The Prevent programme in Waltham Forest: has LBWF surrendered to Islamic sectarians? UPDATED

‘Waltham Forest is a Prevent Tier 1 priority area and as such receives additional funding from the Home Office to deliver Prevent projects. Tier 1 status is apportioned as Waltham Forest is considered to be of significantly higher risk [of terrorism] than the majority of local authority areas. Accordingly, expectations of delivery are high’

(Home Office, Prevent Pier Review Report Waltham Forest (March 2018))

For some years past, Waltham Forest has been home to a number of active Islamist extremists, and as a consequence LBWF continues to receive a considerable amount of extra cash to augment its counter-terrorism Prevent programme.

Never afraid to look a gift horse in the mouth, LBWF today sees itself as an exemplar in the field, and others agree, with Chief Executive Martin Esom held in such esteem that he chairs the London-wide Prevent Board.

However, as always with Waltham Forest affairs, the assiduously promoted corporate image and the hard reality of what transpires on the ground are by no means necessarily one and the same.

Indeed, investigations have revealed that, to take a couple of the most glaring examples, LBWF has funded third sector organisations to carry our Prevent work despite their almost total unsuitability, and operated security procedures for its facilities so lax that ‘a room at the council-owned Waltham Forest Community Hub…[was] hired for “ladies tea afternoons” which were a cover for a weekly Isis supporters’ discussion group’.

Now comes news of a further worrying set of related developments.

Writing in the magazine Standpoint, the erstwhile LBWF counter-extremism co-ordinator, Charlotte Littlewood, reflects on her time in the borough, and particularly an episode concerning the local Ahmadi mosque.

Some background is in order. The Ahmadis define themselves as Muslims, but because of their particular theology, stand outside the better known and bigger Sunni and Shia majorities. On occasion, this has led to the Ahmadis being branded as heretics, persecuted, and even murdered. And while it is true that anti-Ahmadi bigotry is strongest in Pakistan, in recent years it has inevitably also spread to Britain.

Back to Ms. Littlewood. During her time in Waltham Forest, she reports, it emerged that the constitution of the local LBWF-backed Waltham Forest Faith Communities Forum (WFFCF) barred Ahmadis from having equal voting rights, an act of obvious discrimination, and one that ran counter to the government’s counter extremism strategy of promoting ‘democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’.

Accordingly, when the local Ahmadi imam began to press for change, she responded positively.

Cue furore. Ms. Littlewood was ‘aggressively’ confronted by a WFFCF trustee who insisted that Ahmadis were ‘not Muslims’, and firmly informed that ‘if they were given equal powers, she and her Muslim colleagues would boycott the forum’.

Worse, LBWF was equally implacable:

‘Shockingly, my simple act of acknowledging the imam’s commitment to fight for his community was considered “not in line with the position held by the council” and I was threatened with disciplinary action. The council’s Head of Community Safety told me I was a “square peg in a round hole”, I did not understand the sensitivities around election times, and I should consider looking for work elsewhere’.

To Ms. Littlewood, this was all the more unacceptable because at the same time as these events unfolded the anti-Ahmadi organisation Dawat-e-Islami — linked with glorifying the notorious 2016 murder of Glaswegian Ahmadi Assad Shah — was openly hosted in a local mosque, ‘with neither officials nor elected members batting an eyelid’.

Taking everything into consideration, therefore, this adds up to a very disquieting story.

First, it is disappointing to find LBWF reportedly trying to dragoon its employees with threats.

But most disturbing is what Ms. Littlewood’s travails appear to reveal about the internal workings of the Town Hall. Public authorities have legal duties under the Equality Act of 2010 (and these extend to their agents). Moreover, council officers are required to stand above party politics. Yet in this case, it is suggested, the issue of Ahmadi exclusion was completely subsumed by ‘sensitivities around election times’; and while the latter phrase is to some extent ambiguous, it is legitimate to speculate that since Labour has traditionally garnered a big slice of the local majority Muslim vote, the only game in town was making sure that such backing persisted – in other words, party politics at its purest.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how Mr. Esom responds when these matters are put to him.

Meanwhile, there is an interesting coda. For it turns out that the WFFCF is a rather more questionable organisation than at first sight appears likely.

