Afzal hits back over Prevent racism row: ‘I’m victim of sensationalist reporting’
Muhammad Afzal has broken cover to deny claims that he denounced the Government’s counter-terror Prevent strategy as racist at a public meeting and called the Prime Minister an Islamophobe.
He insisted a report in the Birmingham Mail about his remarks at an anti-racism rally was “sensationalised”, taken out of context and did not represent his views.
In an effort to protect his position as Labour’s choice to become the next Lord Mayor, Cllr Afzal issued a statement backing efforts by the police, the city council and other agencies to “counter all forms of extremism and intolerance”.
Although he did not refer specifically to the remarks he is alleged to have made, Cllr Afzal, who is chair of the Birmingham Central Mosque, said:
There is no room in our city for extremism and I have already spoken to West Midlands Police to assure them of my support for their work, explaining that my comments were taken out of context and sensationalised.
There were indications today that support in the Labour group for Cllr Afzal is strengthening. He appears to retain full backing from fellow Asian councillors and there appears to be little serious chance now that he will not be elected Lord Mayor in May.
His cause was helped after it emerged the Birmingham Mail article was written by a journalism student on secondment, who after publication claimed her words had been sensationalised and that important background information about the implementation of Prevent in schools had been removed by the newspaper’s newsdesk.
It is likely that Cllr Afzal will become the first Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 15 years to get the job without cross-party support, with Conservative and Liberal Democrat city councillors lining up to oppose the Labour nominee.
A difficult choice in any case for many Tories and Lib Dems given his appearances in 2004 at a postal vote fraud trial – he cleared his name of any wrongdoing at the Court of Appeal – Cllr Afzal’s reported outburst against the Prevent programme has extinguished any support he might have had from the opposition benches.
Council leader John Clancy acted quickly over the weekend to demand an explanation from Cllr Afzal, who reportedly told a Stand up to Racism meeting in Birmingham that David Cameron was an “Islamophobe” and that the Prevent initiative was “a disgraceful piece of legislation” and should be boycotted because it was targeting Muslim schoolchildren.
Cllr Afzal is said to have questioned claims by Downing Street that as many as 500 Britons have fled to Syria to join Isil terrorist forces. There was no evidence and in any case 500 was a very small proportion of the UK Muslim population.
Cllr Clancy made it clear he did not agree with the remarks attributed to Cllr Afzal and underlined his own personal commitment to the importance of Prevent in Birmingham. He regards the programme as vital to root out possible extremism in the classroom.
The council leader was with Cllr Afzal at the Holocaust commemoration event over the weekend, but it is not known whether the Prevent incident was discussed. Cllr Clancy is likely to talk formally to Cllr Afzal and a decision will have to be made about the mayoralty, but for the time being the council leader is not unduly concerned.
Taz Ali, a journalism student who is on secondment with the newspaper, said:
Working as a trainee journalist I realised something very important when it comes to news reporting; the editor(s) will make of your story what they will in order to gain as many views from it they can.
They will cut out what they feel is unnecessary and go with the angle which almost sensationalises the news somewhat. The editors do this because they know the readers want this; with so many news sites to compete with it’s becoming increasingly difficult to engage the reader’s attention.
What was initially a story on the feedback from the meeting quickly turned into an exposé of the bold comments made by the chairman.
A lot of the background information explaining the counter-terror laws and its implementation in schools were taken out and these were important to contextualise a lot of what Mr Afzal had said. Without them, a lot of meaning had been lost and this lead to a lot of readers misunderstanding his stance on the notorious legislation.
Ms Ali continued:
The point of the article was that over 100 people, Muslim AND non-Muslim, had attended the meeting at Birmingham Central Mosque to share their views on the Prevent programme, and almost everyone agreed with Mr Afzal.
They support his views and are going to make efforts to boycott it. The leader of Birmingham city council will be seeking urgent clarification from the councillor and there have (sic) been speculation over whether he will become the next Lord Mayor this May.
With the backing of so many supporters and campaign groups like Stand Up to Racism and Unite Against Fascism, will the council deny there is a problem with Prevent?
Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors approached by Chamberlain Files say they are unlikely to vote for Cllr Afzal to be Lord Mayor. It is unclear though whether a rebellion would take the form of voting against, or a more diplomatic absence from the council chamber when the nomination for the 2016-17 mayoralty comes forward.
The only precedent in recent times occurred in 2001 when Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors prevented Tory John Lines from becoming Lord Mayor. Cllr Clines later got the job in 2012.
Sutton Coldfield Conservative councillor Ewan Mackey, shadow cabinet member for inclusion and community safety, is demanding assurances from the council leader over ongoing commitment to the Prevent programme.
Cllr Mackey said:
Future Lord Mayor Muhammad Afzal has reportedly called for a boycott of counter-terrorism programme Prevent calling it racist. In December it emerged that Birmingham City Council’s Counter Terrorism Strategy Board, of which Prevent is a major part, had not met for eight months due to meetings being cancelled.
One meeting was amazingly cancelled just after the tragic events in Paris. No explanation was given at the time but now we may have an insight into why they were cancelled.
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 places a duty on Birmingham City Council to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. Without the Prevent Strategy the threat to our residents of a terrorist act through people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism is greatly increased. We demand assurances from Labour Leader Cllr Clancy that he remains fully behind the Prevent Strategy and the safety of all Birmingham’s residents.
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