Sonny Bill Williams’ friendship with a radical preacher has drawn complaints from community groups and forced his sponsor to respond, Picture: Getty images

BMW is “re-looking” at its ambassador deal with Sonny Bill Williams after complaints about the rugby star’s association with Muslim extremists.

Williams’ appointment as one of BMW New Zealand’s brand ambassadors was highly publicised in October, but soon after drew an influx of complaints from BMW customers and members of the LGBT and Jewish communities about Williams’ association with controversial Muslim clerics and a photo in which he is using a salute associated with Isis.

Articles appeared on Gay Express, on the Whale Oil blog and in motoring publications about the Williams’ links to Mufti Ismail Menk and Erbrahim Bham, but it can now be reported that BMW is taking action over the men’s links.

It is understood that a senior BMW manager travelled from Australia to New Zealand to address the issue, and that customers who have complained were told a decision would be reached by the end of January.

BMW New Zealand’s head of corporate communications, Paul Sherley, told Newsroom that Williams’ original contract remained unchanged. However, he said the luxury vehicle brand was taking the complaints seriously and “re-looking” at Williams’ role.

Despite widespread publicity from BMW when Williams was appointed as ambassador, there is no mention of him on the company’s website alongside other brand ambassadors, shoe designer Kathryn Wilson and chef Josh Emmet. Critical comments about Williams have also been removed from BMW New Zealand’s Facebook page, while those comments supporting him remain.

The controversy stems from Williams’ support of Zimbabwe-born Menk who was banned from six UK universities in 2013 for his extreme anti-homosexual views. He described same-sex acts as, “filthy”, “wrong” and “acts of immorality”.

Menk was recorded as saying: “With all due respect to the animals, [homosexuals] are worse than those animals”.

While he lives in South Africa, Menk travels the world teaching his religious views and his visits to countries, especially those in the West, are often met with controversy.

Supporting Menk by re-tweeting and praising his comments saw Australian navy Captain Mona Shindy last year forced to shut down the social media account she ran to promote Islam in the navy.

The friendship between Williams and Menk has been well documented on social media. The closeness of this relationship has caused complainants to questions whether Williams endorses Menk’s homophobic beliefs.

In a now deleted comment on the BMW New Zealand Facebook page, Greg Woolley said:

“Seriously guys?! Why would you have SBW as an ambassador?”

In 2007, Williams was dropped by the brand for off-field behaviour in a bar. Woolley, in his comment, described that behaviour as being “a lot less offensive to the vast majority of mainstream New Zealand than endorsing people…who say gay people are worse than animals. Is your marketing department really that stupid?”

Another comment on the same page, that has also been deleted, said Williams was making a one fingered “Isis salute” in a photo. The symbol is a long-standing Muslim gesture, but has been widely adopted by Isis soldiers.

When contacted by Newsroom, Sherley said the company was “re-looking” at its agreement with Williams as a result of the complaints.

“We are certainly very mindful of the complaints around him and we are just re-looking at how we can integrate him.

“We take all of the complaints very seriously and if there is public opinion that suggests we need to re-look at, or how we are using someone, we will do it.”

Sherley said there had not been a change to the original agreement, and could not confirm when a decision on any changes would be made.

According to BMW’s publicity when it announced Williams’ new role with the brand, he was given a $160,000 BMW X5 xDrive 50i in exchange for appearing at sports and social events to promote the BMW lifestyle brand. It is understood that even though the arrangement has been diluted, Williams can continue to use the car.

Sherley said Williams’ absence from BMW’s website was because the site had not been updated yet and that he did not attend the ASB Classic, of which BMW is a key sponsor, because none of the brand’s ambassadors did.

He said he did not know why the Facebook comments have been deleted.

When asked if taking action over the complaints could be seen as anti-Muslim, Sherley said:

“If there is criticism or complaints made against [any ambassador] we will obviously look to work in a way where we minimise any problems, that goes for our brand and our ambassadors themselves.”

In response to further questions, Sherley said: “The utilisation of representatives in this programme is subject to availability and affinity and is a matter of internal management.”

Williams’ manager Khoder Nasser was also contacted by Newsroom. He told a reporter he had a “big fight coming up in Australia and that’s what I am concentrating on,” before hanging up his phone.

Federation of Islamic Associations New Zealand (FIANZ) president Hazim Arafeh said there was “no way on earth” that Williams would support hate speech. He said he did not know enough about Menk and Bham to comment on their ideologies, and it would be premature to comment on BMW’s stance as no action had been confirmed by the company.

The one finger salute was a universal Islamic gesture and should not be associated with Isis, he said.

“Everybody is entitled to their sexual orientation and religious beliefs and I don’t see that having Sonny Bill Williams as a BMW ambassador could drive people away from driving BMWs.”

Williams could not be reached for comment.

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Update: January 25, 2017

Sonny Bill Williams’ agent says any suggestion that his client is linked to “hurtful and hateful comments” is “ludicrous”.

Khoder Nasser spoke to Newsroom after it yesterday revealed complaints about the rugby, league, and boxing star’s affiliations to two Islamic preachers had caused BMW to “re-look” at its involvement with Williams.

Soon after Williams was named a brand ambassador by the company, concerns were raised by members of the LGBT and Jewish communities about Williams’ friendships with two controversial clerics, and a photo in which he is using a salute which has been associated with Isis.

The South African clerics, Mufti Ismail Menk and Erbrahim Bham, have sparked outrage around the world with Menk’s homophobic comments and Bham’s anti-Semitic sentiments.

They both have a close association with Williams, with their friendships documented in photos, tweets and YouTube videos.

Today, Nasser told Newsroom there was no substance to claims Williams was linked to “hurtful and hateful social media comments”.

“It’s way off the mark,” he said.

Nasser said there was “proof in the pudding” and that any reports were “defaming his character”.

Nasser did not wish to answer questions about whether Williams’ was aware of the controversial views held by Menk and Bham.

He also did not wish to comment about the ambassador deal with BMW.

While BMW’s head of corporate affairs, Paul Sherley, yesterday confirmed the company was “re-looking” at its arrangement with Williams, he later said the matter was being dealt with “in-house” and would not answer further questions.

However, Newsroom understands that a senior BMW manager travelled to New Zealand to address the issue, and that customers who complained were told a decision would be made by the end of January.

Intelligence expert and former terrorist profiler for the CIA, Dr Paul Buchanan, said the question at the heart of the debate was whether Williams was aware of Bham and Menk’s views.

“You could go into a mosque as much as you could go into a Catholic church without knowing that the Imam has extremist views, for example if the priest was an extreme anti-abortionist.

“That’s where I would put the defining line, if he really wasn’t aware. But if he was aware of the controversy and continued to associate with them them, yes, I would say that the sponsors might want to take a good look at his association with their brand.”

Federation of Islamic Associations New Zealand (FIANZ) Hazim Arafeh said that BMW would have chosen Williams for his sporting prowess, not because of his religious beliefs.

He said a photo of Williams making a salute with his index finger was a centuries-old symbol for “one Islam” and should not be associated with Daesh, otherwise known as Isis.

*This story first appeared on Summer Newsroom

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