The previous sections have already documented the following;
How alt-right news outlets are targeting scholars (especially pro-Iran scholars) in the West to fuel Islamophobia and reach political objectives.
How in Britain, Prevent is an Islamophobic government policy that is trying to curb Muslim political activism and religious conservatism by expanding the definition of extremism to mean anyone who vocally opposes “British Values” – a definition it wants to legislate.
How at the heart of Prevent is a network of government funded Muslim individuals and organisations who often have to report back to the government and prove they are being “successful” to guarantee further funding.
How in the Shia community, Mustafa Field is at the heart of a network of government founded or funded organisations.
So given this paradigm, what is best practise to deal with a specific situation like Muharram 2016 but also the broader socio-political challenges that it signifies? And to what extent should government-funded individuals like Mustafa Field be given a standing to provide advice and intervention in both the specific example of Muharram 2016 and the broader socio-political climate? Finally, how should community leadership deal with these complexities? To what extent should they have dialogue or take advice from the Establishment position? How do they make this complicated and sensitive assessment and how do we know if they have got the balance wrong?
To answer these questions, we must first establish Mustafa Field’s involvement in the events surrounding Muharram 2016. We can do this by looking at his own remarks, comments and admissions on the issue.
TWEETS AND BACKLASH
In response to the news coverage of Sheikh Sodagar’s comments, gay rights activist Peter Tatchell sent three tweets between 7th and 9th October and Muslim gay rights advocate Omar Kuddus sent four tweets between 6th and 8th October. That’s only seven tweets over four days.
Despite this, Mustafa Field very quickly responded to Kuddud by tweeting “#noplaceforhate. The community has withdrawn his platform. We don’t want you here #Sodagar”and to Peter Tatchell that “it’s a more powerful statement that the community that invited him rejected him and told him to go…the decision was made to remove Sodagar – we must work together to combat all hate”
His position from these tweets are clear; there is no space to compromise with Sodagar but there is space to work with Kuddud and Tatchell to combat the hate of Sodagar together. Furthermore, he is promoting the idea that the entire community has this position and that he is somehow a spokesperson for it.
Privately, Field was receiving backlash for his remarks. In response, he expanded on his position in many WhatsApp conversations. In one he said “we not going anywhere. You can thank me later for preventing your precious scholar from being arrested then deported…with the Iran link this could of exploded. Kick off outside Iranian school. Briefing and community impact assessment has been sent to home secretary’s office not advising for arrest and removal. My tweets have been used as evidence [that] a significant individual has demonstrated the community led on this”.
Here, he is admitting that he sent briefings and assessments back to the government. He is also asserting himself as a “significant individual”. But significant to who? Field is paid and anchored in the government line on Prevent and that agenda for the Muslim community. He often presents himself as arbitrator, when he actually reflects the government’s position and strategy for the Muslim community. When Field works to sideline and silence one part of the community, or presents himself as a spokesperson for the community; or makes public calls to work with those demonising the community, Mustafa Field is doing that work.
In other messages Field states that the “Director of Islamic Centre is involved” and is repeatedly seen giving inside information of ICEL’s positions and decisions. When asked if Sheikh Shomali asked Sodagar to step down he says “Sodagar refused, Shomali made the decision”. He is later asked “Didn’t Shomali tell Sodagar to use your PR consultants?”
In another message, Field comments on Shomali’s denial of any involvement with him. “Shomali replied by saying Mustafa is not affiliated or works for us here. If people who are a part of our framework are disobeying why do we expect people outside to listen to me? My job was outside Islamic Centre’s decision. My job was only to stop arrest”.
Here, Field is acknowledging that there was involvement but that given the circumstances (that even people within his framework where unhappy with the situation) he didn’t expect people on the “outside” to be able to listen to his involvement. In fact, in later comments he admits he purposefully tried to hide his involvement; “We worked really hard behind the scenes, I didn’t even show my face in it”
Field’s “framework” includes the British government policy that pays him under Prevent and despite Field’s assertion that his job was “outside Islamic Centre’s decision” he makes it very clear that he was in communication with ICEL and knew the details of what was occurring inside ICEL.
