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Tower Hamlets and the Dangers of Communal Politics‏



Last week, the accountancy firm PwC, in its audit of Tower Hamlets Council and its Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, catalogued very serious failings. The case sheds light on a troubling phenomenon: communal politics. We are well aware of the divisive, sectarian politics of Northern Ireland where voting on the basis of religious identity is the accepted norm and no mainstream party wishes to see it replicated in mainland Britain. However, with the embedding in of multiculturalism and its variant multifaithism, communal, sectarian politics are also becoming prevalent in many towns and cities with significant religious-ethnic minority communities. In other words, many candidates now seek votes from those of, and people vote on the basis of, their religion, ethnicity, and country of origin, rather than on political ideology.

This is precisely what has come to pass in Tower Hamlets. The bedrock of Mayor Lutfur Rahman's support comes from his fellow Muslim Bangladeshis who comprise about a third of the population of Tower Hamlets but about two-thirds of those who turned out to vote in the mayoral election were from his own Bangladeshi community, resulting in his victory. In accordance with the communal nature of his politics, all members of his cabinet have also been Bangladeshis. What he proceeded to do is a classic case of what Americans term 'pork barrel politics' where government funds are allocated to certain favoured sections of society in exchange for political support; which means that unfavoured groups lose out. It is a form of political corruption.

BBC Panorama's investigation (confirmed by the PwC audit) showed that council officers had proposed that Bangladeshi and Somali (likewise Sunni Muslim) groups receive £1.5m but its review of 362 grants approved by the mayor found that he increased funding to these groups by nearly two-and-a-half times - to £3.6m. The additional £2.1m came from the council's reserves in combination with a 25 per cent reduction in grants to other organisations; a clear instance of communal, pork barrel politics. It transpires that £3m was granted for 'faith heritage', mostly to mosques. Whereas the previous Labour administration funded religious groups for social services - itself problematic - Mr Rahman makes no such demands. A grave consequence of such communal politics is that non-religious groups that cater for all sections of the borough are starved of funds or crowded out. This is quite contrary to the goal of achieving 'One Tower Hamlets', Mayor Rahman's slogan.

Lutfur Rahman's is indeed an egregious case but the phenomenon of pork barrel politics afflicts the major parties also. The embrace of 'multiculturalism' launched a divisive dynamic, particularly in local communities, whereby many urban councils began to channel funds and resources to various ethnic, national and, more recently, faith communities in return for votes. A by-product of this is the accentuation of tensions between different communities who increasingly identify themselves in terms of faith. Indeed both the present and previous governments have recognised communal strains, and all are agreed on the importance of 'community cohesion' yet they have increasingly allocated funds to various 'faith communities'; a natural corollary given their belief that Britain is a multi-faith society. But, by so doing, they are adding to the problem of 'divisive community politics' highlighted by Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, with respect to Tower Hamlets.

Given the rising proportion of religious-ethnic minorities, and the high levels of segregation along communal lines in neighbourhoods of many towns and cities, the results of many parliamentary seats are now determined by the communal vote. There is, then, naturally the temptation on the part of the major political parties to appeal to groups on the basis of their ethnicity or religion. But this would be a grave mistake as it would pull the country even more down the spiral of communal politics and against the goal of social cohesion.

The 'Trojan Horse' plot in Birmingham - where a number of schools have been targeted for takeover by Islamic extremists - is yet another instance of the problems now arsing. But is this really surprising given the governments' stress of Britain being a multifaith society (with the imprimatur of a Minister for Faith and Communities) and its green light to more faith schools, and religious free schools? The very same Eric Pickles who is rightly concerned by divisive community politics in Tower Hamlets supports these deeply divisive and damaging schools and, moreover, continuously rails against secularism, the one principle that can forge together commonalities among disparate groups. As one Bangladeshi ex-Labour councillor Helal Rahman in the Panorama programme correctly stated, rather than uniting, faith divides people; especially so where identities based on faith trump all others.

This is a lesson that Mr Pickles and his government, as well as the opposition, needs to grasp with alacrity and start to work together to undo the harm that has already been done. Otherwise, we can expect communal, pork barrel politics to increasingly become the norm and so more of the likes of Luftur Rahman running councils and unwelcome Trojan Horses appearing in schools and elsewhere.

First published in Huffington Post on 17th November 2014

Letter to the Independent re Eric Pickles letter and MCB's initiative



Mine is the third letter:


Published in The Independent on 3rd February 2015

Integrating Muslims



In his 19th January letter to 1,000 mosque leaders, the UK communities secretary Eric Pickles asks how belief in Islam can be part of British identity – an acknowledgement by the government that there is lack of integration among Britain’s Muslim communities. The immediate response by Muslim leaders and organisations was typical: take umbrage and put up a “do not disturb” sign. But on 1st February the Muslim Council of Britain opened the doors of some mosques to the public as a gesture of goodwill and openness. However, it was no more than tokenism, and does not address the lack of integration. This issue is now of profound importance throughout Europe and many are losing patience with that “do not disturb” attitude of so many Muslim organisations and their demands for separate rights and resources.


