A Muslim representative group is to be investigated following allegations its leader was being unaccountable, while another leader has been accused of running a “dictatorship”.
The ACT Government has said it would consider cancelling the registration of the Islamic Council of the ACT after an ABC investigation found the group may have failed to hold annual meetings for up to four years.
Both it and its NSW counterpart, Muslims NSW, have been accused of not holding annual meetings for as long as eight years and the claims are supported by paperwork lodged with regulators in those states.
The failure would breach a basic state law of incorporated associations that requires groups hold an AGM within six months of the end of the financial year.
It also means elections cannot be held.
Muslims NSW denied the claims but said it would not comment on “operational matters”.
The state-based councils are the umbrella group for various Muslim community societies, and those societies receive hundreds of thousands in community donations and grants each year.
They are also sometimes called on to advise government on ethnic affairs.
Leaders of some societies have spoken out, concerned that the state councils have been taken over by individuals to run “one-man shows” in NSW and the ACT.
Critics said problems with the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC), the national group that represents the state councils, can be traced back to the problems in the state councils whose members elect key federation seats.
The federation has come under government scrutiny in recent months for how it manages its largely taxpayer-funded schools, which have faced multiple sackings and allegations of financial mismanagement.
No invite for eight years
Parramatta mosque in Sydney is one of the city’s largest gatherings of the Islamic faithful.
It is run by the Parramatta Islamic Cultural Association, one of the societies that form Muslims NSW.
But Parramatta’s chairman, Neil El-Kadomi, said he had not been invited to a meeting of Muslims NSW in its four-year history or its predecessor for four years before that.
It would mean Muslims NSW chairman Amjad Mehboob has remained in his role without facing a vote.
Mr Mehboob is also the spokesman for the national body AFIC.
“It’s dictatorship, no more democracy,” Mr El-Kadomi said. “We are the biggest society in the council. We’re not invited to anything.
“I complained and they didn’t answer me. I think Fair Trading should look into this.”
Mr Mehboob said Parramatta was no longer a member of Muslims NSW because it had not paid fees and owed money.
He rejected any suggestions Muslims NSW did not hold annual meetings but refused to provide any minutes or annual reports.
“I’m not going to go into operational matters,” he said. “It’s a new council going through considerable issues.”
Mr Mehboob said there were no annual returns available through the NSW Office of Fair Trading because no paperwork was lodged and Muslims NSW was not registered with the office.
Fair Trading does have documents indicating the group is registered, but a search did not produce any annual returns.
Mr Mehboob said disgruntled individuals were working against the organisation.
He said individual societies were responsible for how public funds were spent, not the peak body.
“We are not a public open organisation. Not everybody is entitled to participate,” he said.
“We do not claim to represent everybody.”
Mr El-Kadomi said the society had a loan from the AFIC but would not repay it while there were financial governance concerns.
He said the state council had not submitted any written request for fees and typically other societies did not pay fees.
Structure of Australian Federation of Islamic Councils
AFIC is structured in a basic pyramid shape. It has nine committee members, with four main positions elected by the states.
Each state council is made up of a series of community associations.
The heads of the councils are:
- Muslims NSW — Amjad Mehboob (also AFIC spokesman)
- Islamic Council of ACT — Mohammed Berjaoui
- Islamic Council of Queensland — Ismail Cajee
- Islamic Council Victoria — Ghaith Krayem
- Islamic Council of Tasmania — Abdul Hanan Harun
- Islamic Council SA — Farouk Khan
- Islamic Council NT — Ghulam Abbas
- Islamic Council WA — Rateb Junaid
- Islamic Council Christmas Island — Zainal Abdul Majid
‘No democracy in nation’s capital’
In the ACT, Muslim community members are concerned democracy has been lost within their peak organisation, the Islamic Council of ACT.
Osman Adam heads the Islamic Society of Belconnen, one of the biggest societies in the ACT with about 650 members.
He said the ACT council had not had a valid election in four years.
“There is nothing like a democratic ACT council representing AFIC in the ACT,” Mr Adam said.
In that time president Mohammed Berjaoui had continued to have a vote on AFIC national elections despite not being subject to elections himself.
“He’s council chair. He’s supposed to call for an AGM as well as elections,” Mr Adam said.
“But he hasn’t done so for some time now.”
Mr Berjaoui did not respond to the ABC’s inquiries.
Use of ‘paper societies’ to gain power
There is general concern about the use of so-called paper societies to gain power within the AFIC structure.
Mr Adam said he was angered about their use within the ACT, and there was also concern about their use in NSW and reports of their use within South Australia.
Mr Adam said some individuals had created societies constructed in name only by filing relevant paperwork with authorities.
There are seven Islamic societies in the ACT for its Muslim population of 7,500.
All of the societies get a vote on the elections of Islamic Council of ACT, which in turn has a voting right on the AFIC.
Mr Adam said it was the community who suffered, with AFIC’s Canberra school failing to receive a much-needed expansion and upgrades.
“The current leadership at the council level in the ACT should definitely be booted out,” Mr Adam said.
ACT government documents show the council’s most recent AGM was held in 2010.
Following inquiries from the ABC, the ACT Government said it would consider cancelling the association’s registration based on failing to lodge a return over a two-year period.
“The Islamic Council of the ACT has not lodged an annual return in relation to each of the last two years and has been included in the next cancellation process,” a spokesman said.
A government spokesman said the first step of the cancellation process was to write to the association to encourage compliance with the Act.
In NSW, Mr El-Kadomi said there were also individuals who claimed to represent groups who seemingly had few or no members.
“I can make three of four societies and register them with Fair Trading and I become a society,” he said.
“They have members who are grandchildren, underage, their wives, their kids only to show they have members.
“Actually they have no members, they are only a paper society just to get a vote.”
Fair Trading lacks resources to police associations: expert
The state councils represent community-based societies that control hundreds of thousands in donations and community grants.
For example, the Islamic Society of ACT received more than $200,000 in donations in 2014 for things like its mosque building fund and Eid celebrations.
Islamic Society of Belconnen benefited from a $3,000 multicultural government grant for Eid celebrations and activities for Muslim youth.
Professor Myles McGregor-Lowndes from the Centre for Philanthropy and Non-Profit Studies said most Fair Trading offices were not resourced well enough to police associations.
“They often will refer the parties to civil remedies to the court or for the matter to be decided at a full meeting of their members,” he said.
“Penalties do need to fit the crime. They do need to have a deterrence effect.”
The Queensland University of Technology professor said three-quarters of complaints about charities related to governance.
“It’s best for the penalties to attach to the management committee or those in control of the associations rather than the associations themselves.”
A spokesman for the ACT Government said the registrar-general could cancel an association’s registration and take its assets if they had failed to have annual meetings or lodge an annual return.
The spokesman said the Government did regular audits but tried to work with associations.
“It should be noted that the most recent audit of association files has identified that over 300 associations have failed to lodge annual returns in the last two years,” he said.