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Rahman wins right for judicial review on “undue spiritual influence”

lutfur-rahmanBack in August 2014, the Times ran a screaming headline saying Muslims told to ‘vote for mayor or be damned’. The quote marks in the headline might have led a reader to assume that the Times were referring to someone who had actually said this, but sadly journalistic standards at the Thunderer are not what they were.

Earlier this week, Lutfur Rahman, the former mayor of Tower Hamlets twice elected by the voters, but judicially removed last year, failed on appeal to get his exclusion from public office overturned. But significantly, Rahman did gain permission for a judicial review of the ruling that there had been undue “spiritual influence” due to a recommendation by a number of Muslim clerics to vote for him. Regretably, this update to the story did not make it into the Times.

The original Times article claimed that:

Electors were told that they could hope for rewards in the afterlife if they voted for Lutfur Rahman, but might be punished in the next world if they supported his Labour rival, documents filed at the court claim.

It is extremely hard to reconcile this statement by the Times with the actual letter, which is reproduced in full here, signed by 101 Imams and other Islamic scholars. Bearing in mind that any grammatical infelicities are the responsibility of the translator and not the authors of the Bengali original, the text of the letter is as follows:

Be united against injustice: make Lutfur Rahman victorious

Creating opportunities, making provisions and providing services to the citizens on behalf of Her Excellency the Queen. In this case everyone has a freedom of right to choose a candidate who is suitable and able to provide the services. However we are observing that the media propagandas, narrow political interests etc involving the Mayoral election of Tower Hamlets Council have created a kind of a negative impression which in turn have created confusions amongst the public, divided the community and put the community in question. We are further observing that today’s Tower Hamlets have made significant and enviable improvements in the areas of housing, education, community cohesion, inter-faith harmony, road safety and youth developments. In order to retain this success and make further progress it is essential that someone is elected as Mayor of the Tower Hamlets Borough on 22 May who is able to lead these improvements and who will not discriminate on the basis of language, colour and religious identities.

We observe that some people are targeting the languages, colours and religions and attempting to divide the community by ignoring the cohesion and harmony of the citizens. This is, in fact, hitting the national, cultural and religious ‘multi’ ideas of the country and spreading jealousy and hatred in the community. We consider these acts as abominable and at the same time condemnable.

With utmost concern we observe that by shunning the needs and opportunities of the Tower Hamlets Council and its citizens, Islamophobia, which is the result of the current political stance and which has derived from false imagination, has been made an agenda for voting and voters. The mosques and religious organisations have been targeted. It is being publicised that any relationship [involvement] with the religious scholars and clerics are condemnable and is an offence. Religious beliefs and religious practice are being criticised.

One of the local former councillors of the Labour Party has stated in the BBC’s Panorama programme that ‘Religions divide people’. Even in the same programme the honourable Imam of the Holy Kaba Sharif was presented in negative and defaming ways and thus all the religious people, particularly the Muslims, have been insulted and thrown in to a state of anxiety.

We cannot support these ill attempts under any circumstances. We believe that it is not an offence to be a Muslim voter, an imam or khatib of a mosque and have involvement with all these. Under no circumstances it is acceptable to give a voter less value or to criticise them on the basis of their identity. As voters, like in any other elections we also have a right to vote in the forthcoming Tower Hamlets mayoral election and we should have the opportunity to cast our votes without fear. As a cognisant group of the community and responsible voters and for the sake of truth, justice, dignity and development we express our unlimited support for Mayor Lutfur Rahman and strongly call upon you, the residents of Tower Hamlets, to shun all the propagandas and slanders and unite against the falsehood and injustice.’

The Commissioner of the Electoral Court, Richard Mawrey QC sitting alone, drew great significance from the fact that the letter was only published in Bengali, and he concluded:

[T]he Imams’ message is clear; our religion is under attack, our enemies despise us and wish to humiliate us; it is your duty as faithful sons and daughters of the [Church][Mosque] to vote for candidate X: only he will defend our religion and our community. As the Imams’ letter puts it ‘[our opponents are] spreading jealousy and hatred in the community. We consider these acts as abominable and at the same time condemnable’…”

Well yes, the letter did describe the actions of seeking to divide communities, seeking to anathematize Muslims and seeking to undermine multi-culturalism as “abominable and at the same time condemnable”.

