The East London Mosque (ELM) is an influential institution.
Go to its website today and you see a September 2020 visit from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; a BBC documentary about the mosque; and a virtual interfaith iftar attended by various dignitaries, including multiple MPs. It has hosted a series of other high-profile figures in the past, including multiple Mayors of London. It was described by Ed Husain in his 2007 book The Islamist as a “strategically placed institution at the heart of the densest population of Muslims in Britain”.
The ELM has also long been associated with South Asian Islamist politics.
In March 2009, a Department for Communities and Local Government paper described the ELM as “the key institution for the Bangladeshi wing of [Jamaat-e-Islami] in the UK”. Jamaat-e-Islami is an Islamist political party that was created in 1941 by Mawlana Abu al-Ala Mawdudi. In The Islamist, Husain described the East London Mosque as an institution stacked with activists that “venerated” Mawdudi and most of whose committee members were affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami.
Trustees of the ELM are identified as members of the Islamic Forum for Europe (IFE) in the Government’s 2015 Muslim Brotherhood Review. The same review describes IFE as an organisation historically “associated with Mawdudi and the Jamaat”.
In the past, ELM has consistently hosted speakers who meet the British government’s definition of extremism (“vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”) This included, on multiple occasions, future al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
After his last appearance – via video link in 2009 – ELM stated that “[t]he mosque will not tolerate its facilities being used for extremist groups or speakers and is now vetting all speakers and publicity materials”. The vetting process would appear to be flawed. Because over a decade on, ELM continues to host a variety of characters with unsavoury views. One group is particularly worth highlighting.
In November 2020, ELM hosted an event called “Global Islamophobia: Roots, Context and Deconstruction”, starring Marwan Muhammad, billed as “former spokesman and director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF)”.
Presumably, Muhammad’s talk went down well, because they had him back for ELM’s ‘Winter Family Programme 2020’ in December. On a panel alongside representatives from the Islamist advocacy groups CAGE and Muslim Engagement and Development, Muhammad presented a vision of France attempting to “criminalise” and “control” Muslims, a country where the only acceptable form of Muslim opinion was one which agreed with “far right ideology”.
This kind of inflammatory and false rhetoric is par for the course of CCIF, an organisation whose work consists of providing legal aid to Muslims it says are being discriminated against and to identify instances of Islamophobia. Yet the group’s very apparent determination to portray France in a negative light means it plays fast and loose with its definition of what constitutes an Islamophobic act. One example was when CCIF labelled the deportation of an imam who had justified violence against women as Islamophobic, suggesting that any state action taken against a Muslim – even if deserved – is liable to be labelled as such.
CCIF also has a variety of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Dr Lorenzo Vidino, author of Closed Circle: Joining and Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, describes CCIF as being “very deeply embedded in the overlapping Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish Islamist networks throughout Europe.”
As bad as that may be, however, these are not the main reasons that ELM is courting problems by hosting CCIF.
The reason Muhammad is the “former” spokesperson and director of CCIF is that the French government shut the group down following the beheading of school teacher Samuel Paty.
One of the individuals responsible for the campaign launched against Paty – a campaign which ultimately led to his murder – had contacted CCIF regarding Paty and encouraged others on social media to contact the group. French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin subsequently accused CCIF of spreading Islamist propaganda and called them an “enemy of the republic”.
CCIF denies it took any action after being contacted by the parent in question, saying it was then weighing up whether it was a case that required their involvement. Still, the government proceeded with its plans to formally close CCIF on December 2, 2020. CCIF is now appealing the decision and has shifted its assets over to what it called “partner associations” overseas with a similar focus on Islamophobia (one of which, according to a now deleted CCIF tweet, is Cage).
In that context, ELM hosting CCIF twice in the two months after Paty’s murder appears less a freedom of speech issue and more a nakedly political statement.
Of course, provided they do not break the law, those running ELM should be free to host whoever they please. But they cannot credibly present themselves as partners in the fight against extremism while championing CCIF. All those who have given patronage to ELM in the past – from the MPs of today through to the future King – should carefully consider whether it warrants such respect in the future.