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Full interview with Lutfur Rahman, mayor of Tower Hamlets

“I don’t believe we have extremist groups in Tower Hamlets”

How has your Bangladeshi heritage shaped you?
I think it gave me a sense of collective responsibility and stability, and the importance of being part of a community, a society. But I soon became part and parcel of the East End of London, growing up here in the 1970s.

What is your priority as Tower Hamlets mayor?
My top priority is more housing, to help the 23,000 people on the housing waiting list.

But what can you, as a mayor, do to solve the housing shortage?
We have to continue to build more homes and work with various stake holders: with private investors, with developers and, yes, with central government, in terms of trying to lever in more money, identify the land and deliver on our targets. We will take advantage of all the opportunities that exist.

But your own former council colleagues in the Labour Party won't work with you, will they?
Well, three Labour councillors have already come out and joined me. There are many more Labour councillors who will want to work with the mayor of Tower Hamlets and serve the community of Tower Hamlets.

What is your response to the two mayors of so-called Olympics boroughs, Robin Wales and Jules Pipe, who have said they won't work with you?
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. I will stand up for my borough and deliver for my borough. When I was a leader of the council, for example, we passed a motion in full council calling for 50 per cent of the Olympics village to be converted into socially affordable housing.

Will you be reaching out to those two mayors, and to your other critics?
I believe in consensual politics, that you work collectively, you work together with others. I will work with whoever wants to work with me but the people who are important are the people of Tower Hamlets: the people who voted for me and even the people who didn't vote for me, they're also important. I'm here to serve the people of Tower Hamlets. Whatever other mayors say, that's their prerogative. I'm not interested in that.

You've been accused of appointing only Asians, only people from a Bangladeshi background, to your team. Are you discriminating against white people?
The senior management team of this council, excluding one member, is all white. So for anyone to make such assertions is unfair. I believe in a meritocracy. People get jobs in this council based on ability. There is a clear recruitment process in place

The chief executive of this council is a white gentleman, Kevan Collins, whom I appointed during my council leadership. My cabinet, during that period, had white members. If people want to work with me, I welcome them to do so. Two days after I was elected as mayor, I sent out an email to each and every member of the Labour group on the council inviting them to come and work with me in my cabinet. Unfortunately, the following Monday, they convened and, by a slender majority, passed a motion not to work with me. So what I am supposed to do? Of course I want race to be reflected, gender to be reflected, ability to be reflected in my cabinet.

You were deselected as Labour's candidate for mayor after criticism of your conduct. Why did you stand as an independent against Labour?
I was elected as the candidate by 433 members of Tower Hamlets Labour Party. All I wanted was that the members should assert their right and decide who led them. If they had chosen someone else, I would have fallen behind that person and served the party loyally.

A small clique in the NEC, only seven or eight members, decided to get rid of me on the basis of a dossier based on false allegations, hearsay and unsubstantiated allegations. We live in a democracy where the rule of law prevails; I am a lawyer and they should have given me a chance to refute the allegations against me in front of an independent panel. I am sure I would have disproven each and every allegation. What's so sad is that they then didn't impose the candidate who came second, John Biggs, but instead imposed the candidate who came third, Helal Abbas, who made these false allegations against me in that dodgy dossier and who received only 117 votes.

It has been suggested that the NEC picked Helal Abbas over John Biggs because it wanted a non-white candidate in Tower Hamlets. Do you agree?
It could be one of the factors. But it was the wrong decision to make. They shouldn't have got rid of me in the first place. I would have won the election for Labour by an overwhelming majority.

It has been suggested that one of the reasons you were removed by the NEC as the Labour candidate is because you refused to back Rushanara Ali, Labour's parliamentary candidate in Bethnal Green and Bow at the general election in May?
In 2007, I stood for the Bethnal seat and I lost by a very small number of votes to Rushanara Ali. But I fell behind her and I supported the Labour Party in the general election. It is not true that I didn't work for her. I went out to all corners of the borough campaigning for Rushanara. And I don't believe she has said I never campaigned for her; she has never said it to me. When she went to Brick Lane mosque, just before the election, I stood up on camera, in front of everyone there, and made a speech supporting her. If Harriet Harman and the NEC had asked me for the facts, I would have given them the facts.

