“I absolutely believe in a secular society” – Lutfur Rahman speaks to the NS

My interview with the controversial mayor of Tower Hamlets is in this week’s magazine.

The Q&A-style NS Interview in this week's magazine, which hits the news-stands tomorrow, is with the first directly elected mayor of east London's Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman. He, of course, is the local politician who came to national prominence when he was removed as Labour's candidate for mayor by the party's National Executive Committee, over concerns about his "conduct" and alleged links to Islamic extremists. He then went on to win the mayoral election in October as an independent.

For background on the story, and the various allegations and controversies, check out Rahman's own website, the Telegraph blog of the Islamist-obsessed Andrew Gilligan and Dave Hill's London blog on the Guardian website. You can also read an insider's account of the NEC meeting at which Rahman was deselected here.

The full interview will be published on the NS website but here are some of the key quotes:

– Rahman claims he would not have been removed as Labour's candidate for mayor had Ed Miliband not been in the middle of his leadership campaign: "I believe it would have been different had he been leader at the time." But he says he has not had "any conversations with Ed Miliband" about rejoining the Labour Party, nor has he appointed anyone, including Ken Livingstone, "to enter into any such conversations on my behalf".

– The Tower Hamlets mayor condemns a "small clique in the NEC" for removing him as the Labour candidate and says he is not concerned that two Labour mayors of neighbouring London boroughs, Robin Wales and Jules Pipe, have said they will not work with him: "Tower Hamlets is one of the five Olympics boroughs, but my borough is not run at the behest of any of the leaders of the four other boroughs . . . Whatever other mayors say, that's their prerogative. I'm not interested in that."

– Rahman says he believes in a "social-democratic society" and not an Islamic "caliphate". When I asked him whether he supports secularism and secular politics, he replied: "I absolutely believe in a secular society." And, on sharia law, Rahman says: "I was invited to the London Muslim Centre [in July 2008] when the then chief justice, Lord Phillips, came to speak and said that there are merits in learning from certain aspects of sharia law, to help our legal system. Not the penal elements; the family and civil elements. If the chief justice can make those comments, who am I to disagree?"

– On his Islamic faith and the allegations of extremism and links to extremist groups, Rahman says he is "a proud Muslim" but denies membership of the controversial Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), saying: "I don't believe we have extremist groups in Tower Hamlets. If so, I am sure the government and the police would have intervened long ago." He says the IFE is "one group among many", adding: "I believe that previous leaders have worked with the IFE and other such organisations, and some previous leaders are on record as having funded such faith groups. If there was nothing wrong with working with such groups then, why now?"

– I also asked him whether the gay population of Tower Hamlets should be worried by his victory, and he replied: "I made it quite clear that I want to serve each and every member of my community, including the gay and lesbian community. It is not for me to make value judgements. I want to work with every member of the community, whatever their sexual orientation. I grew up with people in the East End from all backgrounds, black, white, gay, and many of them are still my mates."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Women's bodies should not be bargaining chips for the Tories and the DUP

Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights

When Members of Parliament are asked to pass laws relating to when and whether women can terminate their pregnancies, women’s rights are rarely the focus of that decision-making process. You need only look at the way in which these votes are traditionally presented by party leaders and chief whips as “a matter of conscience” - the ultimate get-out for any MP who thinks their own value or belief system should get priority over women’s ability to have control over their bodies.

Today’s vote is no different. The excellent amendment that Labour MP Stella Creasy has put before the house reveals not just the inequalities experienced by women in different parts of the UK when it comes to being able to make decisions about their health, but also the latest layers of subterfuge and politicking around abortion. 

Creasy’s amendment seeks access to the NHS for women who travel to England and Wales from Northern Ireland seeking abortion. Right now women in Northern Ireland are pretty much denied abortion by legislative criteria that limits it to cases that will "preserve the life of the mother" - (that’s preserving, not prioritising) - and pregnancies under nine weeks and four days. Rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not included as grounds for termination. The thousands of women who thus travel to England are refused free abortions on the NHS - confirmed by a recent Supreme Court ruling - on the grounds that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. 

The idea behind devolution is that power should be more evenly and fairly distributed. It is not intended to deprive people of rights but to ensure rights. In refusing to exercise the powers available to him, Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is rightly acknowledging a difficult history of power imbalance between Westminster and Stormont, but he is also ignoring a wider imbalance of power, between men and women.  

There is so very much wrong with this arrangement. But a further wrong could be done if, as reports suggest, the Conservative Party whips its MPs to vote the amendment down in order to protect the regressive alliance with the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is keeping their fragile minority government in power.

Instead of taking this opportunity to respond to the demands of women of Northern Ireland, this government is setting out the parameters of its complicity in refusing to listen to them. 

It is not the first time. In 2008 it was reported that the Labour party struck a deal with the DUP to leave Northern Ireland’s abortion laws intact, in exchange for their support over detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days. Labour said at the time that it was concerned about the impact on existing UK abortion laws if the debate was opened.

But not one woman has equality until all women have equality. Women’s bodies are not chips to be bargained and we should not be bargaining for one group of women’s rights by surrendering the rights of another group. The UK parliament has responsibility for ensuring human rights in every part of the UK. Those include the rights of Northern Irish women.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop playing politics with women’s lives. Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights – a fragility that was dismissed by the Conservatives as they drew up a deal with one side of the power-sharing arrangement.

It’s time to confront the fact that nowhere in the United Kingdom – taking Northern Ireland as a starting point rather than an end in itself – do women enjoy free and legal access to abortion. Even the UK’s 1967 act is only a loophole that allows women to seek the approval of two doctors to circumvent an older law criminalising any woman who goes ahead with an abortion.

As long as our rights are subject to the approval of doctors, to technological developments, to decisions made in a parliament where men outnumber women by two to one, to public opinion polls, to peace agreements that prioritise one set of human rights over another – well, then they are not rights at all.

The Women’s Equality Party considers any attempt to curtail women’s reproductive rights an act of violence against them. This week in Northern Ireland we are meeting and listening to women’s organisations, led by our Belfast branch, to agree strategy for the first part of a much wider battle. It is time to write reproductive rights into the laws of every country. We have to be uncompromising in our demands for full rights and access to abortion in every part of the UK; for the choice of every woman to be realised.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.

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