It would be fair to say that when I started working in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office unit dealing with engagement with the Islamic world at the beginning of 2005, I did not have a great deal of knowledge about British Muslim politics. I had no particular reason to question the office’s process of engagement with Muslim groups.
Doubts began to creep in when I began to help organise a Festival of Muslim Cultures to be held the following year. It was an impressive project, designed to demonstrate the full diversity of Islam around the world and enthuse young British Muslims, who had often been fed a very narrow version of their religion. But within the FCO certain individuals were sceptical about the festival’s value and worried that it was not “Islamic” enough. It was felt that certain key organisations, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, would have to be squared off before we gave the go-ahead. I thought this was odd.
By the summer of 2005 I was getting seriously worried. It is impossible to overstate the effect of the London bombings. I was really shaken by the events of 7 July and they played a huge role in informing my thinking. I took a holiday in August and devoted it to reading up on political Islam and, in particular, the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main Islamist group. The dominant view at the FCO was that it was a moderate organisation with which the UK could do business. My reading suggested otherwise, and I gradually became convinced of the totalitarian nature of its ideology. I found statements by its founder, Hassan al-Banna, glorifying death in the service of Islam, particularly disturbing.
I also became increasingly unhappy about the activities of Mockbul Ali, the FCO’s Islamic issues adviser. He had been seconded to Labour to work on the 2005 election campaign – something that raised eyebrows in the department. His relationship with the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, was thought to be close. Mockbul Ali had a habit of dismissing respected western academics as “orientalists” and had little time for civil servants. More seriously, he also described Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its south Asian offshoot Jamaat-e-Islami as mainstream. This is, at the very least, a contentious assertion, as was his support for the radical Egyptian scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Bangladeshi Islamist Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, both of whom had condoned violence.
My decision to leak came in two stages. Towards the end of August I read an article in the Observer outlining fears about the future of the Festival of Muslim Cultures and difficulties it had encountered with the MCB and its sympathisers in Whitehall. A week later, I watched John Ware’s Panorama documentary on the ideological origins of the MCB in south Asia, which further convinced me that Foreign Office policy was a dangerous aberration. I noted the lack of discussion within the FCO of the concerns raised by Ware. This had the unfortunate effect of strengthening the MCB’s attacks on the programme.
I called Martin Bright, author of the Observer article, and we met in the bar of a hotel next to the British Library, where I was continuing my research. I realised he had talked to several people who had voiced concerns about Mockbul Ali’s role. We agreed to stay in touch. I went through documents that I had copied from Mockbul Ali’s desk drawers earlier in the summer (for my own personal use – the new unit did not have a proper filing system) and delivered them to the Observer in a brown envelope, the classic tool of the leaker’s art. An article in the London Review of Books by Neal Ascherson confirmed to me the crucial importance of leaks to the journalistic process.
At first I was surprised at the use to which they were put. I hadn’t realised what a major story it was that senior officials believed that Muslim youth had become radicalised by the Iraq War. A lot of people at the Foreign Office thought this was self-evident. However, at the time, it did not appear to be the view of the prime minister. This leak caused embarrassment, but I had included it only by way of background information.
When the police came to my door at the end of January 2006, I knew why they were there, but that didn’t make it any easier. The officers later told me I turned as white as a sheet. I immediately admitted what I had done, but argued that I felt it necessary because I wished to reveal that the government was pursuing a potentially catastrophic policy for Britain. My difficulty was that the articles that had appeared so far seemed rather scattergun: the Observer had printed a second article about intelligence service plans to infiltrate jihadi websites and the New Statesman had disclosed details of discussions about the appalling US policy of extraordinary rendition.
I knew Bright was planning a piece for the NS on engagement with radical Islam, which duly appeared in February, and that he was planning a pamphlet to bring together a number of leaks and tell the full story. But I could hardly tell the police that. They were therefore convinced I was acting to embarrass the government or to have a dig at the Establishment.
I was advised by my lawyers not to contact the NS or Bright, so it was something of a relief to see his Policy Exchange pamphlet (When Progressives Treat With Reactionaries, published July 2006). Later that year, it was gratifying to see ministers such as Ruth Kelly finally begin to get the message that it was not wise to use the MCB as a one-stop-shop for guidance on the British Muslim community. But I had still not been charged and the whole process was putting a huge strain on me. My life had been put on hold.
It was only when David Miliband took over as Foreign Secretary in June 2007 that I decided to break cover and give assent to a campaign on my behalf. He said he was pleased to head this great organisation – and yes, it is a great organisation, but it is an organisation with some significant problems and I felt that needed to be said.
When I was finally charged in October, it came as a relief. I had always told the police that the leaks and my subsequent arrest were part of a process that I believed would only be resolved in court. I did not relish the prospect of prison, so I was grateful for the journalists from the NS, Index on Censorship, the Observer and the Guardian who regularly turned up to support me at the early court hearings.
Questions remain. How do we engage all the various communities of Britain? How do we bring about integration? What is the role of religion in public life? These deserve debate in the public arena, not behind closed doors in Whitehall. My only regret about the case being dropped is that the trial would have raised important issues about this potentially disastrous policy at more length.