Honour and shame in Tower Hamlets

by Dan McCurry

We used to be proud of spreading our ideas around the world. Now we are confused about how we explain our identity to the people who have settled here.

The problem is that we need to understand their culture and identity, before we can explain to them our own. With 3,000 honour crime complaints to the police last year, maybe this is the issue that we’re failing to comprehend.

It would help to understand what happened in Tower Hamlets last year, when the Labour party collapsed in on itself over the selection of Lutfur Rahman as candidate for mayor.

It started out as a conversation about secularism. But we didn’t know it was about secularism, because in school we learn everything there is to know about Martin Luther King, but nothing about Martin Luther. We know about the rights of minorities, but not about the separation of church and state.

This was in the days when Muslims were considered to be either moderates or extremists, with nothing in between. This perception was encouraged by the fact that the extremists got more airtime, but also due to the taboos about race and religion that suppressed debate about community, but allowed debate about terror.

Rushanara Ali MP canvasses the mother of two teenagers

The row was mostly, but not exclusively, between Cllr Helal Abbas and Cllr Lutfur Rahman. Abbas was not devoutly religious, but Lutfur apparently was, and this is where Lutfur’s increasing clout in the community came from. Including all places of prayer, there are about 40 mosques in Tower Hamlets and most of them see Lutfur as their man.

When Lutfur was first elected as a councillor, he was the apprentice of Abbas. Abbas didn’t complain that Lutfur brought the mosques’ vote with him, but when Lutfur struck out on his own, Abbas was furious. He denounced Lutfur’s religious connections, speaking of the global reaching tentacles of the Islamic forum for Europe, an organisation based at the east London mosque, and supportive of Lutfur.

In east London, all politicians of all parties, seek to tap into faith organisations. When the doors of one are shut, they go knocking on another. Those who condemn these organisations tend to be the ones who have run out of doors to knock on.

The scrutiny of Lutfur’s connections to the east London mosque began when a journalist called Ted Jeory arrived at the local paper. For years councillors had complained that they could never get anyone from the East London Advertiser to cover town hall meetings. Now they were complaining about this guy who kept turning up.

Rather like the way that Arab dictators began by condemning Al-Jazeera, Tower Hamlets councillors quickly switched from condemning, to briefing, Ted Jeory. According to Ted, the briefings came from anyone who was ambitious, and included every candidate who would later stand in the mayoral selection. Others, such as the MP, Jim Fitzpatrick, were fearful that Lutfur could muster enough Labour votes to replace an incumbent.

The fact is that Lutfur was on good terms with religious people across a spectrum of opinion, but he wasn’t a conduit for evil. He just didn’t realise that Labour people consider Islam to be authoritive, and not sharing the same values as us. In the fine line that a Muslim politician must walk, in a British political career, Lutfur was too far on the Bangladeshi side. However, this needs to be put into perspective. It’s not as if he was hanging out with suicide bombers.

The rumours about extremist connections continued and reached a high point when Ted’s reports were picked up by Andrew Gilligan and broadcast in a C4 Dispatches film, where Jim Fitzpatrick took the controversy to a new height by alleging a plot to infiltrate the Labour party with Muslim extremists, “rather like militant infiltrated Labour in the 70s and 80s”.

It sounds like a ridiculous now, but at the time the country was paranoid following the 7/7 bombings and ready to believe anything. Meanwhile, Labour head office was becoming increasingly nervous about what was happening in Tower Hamlets. The persistency of the rumours began to turn even rational minds.

In May 2010, Tower Hamlets had a referendum for a directly elected mayor, resulting in a mandatory six month time-frame for an election. Seeing an opportunity to bypass his isolation within the party, Lutfur ran in the open Labour party selection for mayoral candidate, and easily won, but a report attacking Lutfur, from Abbas, and also one from Cllr Bill Turner, was presented to the NEC and, without committee members having time to read them, a vote was taken to rule Lutfur out as candidate.

Although John Biggs came second in the selection vote, the NEC gave the slot to third place Abbas. They may have feared that they would have been labelled as racist, if they gave the candidacy to a white man.

In response, Lutfur tore up his Labour membership card and announced his intention to run as an independent against Abbas. The two old friends were now sworn enemies and it would be for the electorate to decide who would win. Lutfur did.

