Last Friday (23 May), Bangladeshi-born Lutfur Rahman defied his critics and won a second term as Mayor of Tower Hamlets. The London borough is home to one of the highest concentration of British Bangladeshis in the United Kingdom.
In normal circumstances Lutfur Rahman’s victory should be seen as a ‘coming of age’ for a community which has also seen its first MP, a woman, elected as a Member of Parliament. Surely, this is a marker of engagement, participation and integration.
But for Lutfur Rahman, the victory has been bitter-sweet, as evidenced by his emotional press conference after his election where reiterated his disgust at the number and scale of personal attacks levelled at him since he was the Labour leader of Tower Hamlets in 2010.
Of course, all politicians are subjected to scrutiny and attacks, and Lutfur Rahman is no exception. Tower Hamlets, with its billion-plus pound budget and strategic importance in the heart of gentrifying inner east London would naturally draw more attention.
Lutfur Rahman’s chief assassin is Andrew Gilligan, the London editor of the right-wing Sunday Telegraph and an cycling advisor to the Conservative Mayor of London. Gilligan has been at the helm of an unsavoury campaign to hound Lutfur Rahman out of office since 2010, first, when Rahman was Labour leader of Tower Hamlets Council, thereafter by campaigning to deny Rahman the Labour ticket for Tower Hamlets mayor, and onwards to this day.
Having failed to have Rahman defeated second time round, Mr Gilligan continues to be ungracious. In failure, Gilligan is now worried about a ‘Bangladeshi’ domination of Tower Hamlets Council:
‘It seems likely, when the council results are announced today, that the council will become even more Bangladeshi-dominated than it already is. As we have noted, only 32 per cent of the population of Tower Hamlets is Bangladeshi. But even in the old council, 60 per cent of councillors were. That could rise even further, to 70 or 75 per cent, today.’
Are these councillors not British and local residents? It would seem that the very fact that they are British-Bangladeshi alone somehow nullifies their right to be elected as councillors. Normally such comments would be considered as deeply divisive.
Where has Gilligan’s obsession with Lutfur and Bangladeshis come from? In 2010, he fronted a programme entitled ‘Britain’s Islamic Republic’. In it, Gilligan charged Lutfur Rahman, then the Labour leader of Tower Hamlets Council, poised to become the first directly elected Mayor, of turning Tower Hamlets into a mini-Shariah state.
In Gilligan’s black-and-white world, Lutfur Rahman was criticised for having the backing of a local group, Islamic Forum of Europe, which he accuses of wanting to take over Tower Hamlets Council to create ‘a sharia state and an “Islamic social, economic and political order” in Britain.’
Of course, since Lutfur Rahman became Mayor in 2010, the Council has not enacted Shariah law, the East End’s club and pub scene continues to thrive, and the gay-rights group Stonewall has declared Tower Hamlets Council to be London’s top ‘gay-friendly’ local authority.
But Gilligan’s strategic muckraking has been taken up by many less decorated racists bent upon portraying Tower Hamlets as the epicentre of ‘Londonistan’, a no-go area where Muslim sensibilities rule the roost. As Rahman wins second time round, those voices are again furiously sharing and distributing Gillgan’s toxifying disinformation.
Andrew Gilligan’s Links With the Awami League
Andrew Gilligan’s obsession with British Bangladeshis, Lutfur Rahman and the Islamic Forum Europe is in part explained by what is going on back in Bangladesh.
Gilligan speaks of the Bangladeshi origins of the Islamic Forum in the opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami, a group currently banned by the despotic Awami League regime in Bangladesh from competing in the farcical 2014 elections which returned the Awami League to power in a display of theatre so obtuse that the League has had to appoint its opposition from its allies, the only other party to compete.
Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh has long roots in the Indian subcontinent, and has participated in government (led by a woman — Begum Khaleda Zia). It is projected as an object of hate by many opponents for its historic opposition to the Awami League’s secessionist campaign against the Pakistani junta which eventually brought about Bangladesh’s independence.
At the start of his 2010 hatchet-job programme on Lutfur Rahman, Gilligan features the Swadhinata Trust’s Ansar Ullah, described as campaigning ‘against Jamaati Islami and its presence in Britain.’ Ansar Ullah is described as representing the ‘Nirmul Committee’.
But Gilligan conveniently forgets to state that ‘Nirmul’ translates to ‘Annihilation’.
As the name’s meaning might suggest, the committee’s aims are not simply to seek justice for those brutally killed during the 1971 Bangladesh War. Pakistani army officers and decision-makers primarily responsible are hardly on their radar, and the campaign is ideological and hate inspiring to the expense of history and those who suffered during and after the war.
The Annihilation Committee has spearheaded an fascist ultra-nationalism movement in Bangladesh and it’s diaspora, attacking anyone and anything diverging from the nationalist myths and taboos which it campaigns on. Co-opted and remote controlled by the Awami League whenever convenient for its matriarch, Sheikh Hasina, the hate filled mood creates an expedient other to divert public attention from the League’s repressive misgovernment.
They have set up an International Crimes Tribunal, seemingly to seek justice for the 1971 war crimes, but instead has been mired in judicial misconduct, corruption and international criticism.
In December 2012, The Economist revealed how one of its judges, Justice Nizamul Haque, was caught colluding with another prominent activist of the Annihilation Committee, Ahmed Ziauddin, who operates under the front organisation International Crimes Strategy Forum (ICSF). Leaked conversations and emails reveal close cooperation between the judge, prosecutors and this forum. It also reveals how it Awami League ministers effectively demanded a speedy conclusion and convictions from the Tribunal.
