In his first interview about the hate campaign being waged against the Ahmadiyya community in south London, Tooting MP and shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, talks to Omar Oakes about what has happened and what he is doing to stop it escalating.
Is there a hate campaign going on against the Ahmadiyya community?
"If you read the [Ahmadiyya’s allegations of hate crime] dossier, it’s not just in Wandsworth, but in Walsall, in Birmingham, in other parts of the country, there is clearly a campaign to incite hatred against this group of people. Whether that crosses the criminal threshold, that is for the police."
What’s the latest you’ve heard about the police investigation?
"The police complete a report to send to the CPS who will decide whether or not to prosecute. There’s two criteria with the CPS. One, does it satisfy the evidential burden of more than 50 per cent chance of a successful prosecution? Two, is it in the public interest to prosecute. They have said it doesn’t, so they’re not going to prosecute.
"Now, one of the things I know that Rafiq [Hayat, national president of Ahmadiyya Association] wants to do is, he’s got an opinion which says it is possible to prosecute. One of the things I’ve said to him is.... he’s got a QC’s opinion, send me your QC’s opinion and I’ll raise it with the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] in relations to if there are grounds to prosecute.
"Separately, I’ll be meeting with police and the Ahmadi community, and the Borough Commander [at Wandsworth police Chief Superintendent Dave Musker ] will be asked to look into the issue and whether there is more they can be doing.
"To be fair, the police’s hands are tied. They’ve done the investigation, and it’s for the CPS to decide. The Borough Commander has invested a considerable number of police officers to look into the allegation, including having documents translated from Urdu into English."
Do you believe the TIC is part of the hate campaign?
"No. I’ve spoken to the management committee of the TIC. As soon as the poster was pointed out to them, they’ve taken it down. They’ve put out their own statement, which you’ve seen. And they have agreed, for the first time... I asked them, would they come to this meeting with the Ahmadi community, they have to do so... and the good news is today, the Ahmadi community have said that they’re really happy that I’ve organised the meeting.
"The management committee (at the TIC), who I can speak to, and I am speaking to, are taking this very seriously. They have reassured me that he (Suliman Gani, imam of the Tooting Islamic Centre) will do nothing to undermine the fantastic work we’ve done over the last 30 years, and it’s really important they give me that reassurance which they have. What would be disastrous, is if any religious or community leader was undermining the good work that goes on. The Sunni Muslims and the Ahmadis is just one example: we have been living, cheek by jowl, very successfully, Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Singhalese, Hindus and Sikhs, you know, Catholics and Anglicans, and it all works really well. And so, I’ve been reassured by the Islamic Centre. That’s one of the reasons we can’t undermine the meeting that’s going to take place, that any reassurance needs to take place around that table."
Do you know who’s going to be there from Tooting Islamic Centre?
"No, but it’s got to be management. There’s no point having somebody low-level, it’s got to be somebody right at the top, who’s accountable for what goes on inside the mosque. Otherwise it’s a waste of time."
According to Mark Clarke (the Conservative candidate who was locked in a room at the TIC at an election event on April 14 for his own protection after being mistaken for the Lib Dem candidate, Nasser Butt, who is an Ahmadi) these people very clearly identified themselves as supporters of Sadiq Khan. They said: "This is Sadiq’s mosque. What are you doing here? This is no place for Ahmadis". Hadn’t you heard anything like that was going on?
Would you condemn that?
"Yes, absolutely. There’s a famous speech I give all the time about President Kennedy. He was the first President of Catholic faith. And Kennedy goes to a Catholic church before 1960 and says: "There are various reasons to vote for me, but if any of these are because I’m a Catholic, then I don’t want your vote. You vote for me because of my values, what I believe in, what I stand for, what I’ve done". I think JFK got it just right. If you say to people, "vote for me because I’m a Muslim", where does it end? It leads to a ghetto-isation of politics which is disastrous.
"I would condemn anybody who says: "Don’t vote for A because he’s an Ahmadi, don’t vote for B because he’s Hindu, don’t vote for C because he’s a Muslim, or don’t vote for D because he’s agnostic, or don’t vote for E because she’s a woman". There’s no place in politics for that. That I think is really important is to say. What I do know, is when I went to the Tooting Islamic Centre and I was asked 10 questions about, you know, “What about halal food at St George’s”, “What are you going to do about parking problems around the mosque”... I had assumed, those objective questions they were asking all the candidates. Which is why it wasn’t a hustings, it was an interview."
Let’s nail down what happened at the Tooting Islamic Centre.
"But I wasn’t there, you have to speak to the people that were there..."
Well you know that Mark Clarke had to be locked in a room….