But it is absolutely clear that the condemnation was aimed at those whom the signatories felt were contributing to a climate of Islamophobia, not against voters who supported other candidates. Indeed they went out of their way to say that

Creating opportunities, making provisions and providing services to the citizens on behalf of Her Excellency the Queen. In this case everyone has a freedom of right to choose a candidate who is suitable and able to provide the services.

This sentence is a clear statement that electors should not only judge the candidates on the basis of the conventional criteria of how they would perform in the job, but that they should do so specifically within the context of the British constitution, and that in the view of the signatories, electors should have a free choice.

They go on to say that they personally would recommend Rahman, but at no point do they say it is a religious duty to support him.

Over the question of whether it is reasonable for religious leader to guide the faithful against those whom they see as dividing the community, is their sentiment different from the Church of England who ban clergy from expressing support for racist political parties?

The Anglican blog, Archbishop Cranmer, asked the reasonable question

the crime of ‘spiritual influence’ is an interesting prohibition, for what religious leader does not desire to influence his (or her) flock toward a particular conception of the common good? Is it socially harmful or dangerous to exhort one’s followers to vote for a particular candidate in an election? Is it a deviant behaviour? Is not society shaped by interpersonal relationships which are subject to forms of social control – either formal or informal – and these require compliance to certain norms and cohesive values?

The Evening Standard quoted

Mr Rahman is said to have spoken at an event at The Waterlily last May where local imam Mawlana Shamsul Haque is claimed to have urged those attending “to retain truth, righteousness and practise religious belief” by voting for him. He is said to have prayed for Mr Rahman’s victory at a wedding at the same venue a week later.

It is hard to see why the endorsement of a local religious leader that an elector should practice religious belief by voting for Rahman is improper. Certainly trade unions, think tanks and newspaper columnists all made recommendations, that is how democracy works, and individual voters then make up their minds based upon all the influences they are exposed to, and their own good judgement. With regard to the idea that it is wrong to pray for an election result, I am sure that I was not alone in praying that the exit polls were wrong on General Election day last year, as it became clear that only Divine intervention could help us!

Whilst not directly relevant to a discussion of UK electoral law, the current campaign by Ted Cruz to gain the nomination to be the Republican Presidential candidate is very much characterized by framing Cruz as the righteous candidate to whom evangelicals have an obligation to offer support.

The offence of “undue spiritual influence” is currently defined in section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, but derives from the the Corrupt Practices Act 1883. It has been rarely used, and has been dormant for a century, and was essentially a mechanism to interfere in Irish elections where it was alleged that Catholic Priests were persuading their flock to vote for Home Rule. The colonialist mindset being that the Irish are simple and superstitious souls who might be frightened into voting against the interests of their betters by scheming Romanists.

Case law is sparse, but the Law and Religion blog cites the Longford judgement of 1870 (that predated the Act, and was based upon Common law), that was referred to in the 1982 judgement of Dalton v Fulham, which was based upon the 1883 Act

The Catholic priest has, and he ought to have, great influence. His position, his sacred character, his superior education, and the identity of his interests with those of his flock, insure it to him; and that influence receives tenfold force from the conviction of his people that it is generally exercised for their benefit. In the proper exercise of that influence on electors, the priest may counsel, advise, recommend, entreat, and point out the true line of moral duty, and explain why one candidate should be preferred to another, and may, if he thinks fit, throw the whole weight of his character into the scale, but he may not appeal to the fears, or terrors, or superstitions of those he addresses

Following the Dalton v Fulham precedent therefore, the letter signed by the 101 Imams should have been regarded as the proper influence on electors, whereby they explained why they preferred Rahman, but they clearly did not appeal to fears, terrors or superstitions. Of course Richard Mawrey QC heard the full evidence, but based upon solely the translation quoted above of the letter signed by the Imams, that letter could only be regarded as appealing to fears, terrors or superstitions if you have a patronizing and condescending view of Muslims as being more easily swayed than other folk.