One who is impatient is Ahmed Abutaleb, the Moroccan-born mayor of Rotterdam, who aroused much controversy when he bluntly told Muslims on live Dutch television on 13th January: “If you don't like freedom, for heaven's sake pack your bags and leave. If you do not like it here because some humorists you don't like are making a newspaper, may I then say you can f*** off.” Such blunt comments have long been considered beyond the pale in mainstream political circles and in polite society at large. But Abutaleb’s terse view is probably shared by a majority of Europeans. The situation of Muslims in western society is now at the forefront of political thinking and will not go away. On the contrary, unease, disquiet, and tensions are likely to increase.

Whilst addressing Muslim radicalisation is now the highest priority, there are wider, societal, concerns about Muslims in the EU, which are deep-rooted. In France, an opinion poll conducted by IFOP in October 2012 found that 60% of respondents consider the influence and visibility of Islam in France are too high, and that 43% of French believe the presence of a Muslim community in France is a threat to the French identity; only 17% consider this is a source of enrichment.

In Germany (which, after France, has the second largest Muslim population in the EU), since October 2014 there have been regular and substantial anti-Islam marches and rallies (especially in the city of Dresden) organised by a newly formed grassroots movement by the name of PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West). What is invariably omitted in media coverage of these protests is that the potential support for such a movement is very strong. For example, a survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation in January 2015 found that 57% of Germans considered Islam “very much” or “somewhat” of a threat and that 61% believe that Islam is “incompatible with the western world”. Similar protests have started in Norway, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Austria.

In the Netherlands, long renowned for its tolerance and liberalism, the anti-Islam PVV (Party for Freedom) led by the controversial Geert Wilders is currently leading in the polls: in November 2014 the party called for the closure of all mosques to “de-Islamise the Netherlands”. Concerns in the Netherlands about Islam have increased sharply over the past decade and a half. For example, an extensive survey conducted by Paul Sniderman and Louk Hagendoorn as far back as 1998 – before 9/11 and the war on terror – showed that approximately half the Dutch population thought that “western European and Muslim ways of life are irreconcilable”.

In Britain too, there has been rising unease about Islam. This is evidenced by the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2010 which highlighted the fact that of all the major religions in Britain, only Islam generated an overall negative response. Similarly, a Populus poll in 2011, considered the largest survey into identity and extremism in the UK, found that 52% of respondents agreed with the proposition that “Muslims create problems in the UK” (a far higher percentage than for other religious groups). Indeed, such negative responses are likely to have increased during the intervening years given recent troubling phenomena. These include the Trojan Horse plot in Birmingham in which hardline Islamists were attempting to take over the running of a number of state schools in areas which are almost entirely comprised of Muslim neighbourhoods; the scandal of the “grooming” and child sexual exploitation of white girls by gangs of men from a Pakistani Muslim background in several towns and cities (in Bristol the perpetrators were Somali men); the killing by Islamists of the soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London, in May 2013, and various terror threats that have been thwarted. These all increase negative views on Islam and Muslims.

What is true, despite different policies, is that the outcome has been similar in towns and cities in several European countries with large Muslim populations. Rather than a new respectful, tolerant, all-encompassing and socially cohesive society envisaged by advocates of multiculturalism and multifaithism, with accommodation of separate cultural and religious demands, instead we see segregation, ghettoisation, resentment, alienation, communal stress to the point of hostility, and the leading of what Ted Cantle, author of the seminal report on Oldham riots in 2001, termed “parallel lives”. There is widespread consensus that multiculturalism has failed. Indeed, the reality is that many Muslim communities have become “psychically detached”, with few points of contact and little affinity or identity with mainstream European society.

The task for policymakers, which is now urgent and important, is how to undo the separatism and high levels of psychic detachment, which have reached worrying proportions and are generating considerable unease in all EU countries with significant Muslim populations, and to advocate values that can forge commonalities. Some, such as Ukip leader Nigel Farage have suggested that Europe’s values are based on a “Judeo-Christian culture”. But surely this is mistaken given the long history of persecution of Jews in Europe by Christians. Moreover, Pope Francis explicitly rejects freedom of expression in regard to religion – perhaps not altogether surprising for the head of a church which, until 1966, had a “list of prohibited books”.

So Judeo-Christian values – even if there is agreement on what they actually are – will not be efficacious if Europe is serious about integrating its Muslim citizens. What millions in Paris marched for last month are enlightenment, and secular values which can form the bedrock of a European identity that encompasses all its minorities. Those who are not prepared to adhere to these are values are, of course, in the words of Mayor Abutaled free to pack up their bags and leave. Muslims certainly have a large choice: the 57 countries of the Organisation of Islamic Conference where the values so cherished throughout Europe are largely forbidden.

First published in Le Monde Diplomatique (English) 28th February 2015