Whitehall in turmoil over Muslim advisers

John Denham

John Denham

An ideological battle has broken out in Whitehall over the advice given to ministers on Islamic radicalism.

A series of recent changes of personnel and promotions at key departments has led to concerns that the government is moving away from a policy of dialogue with moderates towards a policy of engagement with more radical groups.

The Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) confirmed that Azhar Ali, one of Hazel Blears’s advisers and an influential voice for dialogue with moderate “Sufi” Muslims, was leaving the department at the end of November. The department has advertised for two new advisers. A second DCLG adviser, Mohammed Abdul Aziz, has close links to the Muslim Council of Britain and is hotly tipped to be re-appointed.

At the same time, the DCLG, which has responsibility for community cohesion, confirmed that Communities Secretary John Denham was talking to the former secretary-general of the MCB, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, about bringing the organisation in from the cold.

The MCB fell out of favour under Mr Denham’s predecessors at the Department of Communities and Local Government, Ruth Kelly and Hazel Blears, who promoted organisations from the moderate “Sufi” tradition of Islam. As he explained in an interview with the JC in October, he believes the MCB should have a voice in government. The organisation has been barred from Whitehall since March, when its deputy secretary-general, Daud Abdullah, signed the Istanbul declaration, pledging support for Hamas and supporting attacks on British shipping.

A DCLG spokeswoman said: “John Denham has met Iqbal Sacranie and many other members of Muslim communities. Regarding the Muslim Council of Britain, John Denham has made it clear that the MCB represents a number of Muslim voices with which any government would wish to engage; however, as issues raised earlier this year have not yet been resolved, relations with the MCB remain suspended.”

The department denied that funding has been withdrawn from the Sufi Muslim Council, which represents moderate mosques across the country. However, its present grant runs out in March 2010 and the organisation has been told that it is unlikely to be renewed.

In recent years, Muslim advisers have been employed at the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that ministers are kept informed of grassroots responses to government foreign and domestic policy. This has been seen as a priority since the events of July 2005.

The JC last week reported the appointment of Islamist Asim Hafeez to the post of head of intervention at the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism in the Home Office.

The MCB’s spokesman Inayat Bunglawala responded to the JC by asking this newspaper to disclose its source: “I don’t suppose you want to share with me the name of the ‘Muslim adviser’ who sh**ed on Asim Hafeez?” he wrote in a colourfully-worded message on the social networking site Facebook. “I thought it was a disgraceful piece and quite McCarthyite. Does it not trouble your conscience? ”

Meanwhile, a controversial Foreign and Commonwelath Office adviser who recommended a visa for the radical Palestinian cleric Yusuf al–Qaradawi, has been promoted and given a key role across government working on the anti-extremist Prevent strategy.

Mockbul Ali has become “Head of Prevent, Counter Ideology” at the FCO but also retains his job as Islamic adviser to the Foreign Secretary.

Mr Ali was exposed after a series of leaks, which showed that he believed Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to be a moderate organisation. He also recommended a visa for the Bangladeshi politician Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, who described Hindus as excrement. He described Sheikh al-Qaradawi, who has spoken in favour of suicide bombing and the execution of homosexuals, as “a highly respected Islamic scholar”. Mr Ali is an increasingly influential figure across government, although some believe he has moderated his views in recent years.

    Last updated: 5:29pm, November 12 2009