Are British Muslim Charities Subject to Discrimination?

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August 5, 2014; Al Jazeera America

The Finsbury Park Mosque in London was the first to make public what seems like Islamophobia from HSBC bank. According to the BBC, the mosque was written to by the bank on July 22nd and told that its accounts would be closed by September 22nd. Apparently, it was not alone. The Cordoba Foundation, a think tank, and the Ummah Welfare trust based in Bolton also received letters from the bank on the same date. According to Al Jazeera, another charity, the Muslim Association of Britain, had opened an account with HSBC earlier in the year, only for the bank to close it three days later because it “did not meet the criteria to hold a bank account.”

Since then, it has emerged that other Islamic charities have had their accounts put under notice by other UK banks. Helping Households Under Great Stress (HHUGS), which supports the families of Muslim prisoners accused of terrorism offences, told Al Jazeera that its account had been frozen with immediate effect in the past month by another bank, Barclays. CAGE, a civil liberties group that campaigns against counterterrorism policies, said that its accounts with both Barclays and the Co-operative Bank had been shut down earlier in the year after its director, Moazzam Begg, was charged with terrorism offenses.

Previously, some Muslim charities had said that they felt unfairly targeted by the British charity regulator, the Charity Commission. Of the 20 most recent statutory inquiries announced by the commission, five involved Muslim charities. Out of more than 180,000 charities registered with the commission, there are only about 2,000 that can be considered Muslim or Islamic. Earlier in the year, the Chair of the Charity Commission in an interview had said, “The problem of Islamist extremism is not the most widespread problem we face in terms of abuse of charities, but is potentially the most deadly. And it is, alas, growing.”

Individual Muslims have also faced similar prejudice from banks. Among them are the Cordoba Foundation’s chief executive, Anas Altikriti, and his wife and children, who have also been informed that their personal accounts would be closed. Altikriti tweeted: “Last week, HSBC informed me and my family that our personal accounts will be closed. No explanation.” He says he has banked with HSBC for almost 30 years and described his treatment by the bank as “incredibly disrespectful and shoddy,” adding that, “The only explanation that has come to mind is my work for Palestine and Gaza.”

RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Seeker Participatory Action Research), a Manchester-based human rights organization, reports that HSBC has turned down customers, inhibited or closed accounts, or refused mortgages for customers because their identity is Syrian.

The banks letter to these customers says:

“Our records show that you are a resident in a country that is subject to financial sanction restrictions. Due to the increased requirements for compliance with international obligations concerning payments to and from sanctioned countries, we have taken the decision to close the above account(s).

“Please be assured that this decision is based on our own assessment of the risk and is not a reflection of you as a customer or the manner in which you have conducted you business with HSBC.”

According to the Independent, many of the Syrians singled out by the bank are refugees or students. A spokesperson for RAPAR said, “HSBC’s blatant abuse of its power over its Syrian customers is utterly unacceptable and shamefully discriminatory.”

HSBC told Al Jazeera that it had rules ensuring race and religion were never factors in banking decisions and that discrimination against customers was “immoral, unacceptable and illegal.’” It said it had exited relationships with customers in 70 countries as part of a global review of its businesses after being fined $1.9B by U.S. authorities in 2012 over poor money laundering controls exploited by Latin American drug cartels to move hundreds of millions of dollars through HSBC accounts.

HSBC last year appointed the former chief of the UK’s MI5 intelligence agency and an expert on Islamic extremism to head a committee tasked with reducing its vulnerability to financial crime. The Charity Commission has as one of its trustees a retired Head of the Anti-Terrorist Branch and National Coordinator of Terrorist Investigations.

The other two banks said they could not comment on specific customers’ affairs.—John Godfrey