For example, when he is asked “what did Shomali offer AIM members” he goes on to explain “some of the advice that was given” and that Shomali “needs to do the following, engage with the target audience, acknowledge and understand issue, have something from Sheikh Sodagar expressing remorse/clarification, be constructive not combative.”
Behind the scenes, unease at Field’s posturing continued which required him to be even more expansive with his explanation in a 6 minute 30 second audio that he sent out to a WhatsApp group. He starts by saying that he had “received documents that this was going to become a much bigger issue” and admits he has “been working behind the scenes to ensure that this issue does not get out of hand.”
Both the audio file and a full transcript of this audio are available below:
MUSTAFA FIELD: A RELIABLE SOURCE?
Field has never provided any evidence of these “documents” he received or “information” he was given, or from whom. In fact there is reason to doubt Field’s intentions and proclamations of evidence. It would benefit him to heighten and exaggerate the risk to show that he is producing results for his funding. It would also help him isolate the types of groups that he is paid to try and isolate from the community and it would give him an opportunity to deepen influence on leadership and create the exact type of fractured scenario that resulted. This fracture is a win for the Prevent strategy.
At least two of the people who Field claims he was “coordinating” with reject this assertion outright. One of them says that Field tried to lobby him, saying this was “an amazing opportunity to gain access and influence” inside Islamic Centre and Sheikh Shomali and that they should work together to make this happen. The individual involved says he rejected this outright in opposition to Field’s Prevent position.
Field’s accounts must be doubted, because he has a vested interest in manipulating the situation based on self-interest and Islamophobic government policy, rather than fact. He could well have exaggerated a risk to be able to exaggerate his success in fixing it. As one of the individuals who Field claimed he was working with has said; “nobody in government was even aware of the issue until Field ran in to the Home Office screaming don’t worry I will fix this”. There is no evidence that there was any real risk of the arrest he claims to have averted.
This could be why Field’s advice and scaremongering is directly opposite to the independent legal advice AIM received that the government will not act but will only ratchet up the rhetoric and pressure in the coming week. It is not that Field averted this pressure but that he was a part of the ratcheting up of the rhetoric and pressure.
THE PRETENCE OF ARBITRATION
Field is not a neutral arbitrator with a desire to help the community, he is a part of Prevent. When he says “we warned all parties how this will play out” he is doing their ultimatum work. Therefore how Field is dealt with, is to a large part, the response that is being given to the government – and more specifically Prevent - itself.
You can see Field advocating for that agenda on Muslims in his comments. He says:
“When the [AIM] statement went out it became very difficult, because it didn’t say we were wrong, it was blaming the media…what you have to remember is in British society…and a lot of you are a lot younger than me…most people are now educated that gay people are born gay, this is the British public opinion, so for somebody to be inciting to be saying that this is how you can…Islamically you should murder, kill, gay people, that is a very hugely problematic statement.
He also used sectarian tropes:
Change the line, think about it from a Shia perspective, if a Sunni scholar had made a statement that says in the Sunni books, with the Rafidi, it says this is how you should kill them…how would we feel?”
He concludes the point but telling the brothers to put Islam aside completely;
“So don’t think about Islam, think about Human Rights.”
Field goes on to say “We live in a society where we have to live and let live.” This statement is hugely problematic, coming from someone who is funded to enact Prevent on the Muslim community; a suffocating, Islamophobic policy that does not allow its victims “to live and let live.”
Field also addresses the Ulema;
“Our Ulema are the leadership of our community…when our Ulema are united on an issue it represents our community feeling and on this occasion, I feel that the Ulema did the right thing by first putting influence on Sheikh Hamza to disassociate himself from those comments and put a statement out saying this is not what should have been interpreted rather than attacking the media, you shouldn’t attack the media”.
Again, these comments are telling. Field perceives himself in a position to hold judgement on the actions of the Ulema. He goes on to say that this “right decision” gave him the green light to continue with his plan; “
I spent last night pushing to make sure that it is made very clear that the community has rejected this. His position was rejected by our community leadership and that is very, very important and now we’re able to proceed and progress.”