So if it wasn't your conduct or behaviour, what do you believe is the real reason the NEC removed you as the mayoral candidate then?
I don't know. All I can say is this: the people of Tower Hamlets last month made their voice heard. By an overwhelming majority they voted for me and my team and they voted for justice. At the end of the day, the final judges were the people of Tower Hamlets.

Were you behind the various smears against your opponent that appeared in a local paper?
For the record, none of my team was associated with any local paper, formally or informally. The stories that the local papers carry is their choice. It has nothing to do with me.

Were you disappointed to see such smears about a former colleague and friend?
I am not going to make comments about Councillor Abbas's private life either this way or that way. None of my literature contained negative stories. My literature was about my policies and the positive aspects of my campaign.

Who funded your mayoral campaign, and your various legal fees?
I funded my own campaign. And I funded my legal fees too from my own pocket. Listen, I am a lawyer. I was a solicitor for many years, a partner in my firm. I worked hard my whole life.

Have you had any discussions with Ed Miliband about rejoining the Labour Party?
The whole of my political upbringing has been on the basis of Labour values. I want to serve the community on a progressive agenda but I have not had any conversations with Ed Miliband.

Would you like to rejoin the Labour Party in the near future?
I am happy to serve the people of Tower Hamlets. They will decide how I serve them.

Is it true that Ken Livingstone has been negotiating your return to the Labour Party?
I have a lot of respect for Ken Livingstone. As to what discussions he is having with anyone, that is between him and that person. I have not appointed anyone to enter into any such conversations on my behalf.

Why did Ken come to campaign with you?
You'd better ask him. He is an astute politician.

How would you describe your own politics?
I believe in social democracy, in equality of opportunity, in social justice, in the welfare state. I believe we must have a system, democracy, that caters for all.

Are you a social democrat or a socialist?
I am a social democrat; I'm left of centre.

Who are your heroes, political or otherwise?
Tony Benn. I have a lot of respect for him.

Who did you back for the Labour leadership?
David Miliband. But I thought Ed Miliband was an equally able candidate. I am sure he will make a great prime minister.

But he tried to get rid of you from the party?
He didn't get rid of me. He was in the middle of a leadership campaign. Six or seven members of the NEC got rid of me. I believe it would have been different had he been leader at the time.

Will you stand as a parliamentary candidate in the East End in 2015?
My only intention is to serve people of Tower Hamlets. I was grateful to be given the chance to serve as a local councillor and now as mayor. My only determination now is to succeed in my mayoralty.

So you won't rule out standing against the local Labour MPs, Rushanara Ali or Jim Fitzpatrick, at the next general election?
At this stage, all I can think about is building more homes, making sure our schools perform, making sure we have a borough where crime is low, and making sure the whole community is served equally. That's all I'm interested in.

How important is your Islamic faith to you?
I am a proud Muslim. I am glad that my values have come from Islam. But I am also glad that Labour Party values have given me great strength over the past 20 or 25 years. Go and speak to people of Tower Hamlets, the people who voted for me, who voted for someone they believe is a pluralist and can serve them well and serve them equally.

Are you a member of the much-criticised Islamic Forum of Europe?
I am not a member of the Islamic Forum of Europe. I have never been a member.

But you do have close contacts with the group?
I have close contacts with the chair of the Tower Hamlets Inter Faith Forum, with rabbis, with the Bishop of Stepney, with people who are of no faith. The IFE is one group among many. As leader of this council, I will work with each and every member of the community, whether they are Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Christian or people of no faith.

Is the IFE an extremist group?
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 and ago. I will work with anyone who adheres to civil society, to democracy, to the progressive values of this council. 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?

Do you support a caliphate, here or elsewhere?
I believe in a social-democratic society. I believe in a society where, through a democratic process, representatives are chosen and elected.