It is arguably no surprise that an Act of Parliament that reflected nineteenth century prejudices against the Irish as being ignorant and swayed by irrational fears should have laid unused for a more than a century until similar prejudices against Muslims gained traction.

An editorial in East End News points out that

Now the courts have accepted that there are grounds for a judicial review of the “spiritual influence” charge as it is a point of law which can be argued between lawyers and judges. The court has not accepted that any of the other charges should be subject to Judicial Review because they are not seen as points of law, and any examination of the judgement reached would have to involve a re-examination of the evidence, not just legal argument.

Many might feel that on the face of it, Richard Mawrey’s judgement on the issue of Spiritual Influence seems so perverse that they might feel uncomfortable with him being the sole judge of fact on the other charges. But that is the law, and sometimes the law is an ass.

15 Comments

  1. gerry says:

    Interesting article – “undue spiritual influence” is actually, as you say, pretty ridiculous as a concept.

    The fact remains that Lutfur Rahman was corrupt and rotten to the core, and only his hardcore supporters – that unholy sick and twisted left/islamist alliance of Islamic extremists and stalinists such as Counterfire, Lindsey German, John Rees et al – still burn a candle for him. He has declared financial bankruptcy (who knows if that is yet another of his cons?) …to add to his moral and political bankruptcy, but “undue influence” was always a dubious concept.

    1. Dave Roberts says:

      Nice one Gerry. It’s nice to see someone else who knows what they are talking about. Are you from the East End?

      1. gerry says:

        No I am not, but I always knew from the off that Rahman was a total crook, conman, fake and fraud, trying ,(initially with some success) to simply buy off large chunks of Bangladeshi voters in that rotten borough. He – like Galloway, Hatton, Lee Jasper, Livingstone, Stop the War et al – is yet another example of the poisonous so called metropolitan left.

        1. Dave Roberts says:

          You’ve summed it all up. I gave a lot more detail about the East End and Rahman’s corruption but the post was awaiting moderation and has now been deleted altogether. So much for free speech and open discussion on this blog. http://www.hurryupharry.org allows all sorts of opinions, including mine.

  2. swatantra says:

    Its not the first time that undue influence has cropped up; before Rahman there were the Catholics and Anglcans trying to exert pressure on voters. The Pope and the Rabbis do it al the time.
    So its about time somebody put a stop to such practices. Rahman is corrupt as the day is night and was kicked out of the Party, and yet people like Livingstone and Galloway supported him and he was allowed to get away with it. but not any longer.

  3. Karl Stewart says:

    ‘Grrrr…stalinists…islamic…so-called ‘stop the war’ neo-trot-stalin-extremist-terrorist…political-correctness-gawn-mad…etc’

    Good point Gerry!

    Anyway, don’t actually know that much about this individual, but it’s interesting how the establishment have always attacked the religious beliefs of minority groups as ‘backward’ in order to perpetuate their power – often using ‘progressive’ sounding ‘secular’ terminology.

  4. David Boothroyd says:

    I don’t often agree with the thrust of posts on LeftFutures but this is absolutely correct. ‘Spiritual intimidation’ was invented as a concept in the late 19th century to justify overturning Irish elections in which the RC clergy had intervened; the Meath cases from 1892 (Dalton v Fulham) are the clearest example of it being used (although that was a dispute between the Parnellite and Anti-Parnellite wings of the Irish Parliamentary Party).

    As a secularist I don’t see why opinions on election candidates from religious figures on matters of religious doctrine should be treated differently from any other form of opinion. There was a frivolous challenge to the local election in Birmingham last year using this provision which was really a waste of time.

    Any day now the Law Commission is expected to issue its report on Electoral Law, which may recommend reform on ‘spiritual influence’. One of the questions was “Should the law regulate the exercise of abuse of influence,
    religious or otherwise, by a person over a voter which does not amount to
    an existing electoral offence?” See http://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/electoral-law/

  5. gerry says:

    Karl – lovely to know that I am still winding you up!

    As a socialist, I am an equal opportunity hammerer of religions, esp virulent, reactionary, misogynist, patriarchal anti-socialist ones like Islam, and make no apologies for that. Some of us have to stand up against Islam’s supremacist theocracy and its clerical fascism which is so prevalent today, and it is a real shame that many who say they are left – like you – are perfectly happy to jump into bed with them and snuggle up.

