In March 2009, as Andrew Gilligan began researching the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary that was to appear a year later, I interviewed, independently, a few of the central characters who would later be central to that programme. Although I was to appear in the documentary, my interviews were not commissioned by Dispatches.
I revisited them this week after the PCC ruling in the case of Abjol Miah versus the Telegraph. I thought it would be useful to publish those conversations which were on the record.
Below is a transcript of an interview with Mohammad Habibur Rahman, the then president of the Islamic Forum of Europe. Except for a couple of small sections I’ve omitted for legal reasons, it’s verbatim. There is a picture of Mr Rahman on the IFE website here (he’s the man reading a speech on the right of the stage at a 2006 Trafalgar Square rally against the Danish cartoons. He’s standing next to Anas Al Takriti, of the Muslim Association of Britain, and Daud Abdullah, of the Muslim Council of Britain).
TJ: You’re president of IFE, aren’t you?
HR: I am.
TJ: IFE has been in the news recently with Azad Ali and with a few other issues, but I also know there are many councillors [in Tower Hamlets] who say they are really worried about the direction IFE is taking in terms of what its purpose is, if it’s trying to direct the politics of Tower Hamlets at council level and also in other areas of Britain. Are you able to talk about that now?
HR: I’m in the middle of my lunch…but when you say lots of people are talking, who are these lots of people?
TJ: Well, I’m a journalist and I’m sure you will understand that I don’t divulge those sources.
HR: Well, it’s news to me. I don’t know what I can add if I don’t know what people are talking about.
TJ: What they’re saying is that IFE has an agenda to try and control politics within Tower Hamlets and in other areas of the country in terms of its religious agenda and its adherence to the Shariah.
HR: Based on what? Where are they making these assertions from? From our website, or things that we have been saying? Where are these things coming from? It’s all news to me.
TJ: They’re saying it from their own personal contacts and experience and from people within the politics of east London.
HR: Hmm, and what is it that you’re after?
TJ: Well, one of the things that they’re saying is that there’s a deliberate agenda by IFE to infiltrate the Labour party and that it already has done and also it is also very closely allied with people like Lutfur Rahman at Tower Hamlets council, that it’s helping to get its agenda through and money is then directed back through to various community groups that IFE is involved with or supports, and it helps direct a block vote when it comes to elections against MPs who don’t support IFE or against councillors who don’t support IFE.
HR: Hmm. I think it would be very useful if we met some time and talked about these things. We have a history of working with all kinds of politicians in the past history for several years now and I think if you look at the work of IFE, we are engaged in the community and we have been also encouraging people to participate in politics without being partisan. So to make claims that we are trying to direct or take control is all ludicrous. It’s important that we do fit in the community. It’s important for community empowerment that they participate the political process. In the past, there have been Muslims who have been saying that politics here and participating here and voting, all of these are disallowed or haram in Islam, and we’ve said exactly the opposite and that we need to engage, you need to participate, but we will never tell you who you should vote for; you should talk to individuals and see the agenda of the parties and see the agenda of the individuals and, according to your needs and requirements, you should go cast your vote. So we have been doing some very positive work over the last few years – several years in fact – and we have worked with the Labour party who have been there before in the sense that we’ve encouraged them to do things that would be helpful for the community. And this includes people like [Helal] Abbas and Michael Keith in the past, and so on and so forth. So to say that IFE has got an agenda, IFE has got an agenda as much as anybody else.
TJ: What is your agenda then, if you say that you have an agenda?
HR: Participate as citizens in this civic society and engage in the process.
TJ: Do you then have various groups and pet projects that you would like to see public money directed towards?
HR: Not necessarily, no. I don’t think we have any influence over that. Anybody who is doing the work, and I don’t have the statistics to say who Tower Hamlets are supporting, but there are lots of projects that are being supported and they should be supported.
TJ: You’re a national group as well, aren’t you? Can you just talk to me a little more about it? There maybe a lack of understanding on a lot of people’s parts…there’s not too much information on your web, for example.
HR: We are national in the sense that our office is obviously in Tower Hamlets, but we do have work in other cities where we try to engage with primarily young Bangladeshis, but not exclusively.
TJ: Why primarily Bangladeshis?
HR: That’s how it’s evolved. We don’t have an agenda to work only with Bangladeshis.
TJ: Who founded IFE?
HR: Quite a few people who originate from Bangladesh.
TJ: Was [MCB management committee member] Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin involved at the beginning?
HR: Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin with IFE? Probably not, but he was around before that in some Islamic work. Dr Abdul Bari is the one who was the first president I believe.
TJ: I understand that Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin was one of the founders.
HR: I don’t know if he was one of the founders, but he was involved with organisations prior to that.
TJ: Is there a link between IFE and Jamaat e Islami in Bangladesh?