Lutfur Rahman emerges from the Labour arty office to supporters and press. To Lutfur’s left, Cllr. Helal Abbas. To his far left, Labour party officer, Ken Clarke.

In Bangladeshi village society there is little in the way of transparent rule of law. The community is governed by honour and shame. As a system, it seems to work in Bangladesh, but when transferred to the UK, we see both the good and the bad.

We see a low crime rate, juxtaposed against a high perversion of the course of justice, as victims are pressured to drop charges. We see strong family life, juxtaposed with school girls disappearing from the roster, without notice or explanation. We see a moralistic society, where alcohol is shunned. Yet when youths gather in groups on street corners to drink alcohol, as an act of rebellion, they will eventually face severe and violent retribution, from the “community”.

The lack of transparency undermines the justice done by creating other injustices. This is brutally demonstrated when false rumours are spread against individuals who have displeased someone in the community. I first saw this phenomenon when Oona King backed the Iraq war and the community turned on her with the most astonishing slander. She was alleged to be a Mossad spy, who wanted to criminalise the veil and remove halal food from school menus.

The fact that such rumours are unbelievable is beside the point. This kind of attack is a referendum against an individual. If the rumours catch on, then the community consensus has turned against that person. If the rumours fail, then the individual has the respect of the community. However, the attack on Oona was less to do with Iraq and more to do with a consensus in the community that it was time for a Bangladeshi to be MP, and that the MP should be a man.

The allegations against Lutfur are different to the rumours about Oona, in that the target audience was the white community. The Labour party had unwittingly become a part of the system of honour and shame, and had no understanding of the issue to help them cope. The result was division and misery.

Today, Tower Hamlets politics is deeply divided. Every time the two sides of the council meet to agree on working together, the agreement is then sabotaged by Labour people who want to see Lutfur kept permanently out of the party. The bitterness amongst Lutfur’s people is plain and highly visible. They now attack the Labour councillors in return.

So deep are these divisions that Lutfur refuses to sit on the committee that will hire the new chief executive for the local authority. The Labour group has a majority on this committee, but no chief executive is going to take the job without the cooperation of the mayor. Catch 22.

Meanwhile, in the party, with Lutfur gone, there is a lack of good Bangladeshi activists who can make future councillors. It is unrealistic that any of the current Labour councillors would win against Lutfur at a future mayor election. The Bangladeshis see him as a victim, while the white people continue to see him as the Labour bloke.

The situation is bogged down and tragic. If Lutfur was to reapply to join the Labour party, it is likely that he would be readmitted, but he point blank refused to. As far as he’s concerned, he is a victim in all of this. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has washed his hands of the situation with no explanation as to why.

Shakespeare described the battle scene in Macbeth: “As two spent swimmers that do cling together and choke their art.”

The image of both sides drowning is apt.

Dan McCurry is a Labour activist whose photographic and film blog is here.


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16 Responses to “Honour and shame in Tower Hamlets”

  1. James says:

    What utter gibberish this is – you clearly have no concept of the complexities of the politics in Tower Hamlets

  2. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Labour lacks the Leadership to help settle these affairs by trying to reconcile groups and reach compromise…it s not just limited to Tower Hamlets. There are solutions but as we have seen the only time the Party interferes is when they meddle in selections with the inevitable consequences.

    I can think of three other Constituencies with similar problems and am sure there are more and it’s not just limited to the Labour party.

    Ed has proven himself to be next to useless and does not have to get directly involved.

  3. Tokyo Nambu says:

    “He just didn’t realise that Labour people consider Islam to be authoritive”

    authoritarian, I suspect you mean.

  4. swatantra says:

    Its an absolute disgrace.
    The Party should not be pandering to Lutfer one bit. Dont re-admit him. He is more trouble than he’s worth. Being in the hands of the extremists, the catalogue of honor crimes of the disadvantaging of girls and votes of the village clans in their pockets is the politics of their homeland. We don’t really want to see it here on the streets of London.
    And its about time the Leadership told them to their face.
    We made the same mistake with Ken by letting him back in.The man is an egotist.
    The problem for Labour is how does it break the clans and make them realise that we are supposed to be living in a democracy. I don’t know the answer, but its certainly not by pandering to them.
    BTW Both Oona King and Galloway were not true representatives of their constituency; but Rushnara Ali is.