    And, of course, to be scrupulously fair, Christianity for most of its existence was equally as reactionary and murderous a “faith”” as Islam is today….

    1. Karl Stewart says:

      You’re just mind-numbingly predictable and dull Gerry.

      And you use the same methodology and phrasebook as the ‘political-correctness-gawn-mad’ brigade.

      Everyone you disagree with is a ‘stalinist’, or a ‘neo-trot’, and every muslim is an ‘Islamic extremist’ – yawn…!

      Surely every religion has within it its more progressive and more reactionary aspects. Yes of course there is a right-wing, fascistic element within islam, but there are also those who are on the left politically, or potentially on the left politically and who the left must ally with.

      Within Christianity, we have fundamentalist, reactionaries but also liberation theologists and those for whom the social aspect of their belief is strongest.

      And of course within Judaism there are many who strongly disagree with the expansionist policies of the Israeli government and who also back the struggle for a Palestinian alongside Israel (within its legal pre-67 borders).

      And so I disagree with your condemnation of ‘all religion’. It’s crude, absolutist and falls disproportionately in people at the poorer and more oppressed end of society.

      People only ever recall the last part of the Marx quote describing religion as ‘…the opiate of the people…’ without also recalling the preceding lines where religion is also described as ‘…the heart of a heartless world…’ and ‘…the soul of soulless conditions…’

      1. Jim Denham says:

        But don’t you geddit, Karl, that here we’re dealing with ultra-right-wing Islamists?

  6. James Martin says:

    I have to say that I rarely take much notice of London issues, it always seems like a completely different country to the one I live in, but while the ‘spiritual influence’ issue is clearly bonkers, what was being alleged for years with Rahmen included how some very large monetary grants were issued and who they were issued to and who was benefiting from ‘third sector’ take up of former direct services. In both areas there seemed to be a great deal of favouritism to Muslim groups which seemed to imply that the spending of an LA had been decided on the basis of religion which then led to undue influence (or bribery more properly speaking), and this article ignores all that.

  7. Dave Roberts says:

    A report in the Indy from Friday says that a Judge at The Chancery Division Chief Master Marsh has said that Lutfur Rahman and his wife are guilty of misleading mortgage lenders and not declaring rental income to the revenue.

  8. Jim Denham says:

    Let’s just deal with facts here:

    Comrade Coatesy has provided excellent coverage of the ruling of the Election Commissioner, who has found Rahman guilty of massive corruption and illegal practices, commented upon his personal dishonesty, barred him from office and fined him £250,000. Coatsey’s piece is rightly scathing about the various “leftists” who have defended and/or covered up for Rahman, often joining in with the ritual cries of “racist!” and “Islamophobe!” directed at anyone who dared criticise him.

    Though Cowards Flinch places the scandal in the context of an underlying problem with elected mayors.

    I will, no doubt be returning to this matter in due course. In the meanwhile, readers may find the following background information helpful:

    Rahman was previously the leader of the Labour group on Tower Hamlets Council. However, he lost this position in 2010. The same year he was selected as the Labour candidate to stand as the directed elected mayor of Tower Hamlets before being removed by the party’s NEC. The reason for him losing both positions were accusations that the Islamic Foundation of Europe (IFE) had signed up some hundreds of members to the Labour Party to advance Rahman’s cause. The IFE is part of a network of groups around the East London Mosque aligned to the Jamaat-e-Islami (aka Maududists), which has its origins in India but is now more significantly is a force in Pakistan and were chief amongst the anti-secessionist forces in the civil war that created Bangladesh. They are Islamist in that they support an Islamic state based on Sharia law, but are (on the whole) social conservatives not jihadists.

