Open for business?

The timing of HSBC’s decision to shut down the bank account could not have come at a worse moment for the Ummah Welfare Trust, one of Britain’s largest Muslim charities.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne Alex Delmar-Morgan
19 December 2014
HSBC, Kolkata, 2011.

HSBC, Kolkata, 2011. Sudipta Mallick/Flickr. Some rights reserved.HSBC is famous for its longstanding claim to be the 'world's local bank', the slogan which formed the backbone to its famous global advertising campaign for years. The bank claims to appeal to every race, colour, nationality and creed.

But how true is this? A growing number of the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Muslims are coming to question whether HSBC really is on their side.

Over the past few months HSBC has, without warning, closed the accounts of several well-known British Muslims and their dependents. It has also targeted Muslim institutions, including one well-known charity and a mosque. 

None of these have been given any explanation for HSBC’s sudden action. All of them received letters out of the blue. All say they had excellent credit records. HSBC itself refuses to give any reason for its decisions.

Most of the victims are politically active. Without exception they were opponents of the Israeli war against Gaza, and some have connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned as a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The bank told the authors that, “decisions to end a customer relationship are not taken lightly and are absolutely not based on the race or religion of a customer.” But it refuses to go any further. This reticence means that these victims can only guess about why they have been targeted. 

One of the most prominent is Anas Altikriti, chief executive of the Cordoba Foundation, a think tank which says that it devotes itself to building bridges between Islam and the west.

Altikriti, 46, surmises that the closure of his bank account may have been connected to “my activity regarding what is happening with Gaza and my opposition to the coup in Egypt. This may have irked regimes in the UAE or in Saudi Arabia who have shares in HSBC.” 

Mr Altikriti’s relationship with HSBC began in 1985 when he opened an account with the Midland Bank (later taken over by HSBC) in Manchester. “Since then it has been the family bank” he says, “when we got married my wife Malath Shakir opened her account.  When our kids were born we opened accounts for them. 

“When I started my business: HSBC. When my wife founded her company: HSBC. It was the family bank and there were no problems whatsoever.”

A smartly dressed man with a closely shaven beard, Mr Altikriti says HSBC sent letters to him, his wife and his two sons aged 16 and 12 cancelling their accounts. Next, his wife’s company received the same letter and a day later, the Cordoba Foundation itself was told that its bank account would be closed.

The letters were impersonal: "For clarity it is not our intention to offer banking facilities to you in the future.  I would ask that you refrain from making any applications to open any accounts with us, or indeed any part of the HSBC Group or MS Bank.”

Mr Altikriti says all this came as a terrible shock: “It was as though we had done something wrong, as though there was some sort of criminality." He adds that “having a bank account in the modern world is like having electricity or running water. You can’t live life without one.” 

He adds that, “at first I thought it was some mistake, there were no calls for it, no reasons for it, and no sign that any of this was going to happen. My credit record is impeccable.”

He fears a long-term effect on the creditworthiness not just of his family but also his two sons. There is no comeback. HSBC simply told him that his bank account falls ‘outside our risk appetite’. Under British law they have no obligation to say more.

If the timing of HSBC’s decision to shut down the bank account for Mr Altikriti and his Cordoba Foundation was arbitrary, it could not have come at a worse moment for the Ummah Welfare Trust, one of Britain’s largest Muslim charities.

HSBC told the charity they would shut their account on July 22 during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims around the world give especially generously to charity. The war in Gaza was also raging.

“Initially we felt it was deliberate,” Muhammad Ahmad says at UWT’s head office in Bolton. “There is a precedent for this: Barclays said it would close down our account just before the 2008/9 Gaza war,” he said.

Bearded, and dressed in a traditional dark Muslim thawb, his mood quickly becomes solemn, almost despairing. The Call to Prayer rings out around the office on a loud speaker.

“It was an emotional moment,” he says. When you are taking a wounded child to hospital, trying to save somebody’s life, and you feel you are not doing the maximum for them, just the minimum, that moment when a bank in the middle of a war, when your aid work is going on, serves you notice that they won’t facilitate your business, it comes as a major shock.”

“First you feel, is this real or a dream? Can people be so cruel that on one side they are watching what is happening and then they actually choose this time to tell us they are closing the account.”

HSBC, which finally closed UWT’s account on 22 September, saying the charity had fallen out of its “risk appetite” (the same phrase the bank used about Mr Altikriti) insists its decision was taken before the war in Gaza this summer.

As a result of the action, many of the major high street lenders have since turned UWT away. The charity still holds an unrestricted account with the Islamic Bank of Britain.

