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Bank account closures have affected British Muslims for decades, with little political reaction

August 3, 2023 at 6:11 pm

Muslims living in England gather to protest against a notice by HSBC bank to close the mosque’s bank account on August 16, 2014. [Inci Gundag/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

The closure of Nigel Farage’s bank account at Coutts, a prestigious private bank in London, sparked a political and media frenzy, exposing the glaring hypocrisy and double standards within the British Establishment. For decades, prominent UK charities, pro-Palestine civil society groups and respected British Muslims have faced the abrupt closure of their bank accounts without any explanation. Despite the devastating consequences for these groups and individuals, the same media and political classes which today decry Farage’s situation largely turned a collective blind eye to their plight.

Farage, a prominent British political figure, has been linked widely to far-right ideologies due to his leadership of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and his passionate support for Brexit. Nevertheless, he has enjoyed a level of support and solidarity that many British Muslims could only wish for. Politicians have been eager to come to his aid in his crisis with Coutts; the bank even issued a public apology to him. The BBC and its business correspondent took responsibility for reporting incorrectly that the account closure was due to financial, not political, reasons.

Amidst this media attention, Muslim charities in the UK and pro-Palestine organisations are speaking out about their long-standing struggle with banks closing their accounts. These closures have hindered their efforts to provide aid and assistance to impoverished communities, particularly in Palestine, where more than five million people are subjected to a brutal apartheid regime by the occupation state of Israel.

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Over the decades since the launch of the so-called “war on terror”, many British Muslims have suffered in silence; challenging the banks over decisions to close accounts was only possible through costly legal action. In 2019, for example, Majed Al-Zeer, the chairman of the Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), won a legal case against World-Check, a subsidiary of Reuters, for listing the organisation as a terrorist organisation. The designation effected Al-Zeer’s banking options, despite the fact that the PRC is a UN-accredited NGO.

Perhaps the most high-profile case was that of British-registered charity Interpal. In 2003, George W Bush listed the charity as a “specially designated global terrorist entity”, allegedly for supporting Palestinian resistance movement Hamas. My MEMO colleague Ibrahim Hewitt was chairman of Interpal at the time.

“There was no due process, no investigation into Interpal’s affairs and no apparent form of redress,” Hewitt told me. “The result was a major Charity Commission investigation; legal action against a leading Jewish organisation and various media outlets for repeating the allegation; and, of course, bank account problems.”

Although the banks could cite the US designation as the reason for denying banking facilities to Interpal, nobody, he pointed out, questioned, or even dared to question, the designation itself. “Although the Charity Commission asked the US Treasury for the evidence that led to the ‘terrorist’ decision, no such evidence has ever been forthcoming apart from a handful of newspaper clippings. The US Treasury told Interpal’s New York lawyer years down the line that this was a ‘political decision, which will require State Department intervention to be dropped.’ That, of course, was never going to happen.” This, he added, demonstrated that unfounded allegations can and are made against legitimate organisations with potentially devastating consequences.

Interpal is not the only one. In 2016, the Co-op Bank shut down the bank account of the pro-Palestinian NGO Friends of Al-Aqsa, along with the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and approximately 25 other organisations with Palestinian affiliations, allegedly without providing any clear reasons for the closures. Farage received a 40-page report regarding the closure of his Coutts account.

Despite the sharp political divide between the Muslim community and Farage, the issue highlighted by the former UKIP leader is felt to be a positive outcome for the Muslim community and pro-Palestine groups. For years, banks have abused their powers by closing accounts of pro-Palestine groups based on spurious allegations of “terrorism”. According to Hewitt, “This fake narrative has to be challenged, and challenged robustly.”

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Muslim charities are now calling on banks to understand their due diligence protocols better and work together to ensure that essential aid reaches those in need. They advocate for a more collaborative approach that allows banks to meet their compliance standards while supporting humanitarian efforts in sensitive regions.

While the UK government has promised efforts to improve the situation, Muslim charities stress that there is still much work to be done to address the ongoing issues surrounding bank account closures and ensure equal treatment for all, including Muslim charities and individuals.

Alun McDonald, the head of media at Islamic Relief Worldwide, highlighted the difficulties faced by humanitarian charities in dealing with the international banking system to send funds. He noted that some banks are reluctant to work with such organisations in fragile and complex states, which disproportionately affects Muslim faith-based and smaller local organisations due to the geopolitical situations in their areas of operation.

The CEO of the London-based Muslim Charities Forum, Fadi Itani, emphasised that this issue has persisted for over two decades. “Charities and their policies are often subjected to excessive scrutiny by banks, especially those organisations operating in sensitive regions with security risks,” he added. “The closures severely impede their ability to provide aid, leaving people in conflict-affected areas without crucial humanitarian aid.”

The message is clear: British Muslims and pro-Palestine groups deserve equality with Nigel Farage in the treatment they receive from British institutions. Prime Minister Sunak, MPs of all parties and media organisations please note.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.