    Rahman won the 2010 mayoral election as an independent although Tower Hamlets is by no means a majority Muslim borough, less than 40% are Muslims but they do constitute the bulk of Labour’s electoral base and once Rahman was able to win this no-one could beat him. Rahman’s position was strengthened by the party formed around him, Tower Hamlets First (THF), winning 18 of the 45 council seats in 2014 and under the mayoral system Rahman could run the administration drawing on only these councillors. THF is entirely drawn from Tower Hamlets Bangladeshis (and one would assume, Muslims), although six have previously been councillors of both the Labour Party and Respect. One of these, Abjoi Miah, was a key member of Respect and appears to have been the key link person between Respect and IFE/Jamaat. He is now the central organiser of THF and a power behind Rahman’s throne. The turn to the Labour Party and Rahman appears to have been because IFE/Jamaat lost confidence in the Respect MP for Bow and Poplar (in Tower Hamlets), George Galloway, after he made a complete fool of himself on Celebrity Big Brother.

    There are three important points to make about the Rahman/THF rule in Tower Hamlets and the possibility of other councils becoming Muslim run:

    First Rahman and THF do not present as Islamists. For example, the council maintains an LGBT policy. It might be the case that Rahman and many of the THF councillors are not Islamists but communalists who wish to promote the interests of those of Bangladeshi origins, something that is not without precedent in local government politics in Britain. The most notable feature of Rahman/THF rule is not the establishment of an Islamic state in the East End, but the creation of a version of the millet system that existed under the Ottoman Empire whereby everyone is related to as a religious group. It is common for local councils to run a layer of social services through local voluntary groups and charities. In Tower Hamlets these are becoming increasingly demarcated on religious lines, that strengthens the links between people of Bangladeshi origin. Through its Community Faith Building Support Scheme the council gives direct support to faith based groups, the budget for 2014 being £1.3 million. Of the 2013 funding, although funding went to a variety of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh groups, two-thirds went to Muslim groups. It is such communalism and setting of religious identity into policy structures that is most problematic here, not any overt militancy.

    Second, what is notable about Tower Hamlets First is their relative youth. These are not bearded elders in traditional attire, but young men in suits and whose beards are either neatly clipped or absent. In sharp distinction to older generations, there are women amongst THF’s councillors. This group has coalesced around three factors: the shutting down of channels in the Labour Party to their advancement, the rise of Respect in Tower Hamlets showing the potential to mobilise Muslim voters in a new way, and the organisation hub of Jamaat-e-Islami based on the East London Mosque. The last of these is probably the most important, but one that might not be readily replicated elsewhere. As Innes Bowen has shown in her recent book, Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent, while most mosques in Britain are affiliated to the conservative quietism of the Deobandi and Barelwi strands of Sunni Islam, the East London Mosque is affiliated to the Islamist idea of Jamaat-e-Islami, with IFE being part of this stable too.

    Third, success for Tower Hamlets First was tied up with the mayoral systems. Tower Hamlets First do not have the spread across the borough to win the majority of the council seats, and have only 40 per cent. Their control is thus based on winning the direct elections for mayor that Rahman did comfortably in 2010 where he took much of Labour’s vote, and more tightly in 2014 against a strong Labour challenge.

    Rahman’s links with the Islamic Forum of Europe and Jamaat-e-Islami are described on pages 27-29 of this booklet.

  9. Jim Denham says:

    More facts:

    Pretty much all the left press other than Solidarity [Workers Liberty’s paper] has denounced the election court decision against Lutfur Rahman, mayor of Tower Hamlets in East London, and most of the left has backed Rabina Khan, Rahman’s ally, for the new mayoral election on 11 June.

    Does the left press reckon that Rahman didn’t do what the court disqualified him for doing? Or that he did do it, but it was all right? It’s hard to tell. I don’t know if the writers in the left press even read the judgement.

    If they did read it, then probably, like me, they were annoyed by the style of the judge, Richard Mawrey – pompous, self-satisfied, arrogant. The judgement is full of show-off side comments. The Labour Party leadership has suspended left-winger Christine Shawcroft on the basis of one side comment in the judgement suggesting (wrongly, and irrelevantly to the case before Mawrey) that Shawcroft supported Rahman in the polls against Labour.

    But probably most judges are pompous, self-satisfied, and arrogant. It goes with their social position. Yet often they can sum up evidence competently. Often they know that if they don’t do it competently, they will be rebuked when the case is taken to appeal, as Rahman, a lawyer himself, is taking his case.