Do you believe sharia law should be incorporated into British law?
I am a lawyer and 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?

Should the gay population of Tower Hamlets be worried by your victory?
During my opening speech as mayor, in front of the full council, 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.

Did Tower Hamlets town hall, on your watch, allow CDs of a Muslim preacher who has allegedly justified wife-beating to be handed out to visitors?
That did happen but it has been stopped and the chief executive has clear instructions from me not to let that happen again. It did not happen with his approval or my approval. And I assure you nothing of that sort will happen with my approval. But you can't control things that happen without your knowledge.

Can you explain what links, if any, you have to Saudi Arabia and your trips to that country? How were they funded?
It is an obligation, as a Muslim, to do the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. I haven't done the Hajj but I have had the good fortune of going on Umra [the lesser pilgrimage]. I have been on Umra four or five times. I went to Saudi Arabia on Umra during my council leadership at my own expense, on a private trip. As a Muslim you are not allowed to take money from anyone else, if you have the means, to go and pay your respects to Allah and go to the Kaaba [in Mecca].

Would you say you are a secularist? A secular politician?
My whole political upbringing has been about clear diving line between my faith and my politics. I believe in a civic, social democratic society.

Do you believe in a secular Britain?
I do. I live in a society based on a clear division of powers between the church and the state. Yes, I absolutely believe in a secular society.

Is there a plan?
I always have a plan. I had a manifesto, didn't I?

Are we doomed?
I am an optimist. I always look for the good nature in people.

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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The war within wars

Why the Western-backed assault on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is failing.

The first signs of a Western-backed attempt to recapture Raqqa, ­Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, came a fortnight ago when fighter jets dropped leaflets over the city telling residents to leave. “The time has come,” the warnings read, alongside an illustration of residents evacuating the city as incoming forces overran IS fighters.

Although up to half of Raqqa’s residents fled when IS first took control of the city in 2014, the militants have made it ­increasingly difficult for the people who stayed behind to leave. Following the US-led coalition’s warnings of an impending attack, however, the jihadis relaxed their restrictions on movement. Citizens were allowed to disperse into the nearby countryside. The idea was to spare them whatever onslaught was planned against Raqqa while keeping them within IS territory.

Ever since the latest offensive against IS began in Syria and Iraq in late May, it has become clear that the group will not concede territory easily around Raqqa – or elsewhere. It might lose small villages from time to time, but all of its major urban centres remain well fortified. Few observers expect them to fall any day soon. IS has too much invested in Raqqa, as well as Mosul in Iraq. Occupying the cities fuels the group’s prestige by projecting the impression of ­viable statehood and by allowing it to house fighters and military equipment.

Raqqa is the nerve centre of IS operations. Several training camps are located on its outskirts, including those used to plan attacks against the West. IS has long anti­cipated a revanchist campaign against its Syrian base and has fortified the city by surrounding it with trenches and landmines to thwart any hostile advance.

What makes the fight against IS even more challenging is that its fighters are not easily disheartened. Before this latest campaign, I spoke by Skype to a British fighter from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, about how the group perceives territorial losses. He responded with the kind of fatalistic indifference that only the faithful enjoy. Their obligation, he told me, was simply to try their best. The challenge for them was to fight with all they have. Results come from Allah, so, if defeat and setbacks follow, then it is the will of God.

There are two possible interpretations, in their reasoning, for why God might not deliver success for them – because He is punishing or testing them. Either way, the conclusion is the same: to double down on their commitment. In that spirit, they are resolved to fight until victory or martyrdom – and both outcomes represent success. This reasoning shows just how hard it can be to erode the morale of IS’s most doctrinaire fighters (though not all are so zealous in their commitment).

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The ground push for Raqqa has been overseen by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are led principally by the YPG, an ethnically Kurdish unit of fighters concentrated in north-eastern Syria. Although the SDF officially claims to be an umbrella movement for more than 20 different fighting groups – some of which are Arab – its heavily Kurdish composition has made it a reluctant and unsuitable partner in the push to liberate Raqqa.

