In March this year the English Defence League’s political wing, the British Freedom party, launched a letter campaign aimed at persuading MPs who had signed Unite Against Fascism’s founding statement to withdraw their support from the organisation. The hook for this campaign was provided by a witch-hunting article by Andrew Gilligan (a journalist greatly admired by right-wing Islamophobes) who had accused UAF vice chair Azad Ali of being a fascist. The model letter provided by the BFP also included the claim that Azad Ali had been “exposed at the web site Harry’s Place” (which has been another source of inspiration for far-right racists).
It appears that the only positive response the BFP received was from Brian Donohoe, Labour MP for Central Ayrshire, who took up the issue after being contacted by George Whale, editor of the British Freedom website. To the delight of the BFP, Donohoe replied to Whale with a friendly assurance that he was pursuing the question of UAF on his behalf: “I have written to both the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary asking for an update on this website as I am sure the majority of these ‘signatories’ are unaware their names are listed there.” Donohoe also relayed to the Home and Foreign offices Whale’s accusation that UAF is an extremist group.
Giving Donohoe the benefit of the doubt, we can only assume that he was unaware of Whale’s political background – though you’d have to be politically very naive not to suspect that a constituent demanding that you sever links with an organisation committed to opposing the far right might, just possibly, have some connection to the far right himself.
As it turned out, Donohoe was given an admirably firm brush-off in a letter from James Brokenshire MP, parliamentary under secretary for crime and security at the Home Office. Brokenshire made it quite clear that the Home Office didn’t buy the BFP’s charge that UAF is an extremist organisation:
Unite Against Fascism (UAF) was formed in Great Britain in late 2003 in response to electoral successes by the British National Party (BNP). It began as a coalition that included the Anti-Nazi League, the National Assembly Against Racism, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and leading British unions such as the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G) (now Unite) and UNISON. Its honorary president in 2012 is said to be Doreen Lawrence.
If Donohoe or any of the other signatories to UAF’s founding statement objected to their names appearing on the UAF website, Brokenshire suggested, then the simple solution was to contact UAF and ask for their names to be removed.
The letter concluded:
Your constituent also makes reference to a Daily Telegraph article by Andrew Gilligan about Mr Azad Ali who is the Vice Chair of UAF. Dr Whale is concerned that Mr Ali appears to want to destroy British democracy and replace it with Sharia law. Sharia is not part of the law of England and Wales.
Sharia principles are the code of personal religious law governing the conduct of Muslims. They can extend into all aspects of people’s lives (for example requirements to give charitably, to follow certain dietary rules and to pray) but provided an activity prescribed by Sharia principles does not contravene the law of England and Wales, there is nothing that prevents people living by Sharia principles should they choose to.
This is part of people’s legitimate right to freedom of expression and we must ensure that where [there] is a need to address something that is a recognised problem, we do not stigmatise the vast majority of Muslims who live peacefully in the United Kingdom and who contribute fully to our society.
I hope this clarifies the situation for your constituent.
You may wish to ask Brian Donohoe why he allowed himself to be used in this way by a leading figure in a far-right group that serves as the political arm of a gang of racist street thugs. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org