David Rose

Why has Labour’s Rochdale candidate fundraised for a mosque that hosted extremists?

Azhar Ali’s past has raised questions in this tense by-election campaign


Labour candidate for Rochdale Azhar Ali launches his by-election campaign on February 7 (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

February 09, 2024 15:40

Earlier this week, the Muslim website 5 Pillars published what it called a “concerning” investigation into Labour’s candidate in the forthcoming Rochdale by-election. To its evident dismay, it reported that Ali, who has also been the Labour group leader on Lancashire County Council, was once a director of the Sufi Muslim Council, which took a “particularly strong stand against ‘Islamic extremism’ [the quote marks framing this phrase are 5 Pillars’] in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005.

According to its critics, the site’s report went on, the organisation was nothing less than “a government-backed attempt to create a state-friendly version of Islam at a time when representative organisations were heavily criticising Labour over the illegal and deadly invasion and occupation of Iraq”.

Pretty heinous, you might think. After all, the 7/7 bomb attacks were no real biggie: only 52 innocent people were murdered, and a further 700 injured: by the standards Hamas set last year, not so much a bang as a whimper. 5 Pillars’s next “revelation” was even more damning. Ali, it transpires, had a five-year stint advising the government on counter-terrorism, “serving under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown”.

Oddly enough, I wrote an article about Ali which the JC published the same day. To me, it seemed of more consequence that this former counter-terrorism adviser has for many years been a trustee of the Sultania mosque in Brierfield, for which he has helped to raise millions of pounds. However, its policy on Islamic extremism has been, shall we say, a little more relaxed.

On 28 January, the mosque featured a preacher called Asrar Rashid, and posted his hour-long sermon on YouTube. He told worshippers and viewers that Israel was a “white, settler colonial entity” and compared the Jewish state to Algeria, saying: “France occupied Algeria for over 150 years, but today Algeria is independent. The settler colonial entity should not think now that Palestine belongs to it, because in the same the way Algeria booted out their settler colonial entity, the resistance will boot out the settler colonial entity that we have in Palestine.”

He repeatedly used the term “axis of resistance”, a phrase coined by Iran to describe its terrorist proxies Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis, and to encourage support for the Yemeni terror group because they fighting “the Zionists”.

He wasn’t the only speaker at the mosque to have made inflammatory statements over the past ten months. Others have attacked Zionism as the result of “totalitarian brainwashing”, and urged parents to “de-programme” their children if they were taught about LGBT issues at school.

Ali’s spokesman claimed that despite being a trustee, he played no role in Sultania’s management, and “does not support extremist views”. Nevertheless, a source close to him told the JC he had “no plans” to resign, while only a year ago, he was named on a mosque social media post as its “services coordinator”. It helpfully added his phone number, saying readers could call him if they had questions about different categories of membership.

There is no evidence Ali has ever personally supported violent extremism, and plenty - as 5 Pillars says - that he has challenged it. It is fair to say that his views on Israel are not those of the JC: way back in 2014, he called IDF action in the conflict with Hamas that year a “genocide”, and during the further conflict of 2021, he spoke at a rally where at least one other speaker on the platform called for a boycott of Israeli goods. Two weeks after the October 7 massacre, he was one of dozens of Lancashire Labour councillors who signed a letter deploring Keir Starmer’s support for Israel in the current war.

That may not be enough to deliver him victory in Rochdale, a heavily Muslim seat. He is being challenged by George Galloway, the former Respect Party leader, who has form in unseating Labour MPs perceived as not hardline enough on the Middle East. A few nights ago, Ali was confronted by local youths in a Rochdale fast food restaurant, who shouted “f*** Labour” at him and began a chant of “Free, Free Palestine.” A clip of the incident has gone viral on social media.

Recent reports have identified “Labour’s Muslim problem”, focusing on the fact that the party may lose votes to figures such as Galloway in areas with a large Muslim electorate. But there is, I suggest, another side to it.

I’ve written here before that Starmer’s determination to root out antisemitism from his party is sincere, and he has achieved considerable success. But how far is that compatible with supporting a by-election candidate who has served as a trustee at a mosque that has given a platform to extremists?

Back in the 1980s, when the far right was rising and well-organised, anyone in mainstream politics who had even a slight association with the National Front or the British National Party were exposed by the media, vilified and ostracised. At least two organisations, Western Goals and Tory Action, tried to bridge the gap between neo-Nazis and the Tory fringe, and were swiftly made to seem toxic. It was, as a political friend I’ve known since that period commented to me this week, “an exemplary exercise in maintaining boundaries”.

Yet in Britain today, Islamists, antisemites and outright supporters of terrorism spout their poison from the pulpit and on the streets, and they continually get away with it.

I ran Ali’s involvement with the mosque past a New Labour grandee who, like Ali, was close to its leaders Brown and Blair. His comment was: “I hear he is rock solid.”

I’m sorry to say that serving as a trustee of the Sultania mosque suggests that he may not be very solid at all.

February 09, 2024 15:40

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