Britain’s first Muslim minister has been prevented from addressing an Islamic conference after an interdepartmental row over the alleged political affiliations of an organiser of the London event.
Shahid Malik, the international development minister, had been due to speak at the opening ceremony of Islam Expo on Friday evening, alongside the Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes and Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London.
The behind-the-scenes dispute, involving fierce opposition to the event voiced by the Department of Communities and Local Government, lasted for several days, and is understood to have dragged in officials at Downing Street. A spokesman for the department said: “We have reservations about the organisers of the event, therefore we [the government] chose not to send any ministers.”
Around 40,000 people will have attended the four-day event in Olympia, in west London, by the time it closes later today. It featured sessions on Islamic art, cooking and culture, as well as debates.
Hours before the event, Malik contacted Anas Altikriti, one of the directors of the conference, and apologised for the fact that he would not be able to attend.
Malik had accepted an invitation to speak at the opening ceremony. “It seems that by Wednesday he got into difficulty with certain people – within his own party – advising him not to come,” Altikriti said. “Shahid realised the importance of the event and was going to try everything in his power to make it. He realised … how untrue the criticism of the events and the organisers were.
“A few hours before, he informed me that the pressure was mounting from all quarters … After that he called and apologised for not being able to turn up.”
During their discussion, there were exchanges about alleged political support by another of the organisers for the Palestinian group Hamas.
Altikriti said: “It’s quite breathtaking … to ban one of the most prominent Muslim politicians and [stop] him saying what he wishes. [Malik] had been told that among the organisers were people associated with Hamas. This isn’t a Hamas project.”
Asked about his withdrawal, Malik said: “I obviously apologised to the organisers. It was unfortunately due to matters outside of my control.”
It would be interesting to know who persuaded the DCLG to adopt such a stupid position. Hazarding a rough guess, perhaps Azhar Ali of the Sufi Muslim Council, a tiny and unrepresentative sect whose primary purpose is to poison relations between the government and mainstream Muslim organisations?
Meanwhile, in today’s Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown reports: “Off to IslamExpo 2008 at Olympia where more than 20,000 came and went over two days, an event pre-emptively and roundly condemned by Charles Moore as a showpiece of ‘Islamism’. I usually avoid such jamborees for other reasons – most are too thick with self righteous piety and too disapproving of liberal, secular Muslims.
“Well this time, invited to a debate on radicalisation I turned up, daringly uncovered. Sure enough, those without hijab and niqab were a minority – and my opposition to both is well known. That aside, the hall was infused with charm and courtesy, and controversial subjects were discussed without malice. And when some of us spoke about the importance of moving beyond the siege mentality we even got some applause.
“Jolly rabbis and white families were having a good time, wandering between food shows, media interviews, a garden, human rights stalls and even five-a-side football matches between Muslim teams and Chelsea, Arsenal and other professionals.”
Update: See also Seumas Milne at Comment is Free, 14 July 2008