Lutfur Rahman, the Bangladesh-born Muslim elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, East London, was accused by BBC's Panorama of doubling public funding to Bangladeshi and Somali Muslim groups from £1.3 million ($2.9m) to £3.6 million ($6m) at the recommendation of council officers.
The Secretary for the Department for Communities and Local Government [DCLG], Eric Pickles, had apparently sent inspectors into Tower Hamlets to investigate Rahman's activities. But when, on April 4, the Metropolitan Police Service received three files from the DCLG, and police investigators reviewed the allegations, they found no evidence of fraud or other offenses. In response, Mr. Rahman labeled BBC's Panorama report as having "clear racist and Islamophobic overtones targeting the Bangladeshi Muslim community in Tower Hamlets."
Rahman, a solicitor specializing in family law, describes himself as a liberal and a social democrat. But many consider him as secretive, sly, inept, anti-gay and a frontman for Islamists. The question now in London, before local elections on May 22, is whether Rahman is a liberal or actually a fundamentalist.
In September 2010, Lutfur Rahman was selected by the Tower Hamlets Labour Party as its candidate for the first directly elected mayor of the borough. The party's national executive committee removed him as the party's candidate, however, after an allegation that he was closely linked with the Islamic Forum of Europe, an Islamic fundamentalist group. The Islamic Forum of Europe has a youth wing, Young Muslim Organization, based in Tower Hamlets and established mainly by the Bangladeshi expatriates.
Lutfur Rahman. (Image source: lutfurrahman.com)
Journalist and radio presenter Andrew Gilligan, who was named Journalist of the Year at the 2008 British Press Awards for his work on London's mayoral elections, wrote a series of reports on Lutfur Rahman and Tower Hamlets. Gilligan writes:
Rahman has created funds that organise pre-election events and reward his supporters and potential supporters with public money. Of the £593,512 granted, at least £327,645 (55 per cent) has gone to Muslim organisations.
Grants (listed here and here) included a total of £37,195 to several groups closely associated with the IFE. A further £32,500 of public money has been paid to UK-based Bengali-language newspapers, media organisations and TV stations – influential with Rahman's electorate – which have given the mayor fawning coverage.
Other grants included £1,800 to an Islamic religious teachers' organisation for its annual day out to the Isle of Wight and £1,500 for a "festival of sneakers."
Of the £907,180 given to run lunch clubs for residents over 50, £515,280 (57 per cent) was allocated to Muslim organisations, to lunch clubs described by the council as exclusively for Bangladeshis or Somalis, or to clubs which from their own publicity are aimed at an exclusively Muslim clientele.
Muslims make up 34.5% of Tower Hamlets' population; 32% of Tower Hamlets' people are Bangladeshi. Lutfur Rahman has been accused of serving a community for his own purpose. Gilligan also wrote:
You wouldn't know this from the makeup of Lutfur Rahman's ruling cabinet, which is 100 per cent Bangladeshi and Muslim, or from his grants. In 2012, the council changed its policy to ensure that "the decisions for all awards over £1,000 were to be made by the Mayor under his executive authority".
After that time, as both the BBC and I have catalogued, there was a clear diversion of funding away from secular bodies serving the whole community to faith-based or religious groups serving only sections of the community.
Labour Party leader Ed Milliband hinted the same during a visit to Brick Lane on May 7 to support Labour's mayoral candidate, John Biggs. Milliband said, "Not serving one set of people in the borough as against another set of people in the borough. It's serving all the people right across the borough. That is the politics that John represents."
Abdul Gaffar Chawdhury, a Bangladeshi journalist, who lived in London for more than three decades, wrote in an April 16 article in a national Bengali newspaper, that Tower Hamlets has become a stronghold for Jamaat-e-Islam, a Wahhabi religious and political group. He writes, "Some progressive Bangladeshi expatriates, living in London, are now labeling the borough under Lutfur Rahman as 'Islamic Republic of Tower Hamlets'." Chawdhury continues that in 1980s and 1990s, Tower Hamlets was a center of cultural movement and progressive people, but that after Rahman became mayor, unfortunately it turned into a den for Jamaat-e-Islam.
In 2008, Rahman, then the council leader, received a visit from the controversial Saudi cleric Sheikh Adel Al-Kalbani, who last year was refused entry into Britain. At the time, Al-Kalbani's visit gave Rahman -- also a close ally of Anjem Choudhury, the well known Islamist and spokesman for the Islamist group Islam4UK -- the image of an Islamist sympathizer. The former head Imam of Mecca, Al-Kalbani was in London's East End to meet local council leaders for a "private meeting" at Tower Hamlets. The meeting was hugely controversial as Rahman and others held it behind closed doors and refused to disclose what was discussed.
Rahman, who is again standing for the post of Executive Mayor again this month, has never discouraged some of the Islamic values that seem incompatible with the modern European era. Instead he apparently found it worrying that some Muslim women were anglicizing their names and removing their hijabs. On September 18, at a reception ceremony arranged by the Greater Sylhet Development & Welfare Council, Mayor Rahman said, "We Bangladeshis are not only Members of Parliament and a Mayor here, but also a big part of British economy. In future, we will see more Bangladeshi representatives here, and one day our representatives will govern this country."
The Telegraph has listed Rahman as number 53 of the "Top 100 most influential Left-wingers" in Britain. His Bangladeshi and Somali supporters call him "the only non-white mayor" in order to attract non-white votes.