FRESH AIR

Islamic charity in hot water receives Australian endorsement

Sep 3, 2020 | Naomi Levin

Islamic Relief Australia assists with humanitarian needs around the world.
Islamic Relief Australia assists with humanitarian needs around the world.

Islamic Relief Australia was recently endorsed by the Australian Government as a preferred charity, despite the departure of its director over vile antisemitic social media comments, and existing unresolved accusations that an Australian board member allegedly has close ties to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

The head of Islamic Relief Australia, Heshmat Khalifa, was forced to resign in July, after reports in the London Times revealed he had made antisemitic remarks.

The Times reported that two Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) board members, one of whom, Khalifa, was simultaneously serving as the chair of Islamic Relief Australia, posted messages on social media that called Israelis “the grandchildren of monkeys and pigs” and praised Hamas leaders as “great men”.

The board of Islamic Relief Australia accepted Khalifa’s resignation in mid-July – after 10 years at the helm. IRW also accepted Khalifa’s resignation after The Times reported he had called Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a “pimp son of Jews”, a “Zionist pig”, a “Zionist traitor” and a “Zionist criminal”.

Khalifa told The Times he does not “hold views which are antisemitic” and was merely expressing his views against el-Sisi, who led a coup that deposed Egypt’s previous Muslim Brotherhood-led government.

Following his July resignation, Khalifa was replaced at IRW by Almoutaz Tayara, who The Times subsequently reported had posted messages supportive of Hamas and published cartoons accusing former US president Barack Obama of being beholden to Jewish interests. It is not believed Tayara has had any links to Islamic Relief Australia.

In response, the entire board of IRW resigned and the UK’s charity watchdog is investigating the organisation. There is no indication the Australian charities regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), plans to do the same with the local arm, despite Khalifa’s leadership in both.

The revelations about Khalifa and Tayara’s expressions of bigoted and offensive personal views is the latest in a string of concerns about Islamic Relief. IRW, based in Birmingham UK, is the sole owner of Islamic Relief Australia, according to the ACNC.

Islamic Relief Worldwide and its Australian arm have been dogged by accusations of links to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, including by the governments of both Germany and the United Arab Emirates.  One individual at the centre of these allegations, Ibrahim el-Zayat, has sat on the board of Islamic Relief Australia for seven years.

Israel has banned the organisation from operating in Israel and the West Bank due to suspicions it has close ties to Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. IRW has launched legal action in Israel to allow it to resume operations there.  However, video footage shows an Islamic Relief Australia group visited Gaza in 2012 and met with senior Hamas officials during the trip, handing over a large cheque.

IRW has denied having links to the Muslim Brotherhood – and Hamas – but this denial hasn’t stopped banking giant HSBC from refusing to do business with the charity.

Sydney-based Islamic Relief Australia raised more than $10 million in 2019 for humanitarian causes, mostly outside of Australia. It is registered with the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), the peak group for Australian charities operating abroad in the humanitarian space.

Despite the recent controversies, ACFID included Islamic Relief Australia on a list of charities raising money for the victims of the recent tragic explosion in the Beirut Port. This list was endorsed by the Australian Government. ACFID specifies that all charities listed “have been checked and meet Code of Conduct requirements”.

While Khalifa is now gone, concerns remain about long-time Islamic Relief Australia director Ibrahim el-Zayat, who at various times has faced allegations he is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood – allegations he has repeatedly denied.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist movement that originated in Egypt in the 1920s, and now has branches in many countries. It frequently promotes extremist, anti-West, antisemitic and viciously anti-Israel views.

Dr. Lorenzo Vidino, the researcher from George Washington University who uncovered Khalifa and Tayara’s antisemitic and pro-Hamas social media posts for The Times, has also conducted research into el-Zayat’s background.

Unusually for the director of a Sydney-based charity, el-Zayat is based in Germany and holds senior leadership positions in the Muslim community there. Aside from his role with Islamic Relief Australia, he appears to have no Australian ties, although he has strong links to IRW, and served as its chair for a number of years.

In this context, it is interesting to note that senior Muslim Brotherhood figure Kamal Helbawy told Dr. Vidino that the leadership of IRW “are Brotherhood, but the people who contact for donations are not necessarily even Muslims.” Dr. Vidino writes that not all those affiliated with IRW are Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers, but this does “not diminish the Brothers’ domination of these organisation, as they will maintain sway by controlling the board and using other tactics.”

In his research, Dr. Vidino has detailed ties between el-Zayat, his family and the Muslim Brotherhood. Dr. Vidino writes that the current director of the Australian charity was sentenced in absentia by an Egyptian court for financing the Muslim Brotherhood in 2008 and he has publicly expressed admiration for the it. Vidino also reports that, in 2005, el-Zayat was unsuccessful in suing a German MP who accused him of holding a role in the Muslim Brotherhood.

While el-Zayat remains on the board of Islamic Relief Australia, Khalifa has been replaced by Nora Amath, an accomplished local Muslim community leader and former Australian of the Year finalist. Dr Amath also sits as a trustee on the IRW board. Let’s hope her leadership symbolises a new direction for the Australian arm of the charity that has admirable humanitarian aims, but has been plagued by both alleged antisemitism and alleged links to extremists in its short history.

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