Yesterday, we discussed the decision of two Lewisham MPs – Janet Daby (who withdrew at the last minute) and Vicky Foxcroft – to share a platform with the notorious extremist preacher, Shakeel Begg. I noted that it would be possible for the MPs to withdraw from the event, but observed that it is rare that a politician publicly admits that they got it wrong:
To refuse to appear would mean accepting that they had made an error of judgement. Who wants to do that?
I mournfully concluded:
At one time, in the not so distant past, a Member of Parliament could have been trusted to possess the judgement and the authority to break that circle of radicalisation. She would have known that it is just wrong to ally with extremists in order to fight extremism. No longer.
Last week, the senior Conservative MP, Iain Duncan Smith spoke in the House of Commons at the Muslim Engagement and Development (“MEND”) event, Islamophobia Awareness Month 2018. MEND publicised his speech on their Twitter feed, quoting him as saying:
[W]e are united a lot more by what we agree on than what we disagree on. What we should really be afraid of is the people who try to divide us.
MEND is an organisation which exists to attack Muslims who are liberal, and concerned about extremism and terrorism: including the Counter Extremism Commissioner, Sara Khan, and Fiyaz Mughal of Tell Mama. It has held public meetings at which it has promoted a series of preachers with particularly disturbing views, including Haitham al-Haddad, Zahir Mahmood, Abu Eesa Niamatullah.
In short, it is not the sort of outfit which a politician should support.
Iain Duncan Smith did not know any of this, when he agreed to speak at the MEND event. He has now issued a statement making it clear that he is not a supporter of this organisation:
Last week I was invited to attend a Parliamentary meeting whose purpose I was informed was to help tackle racial and religious prejudices towards minority communities particularly Muslims – a cause about which I am passionate. I was not scheduled to speak however after a very short time was asked to say a few words about the issue which I did, making the point that we should never tolerate those who stoke up fear amongst communities of British Citizens.
Since speaking briefly, I have seen that my attendance is being used to suggest I was there to support the organisation MEND. This is incorrect, as I did not attend in support of that or any such organisation. Furthermore I also recognise that there are genuine concerns that this organisation may not be the force for community cohesion as is claimed. I note that most recently they criticised the appointment of a female British Muslim, Sara Khan, as Britain’s first ever Commissioner for Countering Extremism, an appointment I very much welcome and which I believe will help community cohesion.
It is my intention to discuss with Sara Khan how we in Parliament can ensure that my colleagues are made aware of the nature of groups whose activities do not promote community cohesion.
It is a matter of pride for me that, over the course of my lifetime, the UK has become a more tolerant society, as social attitude surveys repeatedly show. We are more appreciative of different cultures and regularly celebrate the diversity of our communities. Nowhere is this more evident than in my constituency Chingford and Woodford Green
It is easy to make this kind of mistake. MEND is an organisation with two faces. To politicians, it presents itself as a group which campaigns against hatred and bigotry. But to its core followers, it has a very different message. MEND knows that the two aims are in tension: but it gambles on the expectation that, once politicians have appeared at its events, they will be disabled by embarrassment from openly criticising them.
Iain Duncan Smith got it wrong. But to his credit, he has done that very rare thing: admitted an error of judgement, and pledged to do what he can to ensure that such mistakes are not made again.
That is rather impressive, all in all.
This article has been amended to reflect the withdrawal of Janet Daby from the meeting with Shakeel Begg.