To understand the reasons why, it is necessary to parse the conflict into its constituent parts. We often hear about the sectarian dimensions of the Syrian civil war, yet this is just one aspect of a much broader tapestry. Syria is a series of wars within a war. Just as there are sectarian components, there are strong ethnic dimensions, too. These are especially pronounced in the northern regions where the Kurds, with their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness, stand apart from their Arab neighbours.

The Kurds have usually formed defensive fighting units in the Syrian conflict, preferring to safeguard and administer their own areas rather than acquire new territory such as Raqqa. Another issue is that Arab ­civilians are reluctant to have non-Arabs push into their cities. The anti-IS activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) says that residents worry about ethnic retribution against an Arab population that is seen as having historically oppressed the Kurds. Many reason that it is better to keep IS and deal with the devil they know.

Those fears are not unfounded. With the horrors of IS and the Syrian army so magnified, it is easy to forget that every fighting group in this conflict has violated human rights and continues to do so. The Kurds are no exception; in October, Amnesty ­International accused Kurdish fighters of war crimes after they razed Arab villages in al-Hasakah and al-Raqqa Governorates. All of this adds to the intractability of the war, forcing people to seek security within their communal, sectarian or ethnic circles. Syrians are hardly unique in this respect; they are merely repeating a pattern of countless conflicts around the world.

This makes it extremely difficult for the West, which is reliant on local forces to do the fighting. The US is supporting al-Hashd al-Shaabi (meaning “popular mobilisation committee”), a nominally Iraqi force leading the assault against IS in Fallujah. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has made two main claims about al-Hashd al-Shaabi: that it is a non-sectarian movement of ordinary Iraqis from all sections of society who want to drive IS from the country, and that its leadership reports to him personally.

Neither of these claims is accurate. It is true that some divisions of al-Hashd al-Shaabi comprise Sunni fighters, but it is overwhelmingly dominated by Shias. Its military campaigns are directed not from Baghdad, but Tehran. These efforts are overseen by Qasem Soleimani, a celebrated Iranian major general in the elite Quds Force, who is perhaps the most important military official with a battlefield presence in Syria and Iraq. He previously orchestrated several successful campaigns for President Bashar al-Assad and the al-Abadi force.

Though the ongoing assaults on Raqqa and Fallujah have put IS under pressure on two fronts, anyone hoping this might signal a turning point in the conflict is likely to be disappointed. For every push that shunts IS backwards – often only marginally – many new recruits are spawned.

Videos released on social media from the latest assault on Fallujah appear to show how incoming Shia fighters have beaten and tortured Sunni civilians. The pictures of abuse are overlaid with sectarian slurs, often invoking sensitive points of disputed Sunni/Shia theology. These resound across the region and arguably do even more damage than the images of abuse.

The rapid deterioration in sectarian relations that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq explains how IS was able to capture Sunni areas of Iraq with such ease. Ordinary residents do not necessarily agree with the authoritarian strictures of its regime, but they mostly understand them. These latest outrages from incoming al-Hashd al-Shaabi fighters will only fuel the belief among Sunnis that they are best served by Sunni administrations – however brutal.

Islamic State has repeatedly invoked the vulnerability of the Sunnis across the Levant to justify its violence. This is the constituency in whose name it claims to act and whose interests it claims to defend.

Shortly after IS first captured Mosul, in June 2014, the group released a video, aimed at Iraqi Sunnis, explaining how both the West and Iraqi Shias had conspired against them in 2003. The result had been a decline in Sunni fortunes and increased insecurity as Shia death squads sought revenge after decades of repression and abuse.

This resonated strongly with Sunnis such as the Albu Mahal and al-Qa’im tribes, which had supported the US-led “awakening”, a military strategy initiated in 2005 to encourage Sunni Iraqi tribes to fight against the insurgency initiated by al-Qaeda. IS captured the heads of those tribes and forgave them for fighting alongside the West against al-Qaeda in Iraq. We are not accustomed to seeing videos of IS pardoning captives, but this was as careful and calculated as any of its ultra-violent theatre. The exercise was designed to project the group as a bastion of Sunni honour and security.

