It’s difficult to evaluate criticisms of the recent judgement against Lutfur Rahman without reading the ruling in full. In the light of the mass of information and evidence offered in this very long document, many of the objections raised by Jennifer Izaakson in this piece seem weak or strained. I’m going to focus just on the first half of her article, as these points are easier to assess with reference to the ruling alone whereas later paragraphs bring in further background information which is more difficult to evaluate quickly.
She begins her criticism of the judgement against Rahman with a complaint about the entire process:
37,000 people voted for Lutfur Rahman in a record turnout. He has now been deposed – not by an election, not by arrest and not by a jury trial, but by four local politicians who took him to court.
However the ruling engages very directly (sections 18-20) with concerns about the way the law can be invoked to overturn elections. Here’s a significant point from that section:
If a candidate is elected in breach of the rules for elections laid down in the legislation, then he cannot be said to have been ‘democratically elected’. In elections, as in sport, those who win by cheating have not properly won and are disqualified. Nor is it of any avail for the candidate to say ‘I would have won anyway’ because cheating leads to disqualification whether it was necessary for the victory or not.
Izaakson’s next objection relates to the charge of ‘ undue spiritual influence’.
Pay special attention to the mention of apostasy. It is mentioned how apostasy “is treated with great seriousness.” It continues: “it would be wrong, therefore, to treat Tower Hamlets’ Muslim community by the standards of a secular and largely agnostic metropolitan elite.
There we are. Law is, explicitly, to be applied differently to Muslims than as it applied to the “agnostic metropolitan elite,” whoever they are (is this the bankers in East London?).
But Judge Mawrey is not arguing that the law be applied differently to Muslims. His point about apostasy – based on his observations about some broad differences between Muslim and non-Muslim communities – is adduced to suggest that the charge of undue spiritual influence has a particular resonance within the context of Tower Hamlets’ Bangladeshi community which would not be present within a more secular minded community . In fact Izaakson’s argument rather contradicts that made by another writer on 5Pillars; Jahangir Mohammed asserts that Muslims ‘are increasingly organising and mobilising around their faith and religious identity’. His portrait of two communities with different values chimes very well with Mawrey’s more tentative suggestion of some possible differences.
And if you want to organise and mobilise the Muslim vote forget your Muslim identity and beliefs, you can do so but you must subscribe to one of the political ideologies of the West. The only values that are acceptable are the secular liberal Judeo-Christian values of Britain.
Izaakson then argues that the two documented examples of undue spiritual influence fail to meet the correct threshold:
Neither in themselves fulfilled the spirit of the “spiritual injury” offence, which is for a religious figure to claim that it is sinful to vote for one candidate or another.
Here it’s worth cross-referencing Mawrey’s discussion of the law in this regard with the instances of supposed undue influence brought forward by the petitioners. In section 161 he gives this opinion on the threshold for undue spiritual influence.
There is, as has been said, a line beyond which the priest may not go and that line is reached when the priest uses his religious and moral influence to attempt to ‘appeal to the fears, or terrors, or superstition of those he addresses’, to ‘hold hopes of reward here or hereafter’, or to ‘denounce the voting for any particular candidate as a sin, or as an offence involving punishment here or hereafter’.
In section 535 we are told that Council of Mosques’ Chairman Maolana Shamsul Haque ‘urged everyone to vote for Mayor Lutfur Rahman to retain truth, righteousness and practice religious belief’ and at 539 he is quoted saying ‘this election is to sustain our own existence’.
Here’s another significant passage, this time from a letter signed by 101 Imams. (section 549)
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.
One can imagine still more extreme case of ‘undue spiritual influence’ (and one further example has been the subject of a recent post of course) but the weight of authority behind the letter, in particular, seems to meet the threshold.
Whether or not you think the threshold was reached – Izaakson’s next argument is terrible:
In court one particular afternoon I watched as five Muslim witnesses were repeatedly asked, “did you say it was haram to not vote for brother Lutfur?”, as if these people were religious scholars in any position to do so.
Judging by social media, many Muslims are quite ready to pronounce on what is ‘haram’ without any scholarly training – sometimes in a ‘Muslim patrol’ spirit, sometimes to disown horrific actions. And they may influence others, either by intimidation or persuasion.
Another of her objections relates to the evidence given by Andrew Gilligan. Gilligan may not be a neutral figure, but that doesn’t mean he is an untrustworthy witness on matters of fact, and the ruling makes it clear that his ‘veracity and reliability were not put in issue by Mr Rahman’s counsel’. (354) Izaakson ignores this point, and implies that the evidence relating to candidates registered at false addresses was very dependent on Andrew Gilligan’s testimony:
It seems unlikely that even candidates minded to commit fraud would go to such great lengths and expose themselves to criminal charges for the sake of about three votes in ninety thousand. The evidence for these claims was the testimony of Andrew Gilligan, a right-wing Telegraph journalist linked to cronyism claims that has hounded Lutfur for years.
Gilligan simply stated that two Tower Hamlets councilors had two addresses. To be clear: it was found that Rahman was guilty of this claim due to it simply being thought that Gilligan’s testimony was “credible” (believable), without any proof. All that was believed is that two councilors had two addresses and then Gilligan’s assumption they therefore must’ve voted twice was agreed with.
But the evidence (336-9) doesn’t seem entirely dependent on Gilligan at all. Other witnesses/evidence were brought forward (see e.g. sections 318 and 320).
Here’s her next point:
Postal voting fraud (mass organisation)
The charge of mass organised postal vote fraud was perhaps the most serious of the claims against Lutfur and the media’s favourite charge. It was not upheld.
However the judge did in fact find:
‘that agents of Mr Rahman were guilty of breaches of s 62A of the 1983 Act and thus of corrupt practices’ (373).
Yet again Izaakson’s analysis seems unsatisfactory – some elements of the accusations were deemed not to meet the threshold, but many serious accusations were upheld.
She then notes that the charges relating to intimidation were not confirmed, implying that this was a vindication for Rahman’s supporters. However the ruling paints a disturbing picture of events at polling stations; the judge notes that he has only with reluctance, and because the law explicitly sets the bar high, concluded that the threshold for intimidation was not met – see section 621.
Having disagreed with practically everything in the first half of the article, I don’t feel inclined to take her later assertions on trust. However I’m surprised she didn’t say anything about section 206:
“One of the targets of Mr Keith’s ire was a leaflet that had been put out by the Liberal Focus team. Entitled ‘Focus Fights for Mrs X’ it related how an elderly lady living on ‘possibly Wapping’s most dangerous estate’ was, in essence, living in fear of attacks by 68 thugs and nothing was being done to help her. The vice in this leaflet was that it contained a photograph of a large black man in a very aggressive pose. It was said to be the boxer Mike Tyson but this is not easy to verify from the photocopies that remain. At all events, it was described as ‘the Mike Tyson leaflet’. It was just about tenable to describe this leaflet as playing to racial fears.”
Mawrey expresses scepticism about ‘dog-whistling’ – but he seems unduly cautious in this instance.
And, further to that point, I did agree with Izaakson in finding the judge’s comments about the EDL a bit languid. Just because some people may make political capital out of their activities doesn’t mean that they don’t cause genuine anxiety in communities.