HR: No. No, there isn’t. Only in so far as Jamaat e Islami is an Islamic organisation in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and others, and we also happen to be an Islamic organisation and Islam is the common ground.
TJ: Do you support Jamaat e Islami in Bangladesh?
HR: What does that mean?
TJ: Do you back them, do you support their views?
HR: Which views?
TJ: Well, you tell me what Jamaat e Islami in Bangladesh is trying to achieve.
HR: Jamaat e Islami is an Islamic organisation, they are a political party. They are trying to progress their, I suppose their Islamic agenda in Bangladesh.
TJ: Do you support that?
HR: Do we support their work in Bangladesh?
HR: We support them working in Bangladesh, yes. But don’t quote me as someone who supports the work of Jamaat e Islami, but I’m more focused here in the UK.
TJ: But you just said you do support the work they do in Bangladesh..?
HR: We support anybody who does Islamic work, everywhere in the world. That doesn’t tie us in with Jamaat e Islami in the way that some people want to do and are keen to do.
TJ: But it’s the same thing though, surely, if you support the work they’re trying to do, then you’re supporting them, aren’t you?
HR: Well, no, because a lot of people attach a lot of stigma with this party and what I said to you is that you should quote me in saying that, that we support anybody who is working for Islam. But then if you attach all this stigma and there are people who say they’re a violent party and they’ve done this and they’ve done that, certainly we don’t support any of that, so I think that we have to be careful because there are a lot of people in the community who say, “Jamaat e Islami: they’re a radical organisation.” We have nothing to do with radicalism.
TJ: Is there a membership structure to IFE? Do people sign up? How does it work in that way?
HR: No, historically people haven’t. Anybody who has been attending our events and programmes and attaches themselves with us, they’ve just effectively became members. We are moving towards formalising these kind of things so people do sign up.
TJ: So at the moment, you don’t actually have members, it’s more a kind of group in which people support?
HR: I can’t produce paperwork to show that I am an official member of IFE. There is membership.
TJ: So is Lutfur Rahman, the council leader, is he a supporter of IFE?
HR: Don’t be ridiculous, you’ll have to ask him that!
TJ: How long have you been IFE president?
HR: Four years now.
TJ: Who else is on the management board? How does it work and what is the committee structure?
HR: IFE is an organisation and there are elected members who serve for a term.
TJ: Who else is on the committee then?
HR: How do you mean?
TJ: Well, you’re president…who else is actually on the management structure?
HR: Who else? Well, it would be good for us to sit and talk. Are you just looking for names, we’ve got about 20 people who are managing the organisation
TJ: The other name that’s always mentioned is [Tower Hamlets council children’s services officer] Hira Islam.
HR: Hira? You see, I think someone is trying to push an agenda with you.
TJ: Well, that might well be the case, but that’s why I’m coming to you to talk to you about it.
HR: Hira Islam is part of IFE, of course he is, but he is also very involved with the Labour party. He’s a member of the Labour party, so he knows a lot of people and people say that because he is working with us, people probably think that he is trying to push an agenda on our behalf.
TJ: What about [Tower Hamlets Labour party official] Humayun Kabir?
HR: I’m not aware that he is a member of IFE although we know him well.
TJ: But you just said to me that you don’t have members…?
HR: People who claim to be members, not a membership as such.
TJ: Hira is closer to IFE than Humayun, because Humayun is either a friend or a supporter, I don’t know.
HR: Abdal Ullah? He is not a member, he hasn’t been involved with IFE directly. I know that he has worked with some of us, who have worked with the LMC [London Muslim Centre] when it was constructed and in fact he was quite keen in getting some child care projects within it. Alibor, again, is someone within the community who is active in politics and we have associations with him, but he is far too busy with his politics to do anything else. Yes, so we know these people because we are very much involved in the community. We know most of the councillors. You can name all the councillors and I can tell you, yes we know them, and they’ve worked with us in one or another capacity because we are in the community.
TJ: You have people who are actively involved within the Labour party and you hope that they will do the work that you will be supportive of?
HR: We like people to be involved in the community, including politics. And we want the same for other people in the community to do the same. But that doesn’t mean there’s an organisational agenda as such.
TJ: What about Azad Ali?
HR: What about Azad Ali…?
TJ: Is he a member?
HR: Yeah, he’s a member.
TJ: Well, thank you…..I will return to put what you’ve said to the people who came to me.
HR: Listen, feel free to come to me directly. There are some people who are attributing far too much to IFE. It is true that we have been working with the community for a long time. I work in the London Metropolitan University and I am very much interested in education, but I make no secret of my work in the community to the university and there is work that we want to do. If it is hurting some people’s political agendas, this is not the intention: all we want to do is see that people are active in the community whatever they happen to be, including politicians.