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Anger over Sara Khan appointment to lead UK counter-extremism commission

Campaigner described as 'a creation of and mouthpiece for the Home Office' as government faces criticism over controversial appointment
Theresa May (L), the then-home secretary, appeared alongside Sara Khan at the launch of the #MakingAStand campaign in 2014

The British government's new lead commissioner for countering extremism has come under fire from Muslim groups and politicians for her close ties to a secretive Home Office unit linked to government-backed "grassroots" campaigns.

Sarah Khan has been a strong advocate of the government's controversial Prevent counter-extremism strategy and has claimed that criticism of it is being driven by an "Islamist-hard left alliance".

In a statement released late on Wednesday, the Home Office said that Khan had been selected to lead the newly created Commission for Countering Extremism following "an open, rigorous and transparent recruitment process".

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said Khan, a prominent counter-extremism campaigner, was "expertly qualified" for the role.

"She will bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the commission which will prove vital as it works to identify and challenge extremism and provide independent advice to the government," said Rudd.

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But the appointment drew immediate condemnation from prominent British Muslims and Muslim organisations, including from within the ranks of the governing Conservative Party.

Sayeeda Warsi, a former Conservative co-chair and the first Muslim woman to hold a cabinet position, said Khan's appointment was "misjudged" and would hinder the fight against extremism.

“For the commissioner to be effective the person had to be an independent thinker, both connected to and respected by a cross-section of British Muslims. Sara is sadly seen by many as simply a creation of and mouthpiece for the Home Office,” Warsi said in a series of tweets critical of Khan's appointment.

She also compared Khan's appointment as "#AnotherTobyYoungMoment" in reference to the controversial selection of Toby Young to head the Office for Students. 

Young, who is a Conservative party member and campaigns on education issues, was forced to resign after a string of offensive tweets was unearthed directed at women and working-class students. 

The Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group representing many mosques and Muslim organisations, also said it had "grave concerns" about the appointment.

"The Lead Commissioner should have a track record of transparency, accountability and experience in garnering trust amongst the communities they serve."

Khan is considered one of the most prominent advocates of the government's Prevent counter-extremism strategy which is viewed with suspicion in Muslim communities and has been widely criticised by international human rights watchdogs, campaign groups and by parliamentary committees and politicians.

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But, speaking at a security conference in London last year, Khan said that opposition to Prevent was being driven by an “Islamist-hard left alliance” which was “promoting false claims and conspiracy”.

Questions about Khan's independence have arisen as a result of her past work for Inspire, the human rights-focused Muslim women's campaign group that she founded, which has played a leading role in Home Office-promoted counter-extremism campaigns.

Documents obtained by Middle East Eye in 2016 revealed that one such campaign launched in 2014, #MakingAStand, had been listed in a catalogue of Prevent projects as a "RICU Product", a reference to the Home Office's Research, Information and Communications Unit.

A page on Inspire's website states that #MakingAStand was supported and funded by the Home Office, but archived versions of the page suggest the information was only added in 2015.

RICU, which is based in the Home Office's Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), has been accused of running "covert propaganda" campaigns promoting the Prevent strategy but secrecy surrounds its work.

Khan was also questioned about her relationship with RICU and the Home Office by parliament's home affairs select committee in November 2015, with Shah raising concerns about a possible conflict of interest over the fact that Khan's sister held a senior position within RICU.

"There are concerns that will inevitably rise about nepotism, transparency and independence when an organisation receiving financial support from the Home Office and championed by the home secretary has a close family member employed in that same government department," Shah wrote in evidence submitted to the committee.

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Inspire dismissed the concerns in their own submission to the committee and said that Shah's remarks were based on "unfounded allegations".

"Inspire has always declared anything that could be perceived as a conflict of interest during the bidding process to ensure appropriate steps are followed and ensure all risks in relation to “nepotism, transparency and independence” are mitigated," Khan and Inspire co-director Kalsoom Bashir wrote.

Shah said on Thursday that she shared concerns about Khan's appointment and would write to Rudd, the home secretary, later in the day.

"What is at question is the independence of the person appointed," Shah told BBC radio.

"It's a fantastic appointment for the Home Office because this is somebody who is a creation of the Home Office."

Khan's appointment was defended by David Anderson, the UK's former counter-terrorism watchdog, who said that criticism she had voiced about the government's abandoned plans for a counter-extremism bill in 2015 was hard to reconcile with allegations that she was a "government stooge".

Khan said she was "eager to collaborate and engage" with "those who recognise the harm and threat extremism continues to pose in our society".

"I extend my hand out to you to work with me in supporting the commission’s work in building a Britain that defends our diverse country while demonstrating zero tolerance to those who promote hate and who seek to divide us."

Several organisations and supporters of the Prevent strategy also welcomed Khan's appointment. Nikita Malik from the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society described Khan's appointment as an "important move by the government to take women's voices in preventing terrorism seriously."

Maajid Nawaz, previously described as an "anti-Muslim extremist" and former head of the Prevent-funded Quilliam Foundation, also welcomed Khan's appointment. 

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