mohammad, an associate of the 7/7 bombers, into the House of Commons”, and he was no less “shocked that the Pears Foundation did not do its homework on Forward Thinking”.

leader, presumably written by JC editor Stephen Pollard, complained that the paper’s “revelation that the Hamas-leaning organisation Forward Thinking has been funded by the Pears Foundation” had been met with silence by Jewish community leaders, who refused to publicly condemn the Pears Foundation. “Yet non-Jewish figures such as Denis MacShane MP are quite prepared to do so, attacking the Pears Foundation’s ‘willful blindness’ towards ‘Islamist jihadi propagandists’. There is something fundamentally wrong when our own leaders think one thing, say nothing, and leave it to others to do the job.”

But the accusations against Tafazal Mohammad on which this whole edifice of denunciations was based were just recycled from articles in the Mail on Sunday and Sunday Telegraph, without any apparent effort on Bright’s part to check their accuracy. He didn’t bother to tell his readers that Mohammad’s lawyer Imran Khan had stated: “Mr Mohammad wishes to make clear that … he is not and has never been an ‘extremist’ or a ‘known terrorist sympathiser’. These assertions are wholly inaccurate and extremely damaging to his reputation and should not be repeated in any way.”

Blithely ignoring this advice, Bright informed JC readers that Mohammad was “named in the coroner’s report into the 7/7 attacks as someone viewed by MI5 as a ‘suspected terrorist sympathiser’.” He “attended a training camp” with Mohammed Sidique Khan and was also “a trustee of the jihadist bookshop Iqra in Beeston, Leeds, which acted as a hub for extremists”.

If you actually take the trouble to look through the material on the 7/7 inquest website none of this holds up. It is true that the coroner’s report did include Tafazal Mohammad among a list of individuals she described as “suspected terrorist sympathisers”. But the senior MI5 officer who gave evidence at the inquest was far more circumspect. He stated only that Mohammad had been identified as an “individual of interest” based on his presence at an “outward bound” camp in the Lake District in January 2001 attended by 40 young Muslim men, one of whom was later found to be Mohammed Sidique Khan.

This was one of a series of such camps that had been placed under surveillance by MI5 and West Yorkshire Police because some of the individuals involved had been identified (with what accuracy we don’t know) as extremists. But Tafazal Mohammad, who had previously been unknown to the police or the security service, wasn’t one of them. Furthermore, a submission to the inquest by MI5 stated: “There had been no indication of illegal activity seen on any camps and no intelligence to suggest that such activity was a likely development.”

There is no question that Tafazal Mohammad was for a period an associate of Mohammed Sidique Khan. They were both trustees of the Iqra bookshop in Leeds. But the 7/7 inquest didn’t provide any evidence to back up Bright’s description of the enterprise as a “jihadist bookshop”.

The inquest heard from two men who had worked at the bookshop. One stated that he had resigned because the management’s failure to vet content meant that the shop sold “mystical” (presumably Sufi) literature to which he was opposed. And the second worker recounted that Mohammed Sidique Khan had severed all links with the bookshop in 2003 after Tafazal Mohammad and other trustees rejected his demand that tapes of lectures by the American scholar Hamza Yusuf, who had condemned the 9/11 attacks as un-Islamic, should be withdrawn from sale.

The coroner states in her report: “The police have never recovered any material which tends to suggest the Iqra bookshop was a base for unlawful activity as opposed to somewhere that was visited by men with extremist views. There is a world of difference in law between those who promote terrorism and violence and those who simply promote their religion. On the evidence, therefore, I cannot legitimately conclude either that the Iqra bookshop was a hotbed of violent and unlawful extremism or that it should have been recognised as such by the authorities.”

So the JC‘s accusations against Tafazal Mohammad fall apart. There really was no evidence presented to the inquest that entitled the coroner to describe Mohammad as a “suspected terrorist sympathiser”, and MI5 made no such claim. It is true that Mohammad was at one time “an associate of 7/7 ringleader Mohammed Sidique Khan”, but the two men broke with each other in early 2003, more than two years before the London bombings, and the issue over which they fell out was Khan’s support for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The “jihadist bookshop” was nothing of the sort, as the coroner herself concluded in her report. And MI5 insisted that the so-called “training camp” that Mohammad attended with Khan in 2001 had no unlawful purpose.

All this underlines the relevance of the question posed by ENGAGE: “since Mohammad has not been charged with any criminal offence, let alone terrorism related offences, arising from either security services surveillance or his association with the 7/7 bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan, for what reason does Bright lambast Forward Thinking for inviting him to an event, or the Pears Foundation for funding a ‘charity which hosted [a] jihadist’?”

And it turns out that Mohammad wasn’t the only individual whose views were grossly misrepresented by the JC. Tony Lerman, the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, has pointed out that the paper managed to infuriate Denis MacShane, who accused Stephen Pollard of twisting his words to turn them into an attack on the Pears Foundation. MacShane wrote:

“I am very sorry that a statement attributed to me after I was told that an extremist Islamist jihadist had been invited to speak in the Commons has been used as an attack on the Pears Foundation as I have nothing but the highest regard and respect for Trevor Pears and consider his support for the campaign against anti-semitism to be important and vital.

“I gave a quote to a reporter across a bad mobile exchange on the Eurostar after I was assured that a known antisemitic jihadist had spoken in the Commons. I had no idea my brief quote which made no reference to the Pears Foundation would be used to blacken the name of a man I respect as much as anyone in Britain for his commitment to Jewish causes and in particular his generous support in different ways for the common struggle against contemporary antisemitism.”

Lerman himself argues that “Forward Thinking are doing rather good work. There is nothing at all to indicate that they are in any way encouraging the propagation of terrorism or Jihadi extremism. On the contrary, combating these things is precisely what Forward Thinking is about. And in my view Pears has no case to answer.” He concludes: “what Bright and Pollard have done in this instance is shoddy and entirely undeserved. If they had any decency, they would withdraw the story and the leader and apologise.”

Update:  See “JC apologises to Tafazal Mohammad”, Islamophobia Watch, 12 October 2011

First published by Islamophobia Watch in May 2011