"Paul (Cahalan, assistant editor at the newspaper) told me the details, but I knew there had been an incident a few days later. I didn’t know anything about being locked in a room until Paul told me. But I knew that something had happened at the mosque because there was a Friday prayer. Ken Livingstone had come down, and Ken Livingstone had to go inside the mosque because of outsiders who were calling him a "kaafir" for encouraging people to vote. These aren’t local people from Tooting, these are outsiders that came in. I knew the mosque made a complaint to Streatham mosque. But Paul was the first person to give me all the details... although I knew there had been some sort of incident, I didn’t know the details until Paul gave me all the details. But there had been some incident clearly with Butt and Clarke because, when I raised the Ken thing, they said it’s not the first time we’ve had a problem with outsiders. My understanding is, I think the mosque made a complaint to Streatham mosque about this."
Between April and October, before we contacted you, what did you know about a campaign against the Ahmadis and what did you do in response?
"I had a long chat with Paul Cahalan (in early October) about this. Paul filled me in on all the details and stuff. I think I only saw the dossier a couple of weekends afterwards when it was dropped round my house from someone from the Ahmadi community. But it wasn’t until I read the dossier that I got the full measure of what was going on, not just locally but around the country as well. I think the dossier is pretty compelling. But until I saw the dossier, even though I had spoken to Paul about it, I didn’t know the details."
Since October, when we reported it, what had you done?
"I’ve spoken with the police regularly and with the most senior officer at the council on at least two or three occasions. I’ve met with leaders of the Ahmadi community and spoken to them on many occasions, including most recently on Friday. I’ve met with leaders of Tooting Islamic Centre to discuss this. I’ve spoken to local councillors about this. I’ve written to Ofcom about this. I’ve written to the Foreign Secretary about this. I’ve met with Siobhain McDonagh to discuss this. I’m sure there are things I’ve forgotten, but if I have, I’ll drop you a note about it."
How much do you know about this group, the Khatme Nabuwwat (an Islamic fundamentalist group of scholars who was invited to a conference at the TIC on March 29 where worshippers were told not to socialise or do business with Ahmadis)?
"Paul told me about them. He asked me if I’d been to the [Khatme Nabuwwat] conference and I didn’t know anything about it. What I said to Paul was, I don’t know anything about them other from what I’ve heard from you guys. And they’re mentioned in the dossier that the Ahmadi Community gave us. My understanding is, that the mosque, like church groups, invite people in, and they invited this group in. This is speculation, but, maybe the group contacted the mosque, and said “We want to come down to the mosque”. That’s all I can imagine happened. I don’t know anything about the group. But, there could be, equally, 50 groups who are invited to the Islamic Centre that I’ve not heard of. The fact that I don’t know about them doesn’t mean they’re not prominent, or whatever. Often, for example, I’ve seen posters outside churches or temples where there are groups who are organising meetings and using the premises. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that there’s a group I’ve not heard of who is organising a meeting at the mosque."
Does it disappoint you that these kinds of meetings were happening?
"What disappoints me is what was said at the meeting, from what Paul has told me about it, and from the recordings, which, if you’ve heard them, some of the stuff – does it disappoint me? Of course it does. I think, though, the question to ask is, what checks and balances the mosque does before it hires out its mosque? That’s the important issue. It’s not enough saying: “so and so came along saying something provocative”. Did you check who they were, what did they say, what were you going to do once they say something provocative. So that’s the kind of questions that every responsible landowner that owns a premises should be asking. But as far as the group is concerned, of course their message is one of... from the extracts I’ve seen, and I’ve only seen extracts from the dossier, obviously it’s very worrying."
Given that they’ve had a conference there on the previous year and this year, it would be reasonable to suggest that they might come back next March. Do you think they should be allowed back?
"That’s a question you should ask the landowners. The question is, are these meetings organised and being publicised with the deliberate aim of being anti-Ahmadi, which would be very very serious if they were. Or, are they advertised as theological discussions?"
When the Tooting Islamic Centre was opened, one of its stated aims was to promote community cohesion. Do you think what’s happened, the evidence that we’ve uncovered, falls short of that?
"I think if you, or anyone, is using the last few weeks and months to form a judgment on the work the TIC does, it’s not doing full justice to the work the Islamic centre does. You either look at it all or you look at a snapshot. Clearly, it’s not the TIC’s finest hour. It’s for them to defend themselves. But, for me, as an observer watching it, it’s not. TIC has been there since the 90's and Balham mosque since 1973. If you think of all the good they’ve done in 34 years, you can’t reach a conclusion like that. But it’s for them to defend themselves. All I know is, as an MP and a councillor for 12 years, they’ve done a lot of good, inter-faith stuff, 7/7, 9/11, reaching out to the Tamils, reaching out on open days, educating our Muslims about Islam, social welfare stuff, not accepting grants from council unless they need it, they try and do things through they own philanthropy."
You recently gave an interview to the Muslim News in which you were given credit for running Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign. One of the things you said was that you wanted to replicate what you did in Tooting where you said you ran a very inclusive campaign. What do you think were the most important elements of this?
"Not relying just on members but relying on other support as well. Any political party which relies just on the members limits the pool. Our membership has actually been going up since May because of the coalition stuff. If you can bring in support, and with no sort-of snobbery about it... If you’re not a member, it shouldn’t mean you can’t do important work."
