Muhammad Afzal quits as Birmingham Lord Mayor elect
The political career of veteran city councillor Muhammad Afzal lay in tatters tonight after he decided to withdraw his nomination as the next Lord Mayor of Birmingham, blaming “rumour and innuendo” in the media following a speech he made at an anti-racism rally.
Cllr Afzal stepped down as Lord Mayor elect shortly before a Labour group meeting that would almost certainly have reversed his nomination.
He paid the ultimate price for ill-advised comments at a Stand up to Racism rally at the Birmingham Central Mosque, where he is the chairman, and for his insistence after a storm of criticism that he had done nothing wrong.
According to the Birmingham Mail, which taped and reported his remarks, Cllr Afzal accused the Prime Minister of being an Islamophobe, described aspects of the Prevent counter-terror programme as racist and cast doubt on Government claims that 500 Muslims have fled the UK to join Isis.
He was also embroiled in a separate row regarding a meeting he held in December with Shaista Gohir, from the Muslim Women’s Network, at which he was accused of seeking to minimise the issue of domestic abuse suggesting it was largely a problem among Christian families because of alcohol consumption, and was said to have claimed forced marriage is not a problem in the Muslim community.
Cllr Afzal spent much of the past week attempting to shore up his position, claiming that his comments were misreported by the Birmingham Mail and he was actually a staunch supporter of Prevent.
In a statement released through the West Midlands Labour Party tonight, Cllr Afzal said:
I love the city of Birmingham and its people. It is one of the most diverse cities in the UK. It was my first and only home when I came to Britain in 1969, 47 years ago.
I got married in the city and my children were born here. I have served on the council for 32 years having been re-elected 10 times for Aston ward. I consider it a huge honour to be chosen by the Labour Group to be the party’s nominee as the next lord mayor.
If the council had agreed to this nomination to be the first citizen of such a great city, it would have been the highlight of my career and a great privilege.
However recent publicity in the local media has given rise to unfair and indeed untrue comments being ascribed to me. I have tried to put the record straight but sadly it has not been possible to do so as rumour and innuendo has replaced facts.
Some of the comments have been malicious and defamatory. They have been hurtful to me but also to my family. They feel deeply distressed by the unfairness of what is being said.
I believe it would be wrong to allow any controversy to surround the position of Lord Mayor which I hold in the highest regard. That is why I have decided to not allow my name to go forward to the council as the Labour nominee.
I want to thank all those members of the wider Birmingham community for their support. These are people who know what I stand for. Whoever the council chooses as its next Lord Mayor will have my full and unequivocal support as have previous Lord Mayors.
Cllr Afzal never recovered from a devastating twin attack.
Council leader John Clancy called him in for a face to face meeting, told him to withdraw his mayoral nomination, and published details of their meeting in a press release. And influential Muslim councillor Majid Mahmood also urged Cllr Afzal to save face and withdraw, or face losing the support of most Labour Asian councillors.
In an email sent to Labour councillors over the weekend, Cllr Afzal pleaded to be allowed to become Lord Mayor and warned if he was sacked it would be because “I challenged the Birmingham Mail for running a misleading headline”.
He denied calling for a boycott of Prevent, but conceded he acted naively by allowing himself to be photographed standing next to a ‘No to Prevent’ banner.
In the email, Cllr Afzal stated:
My actions over a number of years show my support for the principle of Prevent. Like others, including the Birmingham Mail, I have reservations about how it is being implemented but I am fully behind the principle.
With Birmingham Central Mosque, I have taken a key leadership position in the Muslim community to support the important and valuable work by West Midlands Police, West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit and Birmingham City Council on Preventing Violent Extremism, tackling discrimination and encouraging even greater community cohesion.
I support anti-terrorism and anti-extremism in any form or shape. I therefore believe the principle of a project to combat extremism is only correct. I have a long history of working with the Police and other agencies to support the Prevent agenda. It does, however, require some improvements if it is to be more effective.
The Labour group of councillors will now elect a new candidate to be Lord Mayor.
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