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May 21, 2008

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Mr Not PC

The borough boasts improved schools, spruced-up parks and increased house building. But look closer and some more unusual things are happening.
The council chamber has hosted at least one debate with an anti-homosexual Islamic preacher. Until last month, Tower Hamlets public libraries stocked hundreds of items of extremist Islamic literature, bought at taxpayers’ expense and available to borrow.
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Inextricably linked to controversial mosque: the secret world of IFE These included hundreds of audio tapes of sermons by the extremist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, blamed for inspiring September 11, the Fort Hood terrorist massacre and the underwear bomb plot.
According to senior IFE activists speaking to undercover reporters for Channel 4’s Dispatches, Tower Hamlets council – with its 15,000 staff and £1.1 billion budget – is their most impressive political achievement yet.
In secret filming, Abjol Miah, an IFE activist and Tower Hamlets councillor, said: “We’ve consolidated ourselves now. We’ve got a lot of influence and power in the council, councillors, politicians.” Abu Talha, an IFE member, said: “Our brothers have gone into positions of influence, council positions.”
Mr Miah told us that “we” merely meant Muslims, but Jim Fitzpatrick, the local Labour MP, and many other Labour Party officeholders and activists told The Sunday Telegraph that the IFE exercised significant control over the council.
“There is a suggestion that there is a number of Tower Hamlets councillors who are very close [to the IFE],” Mr Fitzpatrick said. “It is difficult to believe that to be other than the case.”
At the last annual general meeting of the council’s Labour group, Helal Abbas, a former leader, accused the IFE of controlling the council. Many Labour councillors said Labour’s Lutfur Rahman, the council leader, was helped during his campaign by a senior IFE official, who canvassed councillors – both Asian and white – on his behalf.
Many of the councillors concerned were approached for comment and none would deny it. Typical answers included: “It would be difficult for me to lie, so that’s why I’m not saying anything.”
After Mr Rahman became leader, Tower Hamlets appointed a new assistant chief executive, Lutfur Ali, who – the investigation established – has links to the IFE. In 2006 Mr Ali set up a group called the Centre for Muslim Affairs. The other directors were trustees of the IFE or directors of other organisations closely connected to it.
Mr Ali got the £125,000 job even though council-appointed headhunters described him as “rather limited”, “one-dimensional” and “superficial”. They said he might “struggle with the intellectual challenges [of] a highly strategic role”.
Unknown to the headhunters, Mr Ali was forced to resign from a previous post at the London Fire Authority after breaking rules on political neutrality. He omitted this fact from his Tower Hamlets application.
One of Mr Ali’s key responsibilities is for council grants. Under his tenure, much greater sums have been paid to, or for, two particular community organisations, Blyda and Elite Youth, which recently merged to form the Osmanli Trust. Another project, Nafas, which works with drug users, has also been generously funded.
The organisations concerned appear to do useful work. But all of them are closely linked to the IFE, sharing many trustees and staff.
Critics said part of the purpose of the projects was to take vulnerable young people off the streets and imbue them with the values of the IFE. The manager of Blyda’s gang intervention project, Muhammad Rabbani, also trains young IFE recruits. Nafas officials said the “best thing” for parents of drug abusers to do was to “teach them about Islam”.
Abu Mumin, the senior manager at the Osmani Trust, said: “If a young person wants to explore their spirituality we help and support them, we say there’s the East London Mosque round the corner, the Brick Lane Mosque round the corner, you should go.” But he strongly denied any extremist links, saying: “What we do is actually challenge the extreme things that are going on.”
Mr Mumin was one of the IFE figures thanked by George Galloway at his election victory dinner at the East London Mosque in 2005.
The council has decided to hand over its entire youth service in the west of the borough, previously provided in-house, to a consortium in which Blyda and Elite Youth play a key role. It is also spending at least £3.3 million to build the Osmani Trust a youth centre, even though another secular youth centre recently opened nearby.
Badrul Islam, the director of a secular local employment training service, said there was a fear that a particular brand of fundamentalist Islam was being promoted.
A council spokesman said: “The council and our partners are externally and independently recognised for our community cohesion work. The common thread of the issues you have raised has been the way in which we respond to the needs of our residents who include a significant Muslim population. It is disingenuous to create a link between these events and activities when there isn’t one.”

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