Backlash at the mosque The Telegraph
The influence of Muslim fundamentalists in east London is being challenged, says Andrew Gilligan .
By Andrew Gilligan
Published: 7:14PM GMT 13 Mar 2010
In the two weeks since the Islamic Forum of Europe were exposed by The Sunday Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches as hardline fundamentalists secretly infiltrating the political system, they have been furiously protesting their “proven track record of community cohesion”. Last week, however, the organisation showed its true face.
“We’ve tracked you down,” said the IFE’s community affairs co-ordinator, Azad Ali, in a webcast targeting the Channel 4 reporter “Atif”, who went undercover at the IFE’s headquarters, the East London Mosque, filming the group’s true views – and its boasts that it controlled the local Tower Hamlets council. “Yes, Atif, we’ve got a picture of you and a lot more than you thought we had. We’ve tracked you down to different places. And if people are gonna turn what I’ve just said into a threat, that’s their fault, innit?”
Mr Ali’s words sit strangely with his role as an official advisor to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, and to the police, but perhaps his annoyance is understandable. The undercover reporters filmed him saying: “Democracy, if it means not implementing the sharia, no one’s going to agree with that.”
The reporters found that, far from its protestations of being merely a “social welfare organisation”, the IFE is an organised political movement dedicated to creating an “Islamic social and political order” through “entryism” into mainstream democratic institutions.
Today, though, as the dust settles after this month’s revelations, there are indications that that sort of influence may have peaked. One of the most visible signs of the Islamists’ growing hold over Tower Hamlets council was the highly controversial proposal to erect so-called “hijab gates” – huge arches in the shape of the Muslim veil – at either end of the area’s famous Brick Lane. Local critics, including many Muslims, said it was “Islamic triumphalism” and an attempt to “religiously brand” an area that is home to many different cultures. Last week, the council withdrew the plans.
Last week, too, several local schools, which had been due to send pupils to an event called the “Big Read” at the East London Mosque, announced they were pulling out. The event organisers were forced to send frantic texts appealing for more children. Many local Muslim headteachers have privately told The Sunday Telegraph of their worry about the brand of Islam being preached at the mosque.
And yesterday it looked as if pressure was mounting on the second-most important officer at Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Ali – a man with a controversial employment history and close links to the IFE. Mr Ali, the assistant chief executive, has responsibility for council grants. Under him, increasing sums of council money have been channelled to IFE-controlled organisations.
Tower Hamlets’ chief executive, Kevan Collins, confirmed that a complaint had been received about Mr Ali from another government agency called the National College for Leadership of Schools.
Council sources said the allegation was that Mr Ali had been moonlighting, in council time, with the college. “Any allegations of that nature will be fully investigated,” Mr Collins said. “Every member of staff is under a contractual obligation to work full-time for the council unless explicitly stated otherwise.” A formal investigation into Mr Ali is likely to be launched tomorrow.
Approached yesterday, Mr Ali did not deny the allegation, saying only: “I cannot make a comment on that because I need to check out exactly what the college have said.”
“These are very important signs,” said Badrul Islam, chief executive of a local voluntary organisation, the Ethnic Minority Enterprise Project, and a leading Muslim campaigner against the Islamists. “The IFE have definitely taken a hit and they are into damage limitation. This story has done two things: it has given them notice that what they are doing will not be allowed, and it has made local people realise that the IFE are challengable.”
Mr Islam, who featured in The Sunday Telegraph reports and the Channel 4 film, said the story had created a “huge frenzy” in the community and he had been congratulated by dozens of people for taking part. “But,” he added, “they all said one other thing, ‘Take care of yourself’, or ‘Are you going to be all right?’?”
So far, apart from a couple of anonymous telephone threats, nothing has happened. But the IFE’s opponents in Tower Hamlets know that the battle is far from over.
The hijab gates may have gone, or be on hold, but the increasing march of the hijab itself – and its all-enveloping cousin, the niqab – through the ranks of local women shows the growth of Islamist influence in the area. In Bangladesh, where nearly all the local Muslims originate, it is almost unknown to see covered women. But in supposedly liberal, secular east London, the streets are filled with them. This month, Shiria Khatun, a Tower Hamlets councillor, called in the police after receiving anonymous death threats because of her “Western” dress.
Other disturbing trends have been seen in the East End. Several churches have been attacked, though the area’s churchmen try to play down the religious nature of the incidents. There has been a large rise in attacks on gay people. Jewish history tours of the area have twice been subject to attacks by gangs of local youths. A local Hindu group, the Sanaton Association, had to move its events after they were repeatedly attacked by Muslim youths. And, although there are still many racist attacks on Muslims, the fastest-rising group of victims of race attacks has been whites.
There is nothing to suggest that the IFE and the mosque are behind any of this. But, rather as racial violence in an area tends to rise when the BNP becomes active there, a similar effect is being seen in the East End. At least 18 hate and extremist preachers hosted at the mosque over the past year, including many anti-gay preachers, have probably, for instance, helped encourage the growing climate of intolerance towards homosexuals.
The IFE has taken considerable control over this Bangladeshi area, even though it is the descendant of a party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed and fought against the very creation of Bangladesh. War crimes were allegedly committed by some JI members during the country’s 1971 war of independence. Some of those people fled to London – and played important roles in the foundation of the IFE.
Ansar Ahmed Ullah, another local opponent of the IFE, says that local people are frustrated with the way in which the white political establishment has endorsed and legitimised a mosque whose true nature they do not appear to understand. “We have told them many times about these people,” he says. “But you still get people like Boris Johnson, government ministers and Prince Charles going down there. People see that, and it gives them credibility.”
It is easy to understand why the politicians make a bee-line for the East London Mosque. Many of the area’s other mosques are small, scruffy converted buildings, with peeling paint and a clientele of older men. The East London Mosque is large, shiny and modern, with an air of youth, purpose and a persuasive PR machine. Nor, of course, are the majority at the mosque extremist. But there are, at the very least, inconsistencies between the message tailored for outside consumption and what actually goes on there.
The IFE’s power is about to be subjected to two key tests. In six weeks, there will be local elections, with several IFE councillors up for re-election, and a referendum on having an elected mayor for Tower Hamlets, a post into which the IFE wants to place one of its people. “That will be crucial,” says Badrul Islam. “We think we have the numbers to organise against that.”
But perhaps the organisation’s most serious challenge comes from Bangladesh. Jamaat-e-Islami has never been as powerful there as it is in east London, and Bangladesh’s government is organising to have several JI members indicted for their alleged war crimes during the 1971 liberation struggle. Among them is likely to be a man who plays a leading role in the East London Mosque.
The fundamentalists remain deeply embedded in east London. But in the “Islamic Republic” of Tower Hamlets, the backlash has started.