Muslim groups accuse HSBC of Islamophobia after it threatens to close accounts


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The Independent Online

One of Britain’s biggest banks is shutting down the accounts of “risky” customers, including a number of Muslim organisations who claim they are being unfairly targeted in an “Islamophobic campaign”.

HSBC’s policy came to light after it sent letters to three Muslim groups – Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, think tank The Cordoba Foundation and Bolton-based charity the Ummah Welfare Trust – informing them that their accounts would be closed within two months. Some were told they fell outside the bank’s “risk appetite”.

The Independent understands that the bank’s actions are part of a “global review” of its customers launched in the wake of damaging claims in 2012 that it had allowed rogue states and drug cartels to launder billions of pounds through its branches. It eventually reached a settlement of £1.2bn with US financial regulators over the affair.

The Muslim groups are believed to be among a number of other British organisations to have been caught up in the bank’s enormous risk assessment exercise. Others include non-Muslim charities and customers that it suspects have links to drug dealing.

The groups who have received the letters are furious that HSBC is refusing to tell them the reason for their accounts being closed, leading them to suggest they are being discriminated against. The Charities Commission is not investigating any of the organisations involved.

Khalid Oumar, one of Finsbury Park Mosque’s trustees, said the fact that HSBC had declined to explain its actions “has led us to believe that the only reason this has happened is because of an Islamophobic campaign targeting Muslim charities in the UK”.

The Mosque’s local MP, Jeremy Corbyn, told The Independent he was “surprised” and “shocked” to hear of the bank’s actions. “It’s a very well run mosque. If HSBC has got a problem, they should say so,” he said. “You can’t just send out a prewritten letter spewed out by a computer without any explanation.”

Anas Altikriti, chief executive of the Cordoba Foundation, said HSBC had closed not only his account but also those of his wife and two sons, who are aged 16 and 12.

He said: “I am angered because of the wall of silence and the tone of the letter. It is unsettling. It’s like I have done something wrong. The involvement of my family disturbs me. Why the entire family?”

The Ummah Welfare Trust, which provides emergency relief to conflict zones such as Syria and Gaza, called on its supporters to boycott HSBC in response to the account closure – but it is not the first bank to have taken such action. In 2008, the charity had its accounts shut down by Barclays.

Hara Rafiq, head of outreach at counter-extremism group Quilliam, told The Independent he believed that the Muslim groups were not being unfairly targeted and that HSBC merely had its sights on groups it viewed as having “potential risk for the future”.

“This has been done off the back of a massive fine that HSBC has received, and like any private entity would do, they undertook a massive risk assessment,” he said. “These three organisations just happen to be Muslim ones – there are other non-Muslim groups who have also had their bank accounts withdrawn.”

A spokesman for the bank said a “thorough review” was undertaken before the letters were sent, but refused to say how many customers had been affected.

He added: “We do not discuss individual customers, nor do we confirm whether an individual or business is, or has been a customer. For context however, HSBC was fined $1.9bn 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 exited relationships with business and personal customers in over 70 countries. The services we provide to charities are no exception to this global review.

“In general terms, decisions to end a customer relationship are not taken lightly, and are absolutely not based on the race or religion of a customer. Discrimination against customers on grounds of race or religion is immoral, unacceptable and illegal, and HSBC has comprehensive rules and policies in place to ensure race or religion are never factors in banking decisions.”