In formal terms, the WFFCF is both a charity and registered company which aims to ‘promote religious Harmony [sic] within the London Borough of Waltham Forest by bringing together people of different faiths and beliefs, challenging prejudice and raising awareness’, with one of its strap lines boiling this down to ‘Standing against faith based discrimination’.

Accordingly, most of the WFFCF’s activities are uncontentious, and involve the celebration of religious events and some predictable campaigning, for example on behalf of refugees and those suffering mental ill-health, and against hate crime.

As to how it is run, or whether it is well supported, the WFFCF publishes relatively little, and indeed its website seems not to have been much updated since 2016. However, scrutinising the organisation’s Facebook page suggests that it remains quite small, at least in terms of activists.

The one fact that stands out, though, is that, as already mentioned – and size notwithstanding – the WFFCF receives an unusual amount of backing from LBWF, and indicatively a large number of senior councillors – including successive Leaders – turn up at its public events. In this sense, the WFFCF certainly punches (or is allowed to punch) well above its weight.

So far so largely unremarkable, but the WFFCF also has a less palatable side. For close scrutiny of its foremost supporters (both individual and institutional) reveals that some are rather controversial.

The WFFCF Facebook page masthead currently features a number of pictures, one of which is this:

Screen Shot 2019-02-08 at 11.24.40

On the left is the ubiquitous Canon Steven Saxby of St Barnabas Church Walthamstow, a high profile Momentum activist and Labour parliamentary candidate, and on the right, Mr. Mahmood ul Hassan Raja, said to be an ex-imam at the Lea Bridge Rd. mosque.

A version of this picture has been discussed in a previous post. Canon Saxby and Mr. ul Hassan Raja are friends, and the former recently recruited the latter to the Labour Party.

But Mr. ul Hassan Raja has some contentious opinions, and for example has heaped praise on Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer in 2011 of the then Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who was famous for being a vocal critic of his country’s draconian and partisan blasphemy laws.

The full story is related in the post linked below, with the Sun’s blackly humorous headline providing a neat encapsulation: ‘Controversial imam who called Islamist murderer a “hero” is recruited to join Labour – because he thinks Corbyn will fix knife crime’.

Are these really suitable poster boys for an organisation dedicated to  ‘bringing together people of different faiths and beliefs’?

Next up is Cllr. Saima Mahmud, who has appeared at several WFFCF events, and reportedly is also active in promoting the organisation behind the scenes.

As this blog has documented, it was she who, when Mayor, fronted surreptitious ‘award’ ceremonies in the Town Hall, one of which honoured Pakistani politician Senator Sirajul Haq (she wears the chain of office, he sports a white cap):

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 17.35.55

And why this is noteworthy is because the good Senator not only holds unpalatable views, but regularly vocalises them.

Thus, as a previous post has pointed out, a web search quickly reveals that he believes ‘Jews’ are controlling the UN, rants about the ‘blasphemous acts and conspiracies of Christians and Jews’, and in relation to proposed laws aimed at protecting women from violence, advances the bizarre theory that ‘the West’ has an ‘agenda to destroy the family system in Pakistan’.

More recently, according to the Lahore based Daily Times, his take on the by now infamous Asia Bibi case is as follows:

‘Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) chief Senator Sirajul Haq has said that it is astonishing that political parties, which were dubbing one another thieves, have “ganged up in parliament to support the release of Asia Bibi detained on the charge of blasphemy”.

The JI chief noted that political parties, which had never accepted the decisions of the Supreme Court in the past, stood united to support the apex court verdict in Asia Bibi case to please the western powers.

He said that the nation would have to unite to protect the Islamic laws and the constitution as the rulers were trying to let the huge sacrifices made for the establishment of this Muslim homeland go waste.

Sirajul Haq said the nation was not satisfied with the Supreme Court decision in Asia Bibi case, therefore, the government should take necessary steps for a review of the entire case and put Asia’s name on the Exit Control List.

He said that the western world had always been giving VIP treatment to blasphemers while rulers of the Muslim world were protecting blasphemers to earn the goodwill of the west’.

As far as can be ascertained, Cllr. Mahmud has publicly neither apologised for her actions regarding Senator Sirajul Haq, nor attempted to explain them.

 But how can her behaviour possibly be compatible with the WFFCF’s stated aims?

To put this in context, suppose a Conservative councillor involved in the WFFCF was suddenly revealed to have secretly bestowed an honour on a well-known and vociferous white far-right crank.  Would he or she in any way be tolerated in the Town Hall, let alone in the ranks of the local ‘faith community’?

Finally, there is the Waltham Forest Council of Mosques (WFCOM), an organisation that according to the Guardian represents up to 70,000 Muslims’; and amongst other things aims to  ‘Unite the local Muslim Community to create a spirit of goodwill and harmony’ within the area.

One thing that the WFCOM has been very clear about is its total opposition to Prevent, the borough’s Tier 1 priority status or not. In a statement of 2015, it asserted that the problem was not about details, but about fundamentals. Prevent was ‘an ill-conceived and flawed policy’, a ‘toxic brand’, which was ‘racist’ and ‘overtly targets members of the Muslim faith’. Against this background, the WFCOM vowed from that date to boycott Prevent, and do its utmost to keep it out of ‘our community’.

 By contrast, the WFCOM’s shyness about other issues can be striking.

In 2013, a burial at the Lea Bridge Rd. mosque (a WFCOM member and favourite of several local Muslim councillors) was stopped because of a rumour that the deceased was an Ahmadi, and the management feared that if it went ahead ‘there may have been violence and argument’.

In 2016, according to the Waltham Forest Guardian, a leaflet was allegedly distributed outside a Walthamstow mosque which called for Muslims to kill anyone ‘who insulted the Prophet’ or ‘renounced their faith’, and profiled Governor Salman Taseer ‘alongside a photograph of his head superimposed inside a noose’. It later transpired that the imam of the mosque had several years earlier delivered a speech on DM Digital TV that again referenced the Taseer murder, and according to OFCOM, ‘on a reasonable interpretation’ explicitly issued similar exhortations.

And finally at various times over recent years, mosques in Waltham Forest (including WFCOM members) have hosted imams with contentious views, including dyed-in-the-wool anti-Ahmadis.

Self-evidently, none of these episodes ‘create a spirit of goodwill and harmony’ and so all might be thought to concern an organisation like the WFCOM.

So has the WFCOM commented or condemned? Well, if it has, all that can be said is that neither Google nor the local press easily yield up any trace.

In conclusion, religious groups and sects in Britain of course retain the right to criticise or actively dislike each other; host speakers with eccentric (though not illegal) views; and if felt necessary oppose government policy.

Where the problem arises is when organisations like councils, which are supposed to treat all citizens equally, take sides, and either collude with, or turn a blind eye to, those who actively promote their own sectarian preoccupations at the expense of others.

And in essence that is what has happened in Waltham Forest.

Exactly why this has occurred is debatable. Based upon her first-hand experience, Ms. Littlewood cites misplaced trust in unelected ‘community representatives’, which allows them undue influence over decision-making; together with a wider fear amongst non-Muslim officers and councillors of ‘appearing “culturally imperialistic”’ or ‘Islamaphobic’.

Long-term Waltham Forest watchers will reasonably believe that the fault also lies with the local Labour hierarchy, since it appears to have prioritised electoral considerations above all else.

Whatever the exact truth, Ms. Littlewood’s evidence is unsettling, an indictment of a council where, as the Home Office team remarked, ‘expectations of delivery are high’.


Alice Richardson in the Waltham Forest Guardian adds a number of new and important facts:

Related Posts

LWBF, Prevent, and the Lea Bridge Rd. Mosque

Waltham Forest and Islamist terrorism

Extremism in Waltham Forest: an update (1)

Extremism in Waltham Forest: an update (2)

Extremism in Waltham Forest: a quick roundup of the recent lowpoints

LBWF in Private Eye again, this time over ISIS and Prevent

LBWF and the anti-terrorist Prevent programme: is it wise to keep it in the closet?

Steven Saxby, the ‘red vicar’ of Walthamstow, and Mr. Mahmood ul Hassan Raja, the ex-imam who praised an Islamist killer, but joined the Labour Party because ‘Mr. Corbyn will fix knife crime’.

Ex-mayor Cllr. Saima Mahmud and her ‘receptions to honour’ at the Town Hall

Councillor Saima Mahmud’s surreptitious Town Hall award ceremonies: a further update

LBWF’s Preventing Extremism Strategic Summary for 2015-16