David Rose

Is there an Islamist-inclined leaker inside Michael Gove’s department?

Leaks of the names of candidates to be the government’s Islamophobia tsar have damaged its counter-extremism strategy


Levelling-Up secretary Michael Gove (image: Wikipedia)

March 15, 2024 17:39

Michael Gove’s record as an opponent of Islamist extremism goes back a long way. In 2006 he published a significant book, Celsius 7/7, which examined how its spread had given rise to terrorist attacks in the West, including the London tube and bus bombs that killed 52 people on 7 July, 2005. He was also one of the first trustees of the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) think thank, which has produced an impressive body of research in this field. So, when as Secretary of State for the Department of Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities (DHLUC) Gove unveiled new government policies to deal with extremism earlier this week, his House of Commons audience will have been aware that he knew what he was talking about.

There had, Gove said, been a “surge” in extremist activity in Britain since the October 7 terrorist attacks against Israel, saying this now posed a “real risk” to the UK. He set out a new, more detailed definition of the term extremist, and revealed that over the coming weeks, officials from a new DHLUC unit, the “counter-extremism centre of excellence”, would be assessing which organisations fitted it.

Public bodies would be banned from supporting those that did, Gove said, going on to name five organisations that the unit is to investigate - two from the extreme right, and three that “give rise to concern for their Islamist orientation and views” - the Muslim Association of Britain, the terrorist prisoners’ support group Cage, and the Muslim lobby group MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development).

By such means, Gove told the House, the government would “marginalise” extremism and “beat this poison… We must be clear-eyed about the threat that we face, precise about where that threat comes from, and rigorous in defending our democracy”.

These are laudable goals. But it was left to Gove’s Labour shadow, Angela Rayner, to highlight an inconvenient fact: that there appears to be someone in government who is trying to thwart Gove’s counter-extremist ambitions by leaking information to the very people he is trying to combat.

She gave two examples: first, leaks of the contents of Gove’s speech in the days before he gave it, including the names of organisations that were to be “assessed”, and second, the leaking of the names of individuals said to be front-runners for the post of government “tsar” on Islamophobia.

The importance of that choice is obvious. First, like Jews, Muslims have experienced rising levels of hatred and harassment since October 7. Equally, the last thing the government would want to do is to appoint someone whose views on extremism were at odds with its own.

The leaker’s first victim was Fiyaz Mughal, the founder of the anti-Islamophobia charity Tell Mama, whose column on the dangers posed by Islamism can currently be found on the JC’s website.

The fact that he is prepared to write for this paper, and to call for the permanent “removal of Hamas” from Gaza, tells you what you need to know: that he is the polar opposite of an Islamist extremist. And when it emerged that he was about to be appointed to the government role, he was viciously attacked, by both Islamists and the extreme right.

MEND’s website claimed he was “a discredited figure in the Muslim community” because in the past, he had criticised MEND itself as being “conspiratorial” and “antisemitic”. Mughal, MEND’s article concluded, “is only being appointed as a stooge to rubberstamp this Government’s new definition of extremism, and to show the public that they are taking the problems of Islamophobia ‘seriously’ by appointing an ‘independent’ person to oversee it.”

In the face of this onslaught, Mughal’s nomination was withdrawn – apparently, according to one of the outlets that attacked him, the left-wing Byline Times, because Downing St had decided not to approve it.

A few days later, another name mysteriously emerged – that of the Birmingham Labour MP Khalid Mahmood. Once again, MEND went on the offensive, issuing a 17-post thread on X (formerly Twitter) claiming this was “yet another example of the Tories’ tendency to govern by ideology, rather than by credentials and competence”, on the grounds that Mahmood supported the government’s counter-extremism Prevent strategy, and had worked with think tanks including the HJS which had “widely been accused of Islamophobia”.

Yet even this was not the end of the saga. On Wednesday, yet another name was leaked – that of Haras Rafiq, the former chief executive of the anti-Islamist Quilliam Foundation, and the founder of Muslims Against Antisemitism. Like Mughal, Rafiq was attacked by the Byline Times, and in the wake of their article, others swiftly piled in on social media.

So where is the source of the leak? It’s possible it lies inside 10 Downing St, not Gove’s department, but there’s a piece of evidence that suggests it probably isn’t. Authoritative sources have told me that although the names of Mughal and Rafiq were sent to be approved by the PM’s office, Mahmood’s never was – though he was on a DHLUC shortlist. That suggests that the leaker is likely to work in DHLUC.

In any event, in his response to Rayner, Gove was candid. “I deprecate that leaking”, he said, “which is a fundamental challenge to the effective operation of government.” He had, he said, already commissioned a leak inquiry.

It is to be hoped that it unearths the culprit soon, because the leaks have caused real damage, both to the government’s counter-extremism policy and to those whose names were leaked.

March 15, 2024 17:39

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