Tellingly, the leaked emails also reveal how the Bangladesh government flew Andrew Gilligan to Bangladesh to shore up international opinion for its Tribunal. According to the ICSF activist Rayhan Rashid Gilligan was being flown over because he has a ‘strong position against the rise of Islamists in Europe’.
One of the most insidious aspects of the Tribunal, is its power to repress critics of its intent, historical basis and bureaucratic legal processes.
A few weeks ago, a New York Times editorial observed: ‘Any criticism of it is reflexively taken as criticism of the governing Awami League and, by absurd extension, of the emergence of Bangladesh itself as an independent nation.’ A prominent newspaper editor, Mahmudur Rahman, who originally published leaks from the tribunal was placed under virtual siege in his press offices in early 2013, until his arrest and alleged torture in April 2013.
Gilligan’s association with the Bangladesh establishment seems to be long and enduring. Not only was he flown over, but he was given an audience with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2011. Though his interview with Dhaka’s ruler did not materialise in the Sunday Telegraph, we are able to review this translation of a report in a government-aligned electronic publication. The questions belie his obsession with ‘Islamists’ and the Prime Minister’s eagerness to use the ‘war on terror’ narrative to silence opposition to her regime: a mutually beneficial arrangement which has led to the deaths of hundreds since then.
The relationship continues to this day, with Awami League-supporting website BDNews24 also decrying Lutfur Rahman’s re-election, regurgitating the unproven allegation against him and his supposed ‘Islamist’ backers. It quotes an unnamed source who alleges that Lutfur Rahman ‘enjoys the backing of the Mullahs who have created a den for radicals in the East London mosque on the White Chapel road.’
In the last year, the Awami League has presided over one of the most violent and repressive periods since Bangladesh returned to democracy in 1991. Last year alone, the country witnessed a massacre on 5-6 May of unarmed protesters at the hand of government cadres and security forces and the systematic persecution of all opposition. It has the security forces on its side, alongside an army of hoodlums reigning terror and then blaming it on opponents.
The regime has been heavily censured by human rights groups, and a file has been submitted to the (very real) International Criminal Court in the Hague to indict Sheikh Hasina and her cohorts.
The power elite in Dhaka have relied on people like Andrew Gilligan to shift the focus away from their activities and focus instead on their opponents. While they pursue a fascistic ultra-nationalism at home, the Awami League and its supporters have displayed their extraordinary talent in hood-winking figures from both the left and right of British politics into believing that they are the bastion of secularism, development and anti-extremism.
They have traded heavily on their supposedly ‘anti-Islamist’ and secular credentials to enlist international support for their pursuit of power. Andrew Gilligan along with many other prominent neoconservatives on the left and right are the Awami League’s standard bearers.
Indeed, Andrew Gilligan is not the only one pushing the Awami League line, though he is the most senior and public. Back in 2006, the neoconservative think-tank Policy Exchange hosted a conference on Bangladesh with the Awami League and its supporters who were then in opposition and heavily dominated the proceedings. Soon afterwards, it published a report authored by journalist Martin Bright, which raised the spectre of Bangladeshi Islamism on the streets of London. The think-tank has since played hosts to visiting Awami League regime ministers ever since.
Martin Bright has gone on to lobbyon behalf of the Awami League, particularly heavily regarding the discredited War Crimes Tribunals underway in Dhaka. All of these commentators have been centrally concerned to project a particularly dehumanising image of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and its linkages to the United Kingdom.
Martin Bright is a close associate of John Ware, who in March 2014 utilised UK public funds to try and discredit Lutfur Rahman in a BBC Panorama programme. The film failed, and the charges it put to Lutfur Rahman were rather tepid. Following recent local elections, licence fee payers might beg the question of what led John Ware to focus on Lutfur Rahman at such a critical time as opposed to any other executive mayor in the UK? We currently understand that before a whistle-blower exposed the intentions of Mr Ware, his production company was going to pursue the “Islamists-under-Lutfur’s-Bed” mantra so beloved of the right wing and the Bangladesh Awami League.
Gilligan, Bright and Ware are not the only people in receipt of Awami League talking points. If we are to look at ‘Islamist’ entryism from Bangladesh, we should also investigate, as we have stated in previous articles, the deep and enduring influence the Awami League has over the British political establishment. It is in the interest of both publics to scrutinise how powerful gatekeepers, to and from Britain and Bangladesh compete over access to state resources and cooperate to victimise their opponents. The story of Tower Hamlets is one key to unravelling this tricky contested minefield.
Back to Lutfur
So where does this leave Lutfur Rahman and politics in Tower Hamlets? For a start, Lutfur should be taken at his word when he says he will run his administration in the interests of all its residents.
Tower Hamlets would be better off if it studiously avoided the negativity of the politics of ‘back home’, but key neocon journalists, the Labour party and the Awami League have invested too much to allow that to happen. Of course here is a role to be played, of challenging repressive industries and politics in Bangladesh and its venal donor dependant civil society, by holding government policies towards Bangladeshi agencies to scrutiny.
However, Lutfur would do well to continue what he does best, serving all the people of Tower Hamlets and artfully dodging the machinations of back home. Political interests will continue to utilise Andrew Gilligan and others to fight their corner: the best thing to do is to ignore them — they hate that most.