  5. Robbie Scott says:

    This story rumbles on and on, we really are a national curiosity. There are some good insights in that piece Dan but I wasn’t sure what you thought the solution was? People often talk about how recent events have alienated the Bengali community in Tower Hamlets and whilst that’s true I think as a party we need to cast our net slightly wider than one community group.

    I also think people often overlook the negatives of keeping Mayor Rahman and one or two others in the party. Mud sticks, and keeping them in could easily have alienated other community groups which would have a electoral impact in the long term.

    We do need to encourage and support more bengali young members in the party and it’s a point Ismail makes in a very politically incorrect way frequently! I’m not sure how we do that, many Cllrs who have defected were quite good at brining friends etc … lots of work to do before the next round of elections .

  6. Tom says:

    How anyone could have supported Helal Abbas to be mayor beggars belief.

    Lutfur wants back in to Labour, and he has said he will apply to rejoin the moment that the allegations that led to his suspension as candidate are investigated and he is cleared.

    Labour officials are foolishly creating a stand-off, saying that they will not investigate until he applies to rejoin, since as he is currently not a party member the allegations are none of their business.

    This position needs to change and quickly – kicking such an injustice into the long grass goes against everything we stand for.

    This comment has been edited

  7. oh dear says:

    This article is an embarrassment to this blog, although carries on, I guess, in the tradition of attacking the Labour Party.

    Almoat every pargraph has an idiosyncratic and inaccuate assertion presented as fact, Dan, both in terms of what you seek to present as a culturally aware analysis (it’s not) and in terms of the detail. Much of the analysis of the Bengali community you present is deeply offensive as well as ill-informed.

    I won’t provide a detailed critique but it seems to be most unlikely you have be in a position to judge what the opinions of “most” of the mosques in Tower Hamlets are, for example.

    I hope the girls and their mother whose picture you have included were consulted about appearing online in this way.

    Is any of this to do with your inability to be selected to run for Tower Hamlets Council because of your publicly expressed racist views, or your treatment of female party members over the years?

    It’s time you gave up.

  8. Will says:

    I think what this piece highlights the most is the need to engage properly with the issue of immigration. I know people derided Cameron’s “musular liberalism” speech- with some justification- but he did have a point. The question that must be engaged with in places like Tower Hamlets is this: in a liberal society, how much should we tolerate utterly illiberal behaviour? The total hatred of women, lack of respect for secular authority and the criminal justice system, honour crimes, homophobia etc that this article describes are utterly illiberal, and if they were perpetrated by white people we in the Labour Party would rightly make some noise about it. But in Tower Hamlets there appears to be an unwillingness to engage in debate for fear of playing the race card- and undermining our electoral support amongst a community that normally supports us very strongly.

  9. Robbie,

    I think it’s pretty plain that Lutfur should not have been kicked out of the party. People who build themselves up by knocking others down do so because they aren’t up to the job.
    By the way, Ted Jeory has cross posted this on his blog. That says something.

  10. Dan, fan though I usually am of your writing, I think you’ve called this one quite wrong. Lutfur Rahman has had no credible explanation for questions asked about the IFE’s role in his election. There is a good piece about IFE/Rahman/THLP links here: http://standpointmag.co.uk/node/2785

    Btw, Rahman was kicked out of the party because he stood against the party in an election. That’s always been the punishment for people standing against the party, and it’s the right one. And he was removed from the selection because of – not for the first time – irregularities in the Tower Hamlets Labour Party voting. Entryism is an undeniable fact of life there, and as you probably know the Bethnal Green party has been in special measures for some time.

    The more we condone the activities of people like Rahman, the longer it will take for us to sort out the toxic politics which has infiltrated the Party in the East End.

    Jim Fitzpatrick, I’m afraid, is quite right.

  11. Robbie Scott says:

    Yeah I suppose so , but I think the question is phrased wrongly. It’s more do you think it was right to fit him up rather than was he fitted up and answers to that really depends on the metric you’re using. Party officers and most Cllrs aren’t really on the same wave length as members who want to ‘unite the party’ so the debate is largely academic lol. It’s just so incredibly toxic, every GC meeting explodes and it just looks terrible!

