Civil Service Muslim Network suspended over Israel-Gaza comments

Oliver Dowden orders suspension of network pending an investigation into comments by webinar convenors
Dowden said he was "disgusted by these allegations". Photo: Ian Davidson/Alamy Live News

The Civil Service Muslim Network has suspended its activities pending an investigation after reports that it had hosted events during which speakers had encouraged officials to “lobby” colleagues to change the government’s policy on the conflict in Gaza.

Deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden said he had ordered an immediate suspension of the network after The Times was handed a memo with the details of several webinars it has held to discuss the government’s stance on Israel and Gaza.

The convenor of one of the webinars in December, who the newspaper said could not be named for legal reasons but works in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, described the war in Gaza as a “fight between good and evil”, implying that Israel was on the side of evil.

UK government policy is that Israel “has the right to defend itself under international law” following the attack by Hamas and its kidnap of Israeli hostages on 7 October.

During one event, an official allegedly claimed that the “Israel lobby” has an “insidious influence” on British politics, and that the mainstream media is “biased” and “full of lies”.

The webinars reportedly coached servants on how to “lobby” and “petition” senior officials to move towards taking a harder stance against Israel and how to be “strategic and smart” in avoiding disciplinary action.

In one instance, according to the report, officials were encouraged to use conversations about mental health and wellbeing to raise concerns about the government’s policy and  “advocate” for a pro-Palestinian stance.

A convener was quoted as encouraging staff to raise the issue in one-on-one meetings with their line managers, saying: “You make just as much of the same impact – if not more, because you can do it consistently – by saying it indirectly; ie. addressing your mental health, how you’re feeling, right? One-to-one check-in with your manager, ‘How are you?’ ‘You know what, I saw some footage on my phone’, or this or that sort of language, you know, a baby’s head blown off, or a family under the rubble and they’re all dead, or children in a mass grave. Things like this, right? People know who’s responsible for that. You don’t have to say, ‘I condemn this people, this nation state, who’s done this’. People know.”

The convener added: “If you want to say that, in a team meeting, ‘sorry if I’m not with it today, because I just saw this’, or ‘this is really getting to me’. Then you’re reaching your team, you’re reaching your manager, and you’re raising your voice still. You’re not doing it recklessly. You’re doing it from a mental-health perspective, because that’s the lens you want to approach it from, a wellbeing perspective, right?”

The convenor said staff who raised the conflict as a mental-health issue would not face disciplinary action “because you’re not even condemning who’s right or wrong here, you’re just talking about the human toll”.

Another convener reportedly told attendees to “complain” and “push back” to their departments’ communications teams when they issue “lopsided” and “tone deaf” messages that “haven’t even mentioned Gaza or Palestine or whatever” – adding that it sometimes worked.

They are also said to have read out a letter from an anonymous Palestinian-based UK civil servant encouraging “resistance” against the government’s pro-Israel stance.

Dowden told The Times: “I am disgusted by these allegations, which represent a breach of the trust given to this organisation and a betrayal of hard-working, diligent Muslim civil servants who wouldn’t dream of engaging in this sort of disturbing political activism. I have ordered an immediate suspension of the network pending an urgent investigation into it and individuals involved. This will include safeguarding and security issues.”

A government spokesperson said: “All civil servants are required to obey the civil service code at all times, including in any staff network activity."

The civil service code requires civil servants to "serve the government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of this code, no matter what your own political beliefs are".

The spokesperson added: “These reported comments are deeply disturbing and totally unacceptable and in no way represent the views of Muslims across the civil service.

“The Civil Service Muslim Network shares these concerns and has temporarily suspended its activities pending a full investigation.

“We will not hesitate to take any further action, including disciplinary measures, following that investigation.”

The suspension comes as the government is considering a crackdown on staff networks. In January, Cabinet Office minister John Glen suggested rules could change to mandate that network meetings take place outside of working hours as part of a crackdown on “political activism”.

Glen, who is working on a review of diversity networks also said  impartiality guidance could  be changed to make it clear that any work “on identity and inclusion issues” should not be a “vehicle for taking an agenda into the workplace”.

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