Last week, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced that it was lifting its ban on Whitehall contact with the Muslim Council of Britain, the self-proclaimed umbrella group of British Muslims.
Quite apart from the tactical mistake of such a move — far from being an ally in the fight against extremism, the MCB is part of the problem — the group’s return to the Whitehall fold is a story of breathtaking cynicism and mind-boggling incompetence.
In March 2009, the then communities secretary, Hazel Blears, suspended relations with the MCB. The previous month, the body’s deputy secretary-general, Daud Abdullah, had signed the ‘Istanbul Declaration’, a statement by Muslim clerics and leaders calling for violence against Israel, and which appeared to condone attacks on British troops.
Ms Blears wrote to the MCB saying that Dr Abdullah should be asked to ‘resign his post’ and that, until this happened, the government would refuse to talk to the MCB. She explained her decision: ‘We ... are very concerned that the statement … calls for direct support for acts of violence in the Middle East and beyond. We are concerned that the MCB has so far not recognised the gravity of this situation … We would expect them to ask him to resign and for the MCB to confirm their opposition to acts of violent extremism.’
Dr Abdullah remains deputy secretary-general. His name remains appended to the Istanbul Declaration. And the MCB remains, as it has always been, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islam, the Islamist party. But the ban has been lifted.
Now consider this: last month, an arrest warrant was issued against the Israeli leader of the opposition, Tzipi Livni, for alleged war crimes. Ms Livni was due to speak at a conference in London and have talks with Gordon Brown. But before she could be arrested, Ms Livni cancelled her visit. Immediately afterwards, the Israeli government announced a de facto ban on all official travel to the UK.
Even David Miliband realised that such a situation was intolerable. With officials from one of our closest allies effectively barred from entry to the UK, any possible role Mr Miliband or any other British politician might play in the peace process would be at an end.
‘Even’ David Miliband, because in February last year he had told Ms Livni — who was then the Israeli foreign minister — that he could not change the universal jurisdiction law, a running sore in Anglo-Israeli relations, because, post-Gaza, it would cost too much political capital.
What connection is there between the lifting of the MCB boycott and the acceptance that the universal jurisdiction law had to be changed? A particularly sordid and cack-handed attempt at a Cabinet deal.
The 2001 International Criminal Court Act, under which war crimes arrest warrants are issued, was never intended to stop visits by officials from democratic allies of the UK. Within hours of the Livni fiasco, Lord Pannick QC had drafted a way though the mess, arguing in an opinion for the Jewish Leadership Council, which was sent to the government, that it is anomalous that ‘in the context of international relations’ prosecution over war crimes needs the consent of the Attorney-General, but an arrest does not. He proposed requiring the consent of the Attorney in such cases because the government’s chief law officer is best placed to weigh the implications for international relations with the UK and other states — matters that are ‘very properly not the concern of the magistrate’.
Such a solution was clearly sensible. But there was a block to change: Jack Straw.
In 2005, under Mr Straw’s watch as foreign secretary, a warrant had been issued for the arrest of Major General Doron Almog, ex-head of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip. He had arrived at Heathrow on an El Al plane, but to avoid arrest was forced to remain on it until it returned to Israel two hours later. Mr Straw apologised to the Israeli government but, pointedly, then did nothing to change the law.
The Justice Secretary’s constituency is Blackburn, where a quarter of voters are Muslim. According to leaks at the end of last year, a report on Islamic extremism in Blackburn by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) in MI5 raised ‘potential concerns’ about some radical Muslim groups working in the area. The Times quoted a ‘senior security figure who has seen the report’ as saying that it underlined concern among cabinet colleagues: ‘Jack’s a bit too close to the MCB — he sometimes appears to suggest they are the only game in town. There is a concern that proximity to them may colour [his] judgment.’ One of Mr Straw’s long-standing constituency allies is Ahmed Sidat, who served for four years on the MCB’s central working committee.
But it was not just the Justice Secretary blocking change in the law. Hazel Blears’s successor as communities secretary, John Denham, has a similarly rose-tinted view of the MCB. Under Ms Blears — and her predecessor, Ruth Kelly — the DCLG became far less credulous about the MCB and began to see it for what it is — an Islamist organisation with entrenched ties to extremists. Mr Denham, however, has a very different approach, and believes that you do not diminish the influence of extremists by excluding them but by embracing them. In September last year he told the Jewish Chronicle that: ‘we do recognise that the Muslim Council of Britain does represent and includes a lot of voices the government would like to engage with’ and that the matter was under discussion between his officials and the MCB.
The need to change the arrest warrant law presented Mr Straw and Mr Denham with the perfect opportunity to bring the MCB back. A de facto deal was done: in return for their acquiescence in the law change, the MCB would be readmitted to Whitehall.
The fact that the MCB has not changed one iota was irrelevant. A case in point is next week’s Holocaust Memorial Day, which the MCB routinely boycotts. (Its secretary general attended in 2008, after huge pressure from the government, but it reverted to a boycott last year.) The MCB has refused to accept an invitation this year. So determined were Mr Straw and Mr Denham to push the MCB back in that they did not even get the organisation to accept attendance as a quid pro quo.
But this week it looked as if the entire edifice of the deal has collapsed, and the MCB has hit the jackpot: readmission to Whitehall and no change in the arrest warrant law.
Ministers knew that there would be opposition from Labour backbenchers, so last week they asked for — and received — an assurance from the Conservatives that they would support the law change. But at Tuesday’s Cabinet, ministers were so spooked by the level of opposition from Labour MPs to changing the law, and by an intensive lobbying campaign by Amnesty International against it, that they have delayed any decision, let alone the announcement that the Israelis were led to believe would be this week.
As things stand, the MCB has been given a new lease of life, the extremists have won yet another battle, and there is not even a deal, however sordid, to show in return. A mess entirely of this spineless, incompetent Cabinet’s own making.
Stephen Pollard is editor of the Jewish Chronicle.