    In a previous case, Mawrey found in favour of George Galloway’s Respect group and against the Labour Party. Galloway’s speech applauding that judgement is published in full on the Socialist Worker website. Mawrey’s findings cannot be dismissed out of hand.

    Mawrey found that charges of intimidation at polling stations, payment of canvassers, and impersonation of voters were not proved “beyond reasonable doubt”. But other charges were. Rahman had made false allegations against his opponent (the offence for which Labour right-winger Phil Woolas had his election ruled invalid in 2010). Rahman was guilty of “bribery of the electorate” via redistribution of grants to Bangladeshi community groups which would back him. And he had organised “undue spiritual influence”.

    The left press has dismissed the last charge as anti-Muslim prejudice. But the judgement is explicit that there is nothing unlawful about imams, in their capacity as citizens, publicly backing Rahman. Unlawful is saying or suggesting that it is a religious duty to vote one way, or a damnable sin to vote the other way – the sort of thing which Catholic priests in Italy did, to boost the Christian Democrat vote after 1946 and until the decay of religion made it counterproductive.

    The British law against “undue spiritual influence” dates from 1883. Its previous uses were in Ireland when still under British rule. The law was not, as some in the left press have suggested, a means to avoid the election of Catholic-backed nationalists. The British government had made its peace with the Irish Catholic church long before that. The conciliation is usually dated from the Maynooth Grant of 1845. The charges brought under the law were of priests declaring it a religious duty to vote against nationalists less in favour with the Church, such as the Parnellites (1890-1900) or Healy’s All for Ireland League (1910).

    If Rahman’s clerical allies did something like the priests did in Ireland back then, or in Italy in the 1950s, then there is good reason to find the election invalid. If there is strong counter-evidence, on that charge or the others, then Rahman and his allies should publish it.

    We know that Rahman has a soft-left Labour background, that Labour expelled him in a rigged-up summary execution, that he is close to the hierarchy of the East London Mosque. We know that the East London Mosque is one of the biggest in the country, built with large Saudi aid, and linked to the Islamic Forum of Europe and the Young Muslim Organisation, which are in turn linked to Bangladesh’s Islamist party, Jamaat e-Islami.

    Those facts are documented in many books such as Innes Bowen’s Islam in Britain, reviewed by Matt Cooper in Solidarity 233.

    It is also a fact that more secular-minded Muslims and Bangladeshis in the area find the religio-political power of the ELM/ IFE/ YMO complex overbearing.

    Those background facts mean that Mawrey’s findings cannot be dismissed out of hand. To dismiss them out of hand is to let down the more secular-minded Muslims and Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets.

  10. Jenny Fisher says:

    You have quoted from an “editorial in East End News”. In fact, you were quoting from an “article in East London News”.
    Your readers may find the following two points from Mr Mawrey’s Judgement on the Election Petition of interest.
    First, Mr Mawrey has ruled that “spiritual influence” is selectively unlawful when practised by Muslims. Referring to the letter signed by local Muslim clerics which your article quotes and its possible effect on Bangladeshi Muslim voters, Mr Mawrey’s Judgement states:
    There can be no doubt that the target audience would take advice about their religious duties from so many senior clerics and scholars very seriously indeed. A sophisticated metropolitan readership might smile patronisingly on the earnest strictures of the Bishops of the Church of England but many traditionalist and pious Muslim voters of Tower Hamlets are going to accept the word of their religious leaders as authoritative.”
    Second, some of your correspondents who refer to Lutfur Rahman as having links with Islamic extremists may be interested in this paragraph from Mr Mawrey’s Judgement:
    It should therefore be stressed that this court has not heard a shred of credible evidence linking Mr Rahman with any extreme or fundamentalist Islamist movement, something he himself has always denied. Such suggested links have played no part in this case and form no part of the court’s findings. Accordingly, the only permissible approach is that Mr Rahman is not associated with extreme radical Islam and neither openly nor covertly seeks its support.”
    Finally, it is sad to see that some of the comments on this article include material claimed to be fact which is not true and statements of opinion which replicate the islamophobia seen in the mainstream press.

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