Given what the Ahmadi community have expressed, does it disappoint you that a minority within your constituency doesn’t believe they’ve been part of that inclusion?
"That’s the most heartbreaking thing. The most heartbreaking thing, is there are people living in Tooting, forget their faith, who feel and have actually got examples of being treated less favourably because of their religion. There are examples of children in schools being name-called. These are examples I’ve heard about, name-called because they’re Ahmadis. Rafiq told me an example of his son being kicked out of a house because he’s an Ahmadi. These are my neighbours, these are friends, these are people I know, that’s heartbreaking. It shouldn’t be happening in 2010, or at any time. It’s happening in Tooting, where I’m supposed to be the representative of everybody. It’s deeply, deeply heartbreaking. But for the grace of God, it could be my child. It could be me. That’s why the responsibility I have is to get it sorted. Now, I’m not going to do it with the intention of seeking the court of publicity, I’m doing it because that child could be me, it could be my daughter...
"In the short term, I might take a hit in popularity and all the rest of it. But, really, it’s not about me. I’m not going to patronise you about giving you the famous Jewish poem from the Second World War, but today it’s the Ahmadis, yesterday it was the Afro-Caribbeans, the day before it was the Irish, tomorrow it could be me or my mum. And that’s why we’ve got to stamp it out. And so, fingers crossed, with a good wind, in a month’s time we may have some good news. And that good news, and I didn’t think of this but you brought up the March [conference] thing, one of the other fruits of this could be next year, next March, there’s not these people coming... I don’t know..."
Do you accept that anti-Ahmadi sentiments preached at the Tooting Islamic Centre by certain speakers to the wider community may have had an impact in the run up to the election?
"No. I think, as far as the general election is concerned, you can’t explain the 5,500 additional votes I received since 2005 simply by what you’re saying. You can’t explain the fact that, notwithstanding the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent by the Conservatives over the last few years, they were walloped. You can’t explain the fact that I had literally hundreds of people helping me in my campaign because of what you’re saying. You can’t explain that my majority is 2,500 when all the pundits were expecting the Conservatives to form a Government based on Tooting. I think what the reason it was done to, was because of a fantastic campaign locally because of the entire community, with faith or without faith, came together. Because I think the community recognise the hard work I’ve put in over the last five years as a Member of Parliament, and the 12 years before that as a local councillor. I think it’s also because I was the only candidate who actually genuinely lives locally and is from the area. I think it’s also because, in my literature, I didn’t make any silly typographical errors. I knew how to spell ‘Iraq’ unlike the Lib Dem candidate. It’s also because I was being photographed locally, unlike being photographed in Sutton like the Liberal Democrats. Because, unlike the Conservative candidate, I had a good, clean, positive campaign, rather than a negative one. I think there are a variety of reasons why I did well in Tooting, not for the reasons you’ve said."
What do you want to say to fellow Muslims who may be thinking of supporting the hate campaign?
"What’s really important is that nobody in our community has hatred directed towards them. It is possible to have differences of opinion on theology, but it’s unacceptable for anybody to incite hatred against another group."
What about the proposed boycott of Ahmadi shops by Khatme Nabuwwat speakers at the mosque?
"One of the things I’ve been campaigning for is for us to support local businesses. So it’s daft for local businesses to be boycotted. I think it’s very important that we support local businesses, especially in these difficult economic times."
Will you be shopping in Ahmadi shops yourself?
"I’ll be shopping in all sorts of shops. I don’t ask people what their faith is, I look for the best discounts, just like most shoppers do in Tooting! I don’t know who the local shops who are Ahmadi are, most retailers don’t. I’m disappointed if anyone has been targeted, and they shouldn’t be targeted."
On Friday, one of our photographers took a photo of an anti-Ahmadi leaflet in a hair salon shop just off Tooting High Street. Would you urge anyone who’s seen these leaflets to contact the police?
"These sort of leaflets do no good at all. What they do is create ripples of hatred which is not good. If anybody has any evidence of any criminality it is really important that they give this evidence to the authorities. The authorities need to have all the evidence if they’re going to try and stop this. I don’t just want to say police, I want to say “authorities” because there are things that the council can do. Sometimes it could be the council, sometimes it could be the police, sometimes it could be other people. The main thing is to report this to the authorities. Of course, I will talk to shopkeepers and see what we can do to help out. I live locally and I’ve seen no evidence of leaflets and stuff. If you say they are then I take your word for it."
What should Ofcom do about broadcasters who spread messages of hate?
"I’ve been in touch, as you know, with Ofcom – not just recently, but in the past as well. What Ofcom tell me is that a lot of these programmes come from overseas and their abilities are limited. The good news is that the regulators have taken it seriously where there are these sorts of messages coming from within the UK. The important thing is, Ofcom needs to have reported to them all instances of this sort of unacceptable broadcasting. It’s not just me, there are a number of MPs who have written to Ofcom and I’m sure if Ofcom don’t take action when they should do, we’ll be down on them like a tonne of bricks. But they have been quite receptive, which is encouraging."