The announcement of a general election in Britain last week took no one by surprise. When Gordon Brown finally fired the starting gun, all the party leaders were quick out of their blocs as months of meticulous planning could finally be put into effect. The same is true of Muslim pressure groups keen to influence the direction of both politicians and, in turn, British society.
Campaigns have already been launched in Muslim areas urging the residents to form a voting bloc and elect ‘Muslim friendly’ candidates. The issue has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, following a documentary by Channel 4 which revealed how the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) is using entryist tactics to gain influence over their local Tower Hamlets council and the local branch of the Labour Party.
Local Muslim groups complained about the hardline influence they felt IFE activists were exerting over the area. A woman who ran a dating agency there, for instance, received threats from an IFE activist warning her to close it. Secular groups also complained that money was being directed away from them and towards those who promote political Islam.
Secret filming caught an IFE activist and Tower Hamlets councillor, Abjol Miah, saying, "We’ve consolidated ourselves now. We’ve got a lot of influence and power in the council, councillors, politicians."
A Labour member of parliament, Jim Fitzpatrick, said "They [the IFE] are acting almost as an entryist organization, placing people within the political parties, recruiting members to those political parties, trying to get individuals selected and elected so they can exercise political influence and power, whether it’s at local government level or national level."
His concerns were not unfounded. Forensic scrutiny of the IFE found that the assistant chief executive of Tower Hamlets council, Lutfur Ali, secured his job despite a group of council-appointed headhunters having described him as "superficial," "rather limited," and "one-dimensional." They also said that he might "struggle with the intellectual challenges [of] a highly strategic role."
In his application to Tower Hamlets, Ali also failed to mention that he had been forced to leave his previous job with the London Fire Authority after breaching rules on political neutrality.
Although Ali may not have been suitably qualified, the Telegraph reported: "Luckily [Ali] did have what was almost certainly a more important qualification — close links to the IFE. He set up an organizaation called the Centre for Muslim Affairs with a number of IFE and IFE-linked figures."
Shortly after the documentary was aired, Ali resigned from office.
Channel 4’s program was met with a furious response from the IFE and its supporters. Over thirty politicians and activists wrote an open letter to the Guardian condemning the "inflammatory documentary" and blaming it for increased racial tensions in the area. Earlier, the IFE had also organized a "timely seminar" on "confronting anti-Muslim hatred in contemporary Britain."
They claim, incorrectly, that Channel 4 and those who supported its investigation, do not want to see Muslims active in public life. This is a crass charge. Consider, for example, that the majority of interviewees in the Channel 4 program were Muslims complaining about the IFE’s hardline approach.
Their problem is with the IFE’s reactionary and sectarian message, and its lack of openness about what it stands for when taking its message to the public.
Equally deceitful is the claim that the IFE is a movement committed to democracy. Its own literature demonstrates that much. One of its publications says the group "strives for the establishment of a global society, the Khilafah [the Caliphate]... comprised of individuals who live by the principles of ... the Shari'ah." Another leaflet says the IFE wants to change the "very infrastructure of society, its institutions, its culture, its political order and its creed ... from ignorance to Islam."
One of its senior members, Azad Ali, also was secretly filmed saying "’Democracy, if it means at the expense of not implementing the sharia, of course no one agrees with that,’ says the IFE's community affairs.’"
Ali is no stranger to controversy. Despite working as a civil servant in the Treasury, he has repeatedly made controversial statements.
In the past he stated his commitment to the Caliphate, saying, "Since we are all working our socks off, in different ways, for the resurgence of the Khilafa [leader of the Caliphate], I have one question: Who would you give bayyah [allegiance] to today, and what would you say are the qualities needed for them to get your vote?"
"My vote for the title of Amir al-Mu’mineen," he continued, "would have to go to the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh." Haniyeh is, of course, the leader of Hamas.
The IFE is also linked to the East London Mosque. Its current chairman, Dr Mohammed Abdul Bari, is a former president of the IFE. The same is true of the mosque’s current vice-chairman. Of the IFE’s last twenty-two trustees, in fact, only five have not also been trustees or officeholders of the mosque.
Like the IFE, the East London Mosque has, on occasion, hosted extremist preachers -- including the al-Qaeda linked cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who spoke at the mosque in 2003. More recently, in 2009 a video message by Awlaki was also broadcast in the mosque.
Two months before that message was broadcast, however, the Homeland Security Under-Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, Charles Allen, stated, "Another example of al-Qa'ida reach into the Homeland is U.S. citizen, al-Qa'ida supporter, and former spiritual leader to three of the September 11th hijackers Anwar al-Awlaki -- who targets U.S. Muslims with radical online lectures encouraging terrorist attacks from his new home in Yemen."
One month after the mosque broadcast Awlaki's video message, he wrote on his blog: "I pray that America sees no progress at all. I pray that Allah destroys America and all its allies and the day that happens, and I assure you it will and sooner than you think, I will be very pleased."
The IFE and its supporters are not harmless democrats. As Britain heads into a general election, groups like it are encouraging Muslims to vote based on confessional interests, as has been tried in previous elections as well. In 2005, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee and the MAB tried to turn the general election into a referendum on Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq.
Returning officers revealed how their attempts to influence the Muslim vote failed spectacularly. In Blackburn, a constituency with a large Muslim population, Jack Straw was returned to parliament with ease despite being the Foreign Secretary who led Britain into Iraq. A similar pattern emerged nationally, with George Galloway's victory in Bethnal Green and Bow the only notable exception. Even there, it is too easy to suggest that Iraq was the sole reason behind Oona King's defeat.
Polling released by the mayor of London in 2007 revealed that Muslims in the capital consider crime reduction, clean streets, education and affordable housing as their primary concerns -- issues far removed from the Islamist bugbears of Palestine and Iraq.
This is why an open letter published in the Guardian last week is highly significant. Signed by local community activists from East London and Tower Hamlets -- many of whom are Muslim themselves -- they state:
How can it be right for those of us who believe in liberal democracy to leave unchallenged those who would discriminate against religious minorities, women, homosexuals and Muslims with dissenting or heterodox views?
Criticism of incitement to religious hatred has nothing to do with excluding Muslims from the political process, as the supporters of the East London Mosque and Islamic Forum of Europe suggest. There are many impeccably non-sectarian Muslims active in political life, including in parliament, who are capable of opposing both racism and fundamentalism.
The greatest threat to democracy comes from reactionary and sectarian political groupings. We are disturbed by the rise of confessional identity politics in this country. Those who would promote such politics deserve robust scrutiny. To combat them is a moral duty.
This letter suggests that Islamist attempts to influence Muslim voting habits at the election are even less likely to succeed now than in the past.