A tale of two dames

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On 18th June 2010 the British Muslim community learnt from the columns of the Daily Telegraph that the Home Secretary had issued a banning order on the well-known Islamic scholar Dr Zakir Naik of India, thus preventing him from taking up speaking engagements in Britain. The reasons given were his ‘unacceptable behaviour’, so that his visit ‘would not be conducive to the public good’.

Disclosures in October 2010 point to a murky affair….

The banning order was not characteristic of Home Secretary Theresa May, and all indications are that she was pushed into this act by a Neo-Con lobby within the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, foremost pressure being exerted by the Security Minister Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, who wished to assert her policy domination. No doubt power was given to her elbow by a lobby that seeks to shut down debate on Palestine and who in the past have sought to demonise Shaikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi.

Update: 5th October 2010
A controversial Islamic preacher who was banned from entering the country by the Home Secretary Theresa May has claimed that he was twice approached by security officials who wanted him to help educate disaffected young British Muslims.

2nd August 2010
The Sunday Times reports that Sabin Khan, a community advisor in the OSCT, is facing an disciplinary inquiry after allegedly saying she, and OSCT director-general Charles Farr were ‘gutted and mortified’ by May’s decision to ban Indian-born Dr Zakir Naik.

A further factor is a battle of satellite channels, where Naik’s Peace TV has proven remarkably popular, denuding the audiences of some rival Muslim broadcasters – this envy is perhaps the basis of the rather piqued statements from rival tele-evangelists.

The roots of Dame Pauline’s intransigence rest in a rather inadequate understanding of Muslim civil society dynamics combined with a hauteur of knowing what is best. While a shadow minister she castigated the Labour Government for a failure in leadership -something that was ‘badly lacking at a time of significant threat to our country’ and that multi-culturalism had been ‘a disaster for national cohesion’ because ‘it had increased Britainís vulnerability to terrorism.’ (February 2008).

The Zakir Naik episode is presumably Dame Pauline’s demonstration of ‘strong leadership’, though missing the ingredient of wisdom. For a specialist in security, her grasp of community affairs is quite limited. She has got it wrong in the past, and has got it wrong with Zakir Naik.

But if the lady is not for turning then the prospects of a good rapport between communities and government on security issues remain dim. She is in a politically sensitive post, but is someone who has never contested an election and thus never had to spend time with the grassroots or acquire flexibility in handling differences.

A characteristic example is her stand on Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. She has stated, ìthe MCB have to decide their position: do they endorse Qaradawi or do they, as they claim, want to advance integration? She high-handedly offers Britain’s premier representative body a choice -even though there is no logical reason why the MCB cannot support the Shaikh’s visit to Britain, while also espousing ‘integration’. The framing of such black-and-white choices in a top-down way is against the values of dialogue and political participation in a liberal democratic society.

Consider also her superficial statement on the Tabighi Jamaat: ‘the leadership of organisations like Tablighi Jamaat…where the 7/7 bombers and liquid bomb plotters were radicalized-must take responsibility for what happens under their roof. We will ensure they do’.

In reality, any informed Muslim watcher worth his or her salt would know that it is basically a preaching group – much like the Wesleyans in the Nineteenth Century- that calls on Muslims to improve their practice of rituals and spiritual teachings. They are apolitical, quietist and pietistic – reading texts or nisabs written sixty years ago in the Indian context. Only a poorly informed security specialist would associate them with the present morass. If Neville-Jones, now in office, ever seeks to intimidate the Tablighi Jamaat she would find herself in a right mess.

The Dame needs to be aware that her past track record and questionable reputation does not endear her to the Muslim community, in particular the murky role played towards the end of war in Bosnia. How come Pauline Neville-Jones, who served as Political Director in the FCO and led the British delegation to the Dayton negotiations, working with Douglas Hurd, also became involved in commercial dealings with the Serbs?

Writing in the Guardian recently, reporters Ian Traynor and Richard Norton-Taylor’s article on her had the headline: “Pauline Neville-Jones: diplomat who did business with Milosevic” (13th May 2010).

On leaving service she served as Managing Director and Head of Global Business Strategy for NatWest Markets – and in the words of journalists Simon Bowers and Philip Willan:

“Telecom Italia acquired a 29% stake in Telekom Serbia for DM890m in 1997 while a further 20% was acquired by Greek telecoms group OTE. NatWest Markets and its deputy chairman Lord Hurd were central to the deal and received a substantial fee. .. only 12 months after he quit as Foreign Secretary – Lord Hurd had a breakfast meeting with the then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. This is thought to have been a turning point in getting the privatisation process under way. Lord Hurd was accompanied by Dame Pauline Neville-Jones….” (The Guardian, 5th August 2002).

Another skeleton in the background is Dame Pauline’s financial association with the windfall when some of the British nation’s family silver was cheaply sold off – the prestigious Defence Evaluation & Research Agency once part of the Ministry of Defence . In 2001 certain functions of DERA, encompassing the majority of the organisation’s capabilities for defence and security and amounting to approximately three quarters of DERA, were formed into QinetiQ Limited, an entity which was a wholly-owned subsidiary of QinetiQ Group plc. In February 2006 QinetiQ was listed on the London Stock Exchange with a market capitalisation of £1.3 billion. Traynor and Norton-Taylor note, “From 2002-2005, Neville-Jones was chairman of Qinetiq…she is reported to have made £400,000 for an investment of £60,000 when it was floated”. A major stake was sold to the US-based Carlyle Group – the flotation was later subject to a National Audit Office enquiry

Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference last year, Dame Pauline noted, ‘we need the cooperation of local communities to tell us where the problems lie. They are the ones with this knowledge, but this requires trust.’She has entered office with many question marks, and now with the banning Zakir Naik, this trust has been further badly eroded for a significant section of Muslims in Britain.

It may well be that the Security organisations may have used the Zakir Naik saga to let Neville-Jones dig a hole for herself. In August 2010 there was a media report stating that “a senior security source revealed that the Baronessís appointment was blocked after MI5 produced a report about her links to two controversial Russian oligarchs. According to a source, MI5 sent the Prime Minister’s aides a confidential briefing about her connections to two billionaires with alleged links to organised crime and a Russian mafia leader….”

The plot is getting murky. Charles Farr is not someone to be messed about with, as Neville-Jones is perhaps ruefully recognising:

“…Charles Farr, an operationally experienced, gung-ho MI6 man, [is] now in charge of security and counterterrorism at the Home Office. Farr came to prominence, as one contemporary recalls, ‘flying round Afghanistan in a helicopter with thousands of dollars in bundles, doing deals with farmers to not grow opium. Bad policy as it turned out, but he did it very well’. His hands-on experience gave him a large body of internal support for the top job. In the end, Farr didnít even apply, because John Sawers was the favoured candidate source [as head of MI6] – Sunday Times report, 4th October 2009