    @ Oh dear that’s not very nice! /I’d much rather have Dan as a Cllr than some of the Independents we‘ve had in the past. You’ve got to wonder how some of them got through the interview process. . Dans alleged sexism shouldn’t hold him back look how certain people treated Shira and Rosna when they dared to stand last year/ look at how Shira was treated at the last full council even.

    The questions : Are you a misogynist pig? Are you homophobic ? And are you Labour? Ought to be incorporated …

  12. swatantra says:

    ‘The more we condone the activities of people like Rahman, the longer it will take for us to sort out the toxic politics which has infiltrated the Party in the East End.’

    They’ve got probems in Barking and Dagenham as well. The Party has to be particularly careful and concerned and involved when it comes to Councils and Councillors in areas that are almost certain to return a Labour Council year after year. These are the Councils that are going to damage the reputation of the Party. But its not just in London; there’s a hell of a lot of dubious activity going on in the Midlands and up North as well.

  13. Stuart Madewell says:

    It seems that no matter what sense is occasionally talked by Dan he will forever be drowned out by those who wish to repeat the same old lies and myths about Muslim councillors in Tower Hamlets. Perhaps those like Rob Marchant might have an alternative agenda, that might explain his wilful blindness bordering on institutional racism. But anyway here are the facts as we who live in Tower Hamlets know them.

    Homophopbia, Lutfur Rahman supported the creation of Rainbow Tower Hamlets. Under his mayoralty he has striven to acheive ‘One’ Tower Hamlets where all forms of Racism, Sexism and Homophobia is opposed by all councillors, workers and the community at large. Stonewall now rates Tower Hamlets as one of the most ‘Gay friendly’ boroughs. Yes, there are still religionist extremists who don’t like this but there are in other boroughs as well.

    Lap dancing clubs – TH is the first borough to ban them outright. This campaign was led by Cllr Rania Khan a female Bangladeshi Muslim councillor on explicitly feminist grounds. Again Rob Marchant, wouldn’t understand the very idea of a ‘muslim feminist’! He’s so twentieth century!

    TH is the first borough to pilot an alternative to the EMA. Something other borough are following.

    When a known and vocal supporter of Israel, like Dan Mc Curry tells the Labour Party that they have got it seriously wrong in Tower Hamlets then the party ought to sit up and listen.

    Get this wrong and Labour will go on losing and not just in Tower Hamlets

  14. Steve O'Driscoll says:

    Are any of the current councillors homophobic?

  15. test says:

    “Today, Tower Hamlets politics is deeply divided. Every time the two sides of the council meet to agree on working together, the agreement is then sabotaged by Labour people who want to see Lutfur kept permanently out of the party. The bitterness amongst Lutfur’s people is plain and highly visible. They now attack the Labour councillors in return.”

    I take this to be a veiled call for the Labour Party to pussyfoot around Lutfur and not annoy him, and as a veiled call to then let him back into the Labour Party to end this “deep division” of Tower Hamlets politics.

    I sincerely hope I’m wrong in thinking that’s Dan’s conclusion because it’s twaddle. The correct conclusion of everything you say about communalist politics and the hounding of Oona King is that Labour should not tolerate communalism in its ranks and should never have touched Lutfur in the first place.

  16. Voice4justice says:

    Dan, this is an wonderful piece of writing. I think people need to know why we lost B&B and nearly lost the council when Abbas was the leader. After loosing Bethnal green and Bow to George Galloway I know someone who worked so hard for the Labour Party to create an appeal to both Bangladeshi and Somali communities. He along with his colleague was out from the party for standing up against injustice, in my view this should have been other way around, those who instigated the corrupt practice they should have been punished. Why the councillors we’re punished for doing the exactly the same as Ken? Not surprise that still there are layers within the labour party. You probably know that “No person is entitled to the blessings of basic freedom in Tower hamlets labour group, If anyone stands up they are very likely to be be labelled as homophobic, extremist etc. I wonder if anyone asked TH labour group leader why is he supporting Tory policies just to undermine mayors progressive policies?  I am sure if the leader was Ed’s brother this wouldn’t have happened. In my view Rush is the main problem not Jim, she didn’t have any political affiliation at any level and that is the problem.

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