Established in 2001, UWT is a humanitarian charity providing emergency relief to disaster hit zones in 18 countries across the world, including Syria, Gaza, Pakistan and Haiti. It helps the poorest and neediest in some of the most wretched places on earth. Its staff put their lives at risk to deliver medical aid, ambulances and clean water to millions. It has already spent £2m on providing housing in Gaza this year. Moeen Ali, the England cricketer, is one famous supporter of UWT.

Like some other Muslim charities in the UK, it has been subject to a barrage of spurious accusations of having links to extremism. Notably, it was cleared of fraud in 2003 by the Charity Commission over relief projects in Kashmir. It has also sued two newspapers, Bolton News and Express Newspapers, for articles alleging links to Hamas and Al Qaeda respectively.

Other claims centre on money it gave up to 2008 to Interpal - another British charity active in the Middle East. The US considers Interpal a terrorist organisation, but critics say not a shred of evidence has ever been produced to support its alleged links to Hamas. Three Charity Commission inquiries have cleared Interpal of wrongdoing.

Islamic preachers like Suliman Gani, Riyadh Ul Haq, Mufti Ismail Menk, who the media have all accused of harbouring extremist views, have spoken at UWT fundraising events recently. Muhammad Ahmed says UWT now vets speakers and asks them not to air their personal views when they talk.  

As Mr Ahmad points out, no bank has ever stopped a payment in UWT’s history, which he says is evidence the charity is completely above board.    

“The suspicion that the charity has done something wrong or we are under the radar in where and to who we are sending money, surely this isn’t a factor, because if it is, why isn’t the bank stopping the transactions?” he said.

For a charity as large as UWT, HSBC’s decision was a hammer blow. UWT will turn over a record £24m in the 2013/2014 financial year, Mr Ahmad estimates, up from £18m the year before. When HSBC told the charity it would terminate its banking services in July it launched a special appeal during Ramadan that brought in £11m alone.

In the weeks following the bank’s ruling, UWT launched a social media boycott campaign of HSBC. It wants to roll this out across the world in multiple languages such as Arabic and Urdu to raise awareness of the charity’s plight - and in a bid to get HSBC to reverse its decision. The charity is also considering taking HSBC to court.

Such was the controversy of HSBC’s decision, the organisations affected managed to a get a meeting with the bank’s UK Chief Executive, Antonio Simoes. At the meeting in September, Mr Simoes explained there may have been confidential reasons why the bank took action, citing pressure from the UK and US governments, according to Mr Ahmad.   

The same day that HSBC struck against UWT it dispatched letters to the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London. The mosque director, Mohammed Kozbar, whose family originally comes from Lebanon, told me that he too attended a meeting with Antonio Simoes (the local MP Jeremy Corbyn was also present) but that HSBC refused to change its mind. The Finsbury Park Mosque, which attracts around 2,000 worshippers on Fridays, is well known locally and strongly supported by the local police, council and politicians.

Mr Kozbar said that the mosque approached NatWest and Barclays Bank after the HSBC decision. They also refused to take them on as clients.

On July 22 this year a letter was also dispatched to the writer Azzam Tamimi. Mr Tamimi says that he was on holiday in Jordan at the time and returned to find a deluge of letters waiting for him informing him his account had been closed.

“It was a very disturbing feeling,” he says. “It is difficult now without a bank account. And what really added salt to the wound was that they just shut you out. There’s nothing they can talk to you about or explain. This is very uncharacteristic in a democratic country.”

Mr Tamimi is an academic and political activist who supports Hamas. “I have been accused of no crime,” he says. I have been prosecuted for nothing. Had I been prosecuted for a crime, then a bank is justified.”

Mr Tamimi says that those who have had their accounts closed by HSBC have one thing in common: “We participate in pro Palestine or pro-democracy rallies. That’s what we do and that’s common amongst all of us. So probably someone has been monitoring.

He also links the bank closures to UAE pressure (he chairs Alhiwar TV, a channel which is very unpopular in the UAE) and the current government review of the Muslim Brotherhood.

A spokesperson for HSBC said: “We do not discuss individual customers, nor do we confirm whether an individual or business is, or has been a customer.

The bank added: “For context however, HSBC was fined US$1.9 billion in December 2012 by the US and UK governments and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement. The bank is applying a programme of strategic assessments to all of its businesses. As a result of these ongoing reviews, we have ended relationships with business and personal customers in over 70 countries. The services we provide to charities are no exception to this global review."

There are no grounds whatever for believing that the Finsbury Park Mosque, the Cordoba Foundation, Azzam Tamimi or the Ummah Welfare Trust have been involved in money-laundering, the activity for which HSBC was fined in 2012.

In the absence of an explanation from HSBC it is impossible to say why the accounts of these Muslim organisations have been closed.  However, there is persuasive evidence that the real pressure comes from the United States. We will be examining this evidence shortly.

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