That is the story behind so much of IS’s strength today: the fears of the vulnerable Sunni poor over whom militants govern. Remove that constituency, and the group would collapse. But the Obama administration has done little to allay Sunni fears. Rather, it has exacerbated them by launching air strikes against IS targets in Fallujah, fuelling a perception that it is working hand-in-glove with Shia militias loyal to Iran.

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The latest attempt to seize IS terri­tory points towards a more pressing question: what, actually, is Islamic State? During a recent meeting at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, one analyst brilliantly described the mercurial nature of the group. To residents of Raqqa, it appears as a proto-state, replete with all the nomenclature of statehood: an executive, judiciary, police force and civil administration. To rebel groups in the north and for President Assad in Syria, it is more of an aggressive insurgent movement with which there are periodic battles for control of land. For the French and Belgians, it feels more like a conventional terrorist group that deploys suicide bombers and gunmen to kill as many civilians as possible.

Such is the kaleidoscopic nature of IS that there is no reason why it cannot assume multiple forms at the same time, or why it can’t move from one to the other. If the territory in which it operates is overrun, it will revert to being a conventional terrorist movement that unleashes waves of attacks against the West and others. IS has already demonstrated both its willingness and ability to strike in Europe, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey.

It now also appears an American man, Omar Mateen, self-identified with Islamic State and affiliated himself to the group in order to carry out the most deadly act of US domestic terrorism since the 11 September 2001 attacks. Mateen killed 49 revellers, and injured more than another 50, at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, on 12 June. The ability of individuals to align themselves with IS despite having no tangible links to it underscores the difficulties of acting decisively against the group. Indeed, this is precisely what IS has advocated. A few days ago, its official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, repeated his call for individuals to launch attacks in the West on the group’s behalf. Following the Orlando massacre, supporters have already suggested copycat attacks in Paris, London and Washington.

By way of comparison, let’s consider what al-Qaeda looked like on the day after the 9/11 attacks. What the West faced was a small group – of perhaps 500 key individuals, if we’re generous – committed to its programme of global jihad. By contrast, even conservative estimates today place ­Islamic State’s manpower somewhere in excess of 20,000. And no one has yet convincingly addressed how to mitigate the threats that will emerge from the region should IS suffer a sudden loss of territory.

IS’s control of large parts of Syria and Iraq will not end quickly. Not only is the group embedded and emboldened, but it enjoys the strategic advantage that comes with being able to operate across two (however nominally) sovereign states. In that respect, the Syrian and Iraqi crises embody all the difficulties of the last hyphenated conflict of the past decade, the so-called challenge of “Af-Pak” (Afghanistan and Pakistan). There, the US found that whenever it pushed against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, they disappeared over the border. When Pakistan did the same, insurgents moved the other way.

Many of the same issues undermine Western-backed attempts to eradicate IS today. When it allowed civilians to move from Raqqa into the countryside, its own families, fighters and supporters were moved
as well. It has also begun moving critical personnel and heavy arms out of Raqqa, repositioning them near the Iraqi border. In the unlikely event that its operations in Syria are severely compromised, it will fall back into its Iraqi hideouts, and vice versa.

Pressuring IS, therefore, is like squeezing the air in a balloon: push on one area and it moves to another place. In Syria, even as IS militants fight to defend their territory in Raqqa, they have made gains in the ­Aleppo Governorate, moving ever closer to the strategic town of Azaz. Whoever controls Azaz also controls the nearby Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey, an important source of revenue and influence. IS previously occupied Azaz but abandoned it in 2014 to consolidate its control in Raqqa. That the group is close to recapturing Azaz at a time when the Obama administration wants to suggest that IS faces an existential crisis shows just how fissiparous and ­intractable this conflict remains.

Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer and the deputy director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. His book, “Salafi-Jihadism: the History of an Idea”, is newly published by C Hurst & Co

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink