Islamic extremism in Walthamstow: the Charity Commission investigates two Muslim charities over controversial statements made in youth programmes, but LBWF must intervene, too.

As has been reported by various media outlets (most prominently the Times), the Charity Commission is currently investigating two Waltham Forest Islamic charities, the Miftahul Jannah Academy and the Masjid-E-Umer Trust (which runs Walthamstow Central Mosque), following a complaint about controversial statements in lectures that allegedly have been delivered as part of their youth programmes.

The figure at the centre of this row is ‘Islamic scholar’ Muhammad Patel, who has taught at both charities, and from 2008 onwards posted live recordings of his weekly lectures on the Miftahul Jannah Academy’s website. 

Listening to these lectures reveals that they aim to clarify the meaning of scriptures, and to that end use illustrations, usually from the ancient world, but sometimes from the present.

And the complaint is that, in the latter vein, Mr. Patel has made a series of statements, for example about the Taliban, armed jihad, and Jewish perfidy, which fall foul of the Charity Commission guidance on extremism, summarised thus: 

‘All charities must comply with UK law and so must not support terrorism or other illegal conduct, such as hatred on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation. In addition, a charity’s name, premises or money must not be used to promote extremist or other activities that are inappropriate under charity law, for example because they are in breach of equalities legislation’.

So far, so bad, but it gets worse. For scrutiny of Mr. Patel’s recordings in the round reveals that over the years he has sometimes expressed views other than those in the complaint which are equally questionable.

First, he largely dismisses equality issues, mocking ‘so-called human rights’, stating that ‘as a general rule’ women are less intelligent than men, and damning homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ and ‘reprehensible’. 

Second, his assessments of other religious organisations, even whole religions, on occasion are equally scornful.  He describes the 125-year history of the much-persecuted Ahmadi Muslim sect as one of ‘falsehood and deception’, and characterises Christianity in similar terms (‘the Christian founding fathers…they founded this whole religion on falsehood, on lies, and deception’). 

Finally, he repeatedly highlights the differences between Muslims and ‘the Kuffar’ (an offensive term for ‘non-believers’), and emphasises that, for the pious, the ways of the latter are ‘very, very dangerous’.

Thus, in Mr. Patel’s world, it would seem, there are many material temptations, from eating turkey at Christmas to accepting American aid money (‘Once the American aid money goes inside you, you become useless’); while even relatively mundane aspects of personal behaviour, if they involve ‘the Kuffar’, must be carefully considered.

Mr. Patel’s lecture on friendship is particularly revealing of his mindset.

He accepts that Muslims can be affable with non-Muslims, and indeed in individual cases respect them, but also underlines that any deeper rapport must be avoided at all costs:

‘All believers…You must only take Muslims as…your close friends, your bosom friends…Otherwise they will destroy you…Because they will not give up until they corrupt you…they will love to harm you terribly…they can’t hide their enmity of Muslims and Islam…But that which they hide in their hearts is even greater…these people look like your friends but they are not your friends…these people can never be your friends’.

In reflecting on such comments, there will be some who claim that Mr. Patel is a fringe player and a buffoon, but unfortunately the truth is a good deal more troubling.

The Miftahul Jannah Academy and the Masjid-E-Umer Trust are mainstream organisations, at the centre of Muslim life in Walthamstow, while Mr. Patel’s longevity in the job speaks eloquently of the respect which he commands from his co-religionists.

Nor can the impact of Mr. Patel’s various reflections be easily dismissed. His audiences have always been of an impressionable age, and drawn from a background where the opinions of a ‘scholar’ are taken very seriously indeed.

Of course, given that there are hundreds of lectures in Mr. Patel’s portfolio, it might be argued that the comments repeated here are unrepresentative, even chosen purposely to vilify him.

It is true that until someone trawls through every single lecture in the series (a task for a masochist if ever there was one) their complete content remains unknown. However, it surely stretches credibility to suggest that, at some point as yet unidentified in his vast output, Mr. Patel’s take on homosexuality, or Ahmadi Muslims, or even friendship suddenly flips on its head. After all he bases himself throughout on scripture and hadiths, and is proud enough of his lectures to have kept almost all, including those sampled in preceding paragraphs, publicly posted right up to the present (the exceptions being a few concerning Jews which – predictably and amusingly – suddenly disappeared after the Times coverage).

That being the case, the question that arises is whether anything can be done to prevent this kind of episode happening in the future, because telling young Muslims, for example, that ‘the Kuffar’ are waiting – perhaps itching – to do them serious harm is both untrue, and blatantly corrosive of healthy social relations.

Of course, Mr. Patel, like everyone else, has a right to express opinions publicly that others find offensive, provided they are lawful. 

It is possible that some of his formulations may be interpreted as hate speech, and that is for the authorities to decide. 

Whatever the legalities, though, residents will reasonably want LBWF to become involved, too, particularly because over recent years it has spent quite substantial amounts of time and money promoting social cohesion.

One absolute necessity is that LBWF immediately issues a public statement unequivocally distancing itself from the kind of teaching engaged in by Mr. Patel, and explaining exactly why. 

More generally, LBWF must, as a matter of urgency, review how it interacts with all faith groups. One obvious policy innovation is to insist that, in future, those seeking any degree of council money, support, or even official recognition sign up to a simple equalities statement, which pledges them to desist from bigotry.

However, if LBWF is to take these steps, it also will have to confront issues closer to home.

One sizeable impediment is the fact that, as previous posts have documented, some councillors and officers seem unwilling to even acknowledge Islamic extremism, with, for example, Chief Executive Martin Esom arguing that its most virulent manifestation, terrorism, is more about mental ill-health and ‘vulnerabilities’ than ideology (see links).

Moreover, as again revealed by this blog, the organisation which has traditionally advised LBWF on religious matters, and received overt and tacit support in return, the Waltham Forest Faith Communities Forum (WFFCF), appears similarly minded (see links). 

So, to take but one of several possible illustrations, when the Manchester Arena bombing occurred in May 2017, though the WFFCF issued a markedly perfunctory expression of solidarity on Twitter, it’s main concern, according to coverage in the East London and West Essex Guardian, was to dissuade local people from linking the attack ‘to any particular religion’. 

What this boils down to is that the new Leader, Cllr. Grace Williams, and her Labour Cabinet colleagues are confronted with a choice.

They can publicly face down the likes of Mr. Patel and his teachings, together with the organisations that promote him, using whatever means are at their disposal; or they can collude with those inside and outside the Town Hall who want to turn a blind eye.

It’s a litmus test, really, and one that likely will have far reaching consequences.

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