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Artillery Row

Towards Anglo-French anti-extremism

France was right to ban a campaigner with dubious Islamist connections

The French government has refused entry to Muhammad Rabbani, the managing director of the British Islamist activist group CAGE. The French interior ministry described Rabbani as part of a “radical Islamist movement”. It was not wrong. 

CAGE — self-described as a “human rights” advocacy organisation — has a history of Islamist extremist connections. The Home Secretary Suella Braverman said on July 18, 2023, “Cage’s leaders have excused and legitimised violence by Islamist terrorists.” Originally called Cageprisoners, the group was focused on justice for Muslims unlawfully detained in the War on Terror but it has also campaigned in favour of convicted terrorists, such as Aafia Siddiqui and Djamel Beghal. CAGE’s operations director, Azad Ali was described by a newspaper as “a hardline Islamic extremist who supports the killing of British and American soldiers in Iraq by fellow Muslims as justified”. When he attempted to sue for libel, his case was rejected; the judge said Ali’s case had an “absence of reality”.

Rabbani himself has a history of Islamist activism that pre-dates his involvement with CAGE. Belying supremacist aspirations shared with Islamic Movement groups across Europe, training he provided to the Young Muslim Organisation UK in 2009 carried the message: “Our goal is to create the True Believer, [and] to then mobilise these believers into an organised force for change who will carry out dawah [preaching], hisbah [enforcement of Islamic law] and jihad. This will lead to social change and Iqamatud-Deen [an Islamic social and political order].” In 2017, he was charged under the Terrorism Act after refusing to provide police at Heathrow airport with the passwords to his mobile phone and laptop. He was found guilty of wilfully obstructing police.

The French accused Rabbani of “spreading slanderous words” about “supposed ‘Islamophobic persecution’ and mass surveillance by western governments, including France”. It was not wrong about this either. 

Addressing the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2022, Rabbani claimed that France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said that the aim of France’s counter-extremism policy “is to terrorise the Muslim community”. This claim was repeated in a CAGE report. But Rabbani, like his colleague Ali, suffers from an “absence of reality”. What Darmanin actually said was: “We are beginning to spread terror among those who wanted to impose it on us.” Reading the interview with Darmanin in context, it is quite clear he was referring not to Muslims per se, as Rabbani and CAGE would have us believe, but to Islamists – radicals or separatists. Darmanin’s firm approach to dealing with Islamist extremism in France is in fact commendable. Rabbani also preposterously and misleadingly compared France’s treatment of Muslims with that of China – where over 1 million Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang province have reportedly been incarcerated in “re-education” camps, and where Muslims have allegedly suffered from forced labour and sterilisation.

CAGE has made a business out of agitating Muslim sentiment in Britain and France against both countries’ governments’ counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorism programmes. In the UK, CAGE has actively sought to demonise the Prevent programme through alarmism and mischaracterisation. Its softly spoken research director, Asim Qureshi – who referred to the ISIS executioner Mohammed Emwazi as a “beautiful man” – has claimed that British Muslims are victims of “state sponsored” Islamophobia. A trick he uses is the misleading comparison between the relatively high proportion of Muslim referrals to the Prevent programme (which have dropped dramatically in recent years) and the relatively small proportion of Muslims in Britain. The correct comparison is, of course, with the worryingly high proportion of terrorism-related arrests, convictions and attacks involving Muslims — Islamists. The most recent reminder of this was on July 18, 2023, when the Home Office reported that two thirds of MI5’s caseload is focused on Islamist terrorism.

The French interior ministry has understandably cracked down on Islamist extremism

The French interior ministry has understandably cracked down on Islamist extremism and what it calls “separatism”. France has suffered the most and worst Islamist terror attacks in Europe in recent years. CAGE’s connections to — and Rabbani’s defence of — several French Islamist groups that have been banned in France are indeed concerning. BarakaCity and the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) were both banned in 2020 after being found propagating Islamist propaganda in the wake of the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty. At the OSCE, Rabbani said CCIF was closed because it “spoke out” against the French Government’s “Islamophobia”. This is not true. What he didn’t reveal was that the grounds for its banning included CCIF’s leaders “relativising or refusing to condemn acts of terrorism or the call for armed violence, also contributing to their legitimation”. The judge in the case of BarakaCity indicated that “numerous publications” by the group’s founder, Driss Yemmou Sihamedi, constituted “hate speech and incitement to hatred or violence”. 

Rabbani’s expulsion from France is a welcome move. It is likely that the British authorities have played a role in tipping off the French. Hopefully, this is indicative of greater future cooperation between the UK and France on matters of security and extremism. Policy Exchange is actively facilitating such cooperation across Europe. Its European Roundtable on Extremism (ERE), launched in 2022, brings together senior policymakers, practitioners and academics to identify policy solutions to the shared extremism-related challenges we face across the continent. Islamist extremists are becoming more connected across Europe and gaining platforms, such as the OSCE and the UN, to spread the false view that Muslims are under siege in Europe. Governments in Europe likewise need to collaborate more effectively to tackle this dangerous narrative. Policy Exchange’s ERE will continue to play a facilitating role to this end, regardless of the predictable but baseless charge of “Islamophobia” that will ensue.

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