GAINING LEGITIMACY THROUGH SCHOLARLY APPROVAL
He concludes with his ultimate gain through this process – the Ulema;
“I know that many of you are young and you believe what we should be doing is to defend, but the reality is that the Ulema have agreed to remove him”
What is ultimately important to note is, that within the community, there was real doubt and confusion as to how this episode had been dealt with. Much of the community felt, that too much ground was given up, that there was too much appeasement. They were uneasy. They were questioning Field and they turned to leadership for guidance. Unfortunately, the problem was that it had taken actions that mirrored Mustafa Field’s advice exactly.
This allowed Field to give his UK government position and strategy the legitimacy of “support” by quarters that should not be seen to be endorsing it. The fall-out of this is still reverberating in the UK community.
Emboldened by his success in Muharram, Field then made his position public in an open statement, which you can read in full here. He says
“This statement is intended to clarify my position, which I know has attracted some controversy. It was necessary for me to keep quiet for sometime…”
The statement clearly shows how Field has different public and private positions and personas. In private comments, we have heard Field say that Sheikh Sodagar did call for the killing of gays, publicly Field says the opposite;
“although the video is six years old and it is clear that the Sheikh was not calling for the punishments he described to be implemented, listing out various ways of punishing people who engage in homosexual acts is not something that is compatible with the society in which we live where freedom of expression and the sanctity of human life are among the most prized values. As a result, I must say that some of the criticism directed at the Sheikh was justified”
Again, it is vitally important to understand the anchor of Field’s comments. When he says “freedom of expression and the sanctity of life are the most prized values” in the society we live in, he is talking about “British Values”. The “British Values” that Prevent legislates on. The British Values that if not upheld make you an extremist. Field as a paid advocate, is clearly talking in the language of Prevent here, masquerading as a concerned and active community member.
There is no defence either of Sheikh Sodagar’s right to freedom of expression, however unpalatable, or however much one might disagree with its content, context or tone.
In fact, in the comment section of the same post, Mustafa Field goes as far as to assert that
“the speakers who sit on the Mimbar of Imam Hussain (as) must respect the harmony we have in the UK and maintain it.”
This is a politically loaded sound bite. Is this statement the core message of the mimbar of Imam Hussain or the core message of the British establishment? Is this what the community wants the message of Imam Hussain to become in Britain?
Field also says;
“the community…came out to offer its support and help prepare an appropriate response. The organisers of the programme and the Shaykh had access to PR specialists. I had personally but discreetly volunteered my support too as someone who has worked in community relations for a long time.”
Publicly, Field is trying to frame the events as if there was a broad community consensus and outreach and that it was irrationally rejected by a few “radicals.” To further isolate his target, he names AIM specifically as the group that disagreed.
He then professes publicly – in direct contradiction to his detailed private claims of involvement – that
“community leaders independently decided that Shaykh Sodogar would not continue to speak. Some alleged that I had influenced that decision, I am not sure how I influenced that decision as I was in Indonesia.”
He then contradicts his denial of involvement in the next sentence;
“at the same time, I learnt that attempts had been made to arrest him and deport him from the United Kingdom…without the stance that I took, the situation could have ended so much worse. There are also more details I cannot reveal right now for fear of undermining continuing efforts behind the scenes.”
CONTINUING EFFORTS POST-MUHARRAM
It is these “continuing efforts” that have proven that Muharram 2016 was not just an isolated exercise in “damage control” but part of a proactive policy that continues to be pursued.
In just one small example of this, Mustafa Field can be seen strategically trying to isolate AIM from other community groups – and undermine Wilayat Faqih – all under the umbrella of unity;
“let us not let them win” he says. “Don’t put your aim to be like the Wilyat Faqih. They are not infallible and pulling of funding from Wilayat Faqih is significant from the support of AIM. But just like the time of Imam Ali (as) rule there if a crisis and the Iranians choose not to divide themselves further. I too share your frustration but as you are close to the office of Sayed Shirazi would be good to push them away”
Field also attempts to influence how this can be done; “can I suggest that we do 3 things; organise a conference on the importance of Adaab…engage with groups who hold different beliefs…work together to develop a video to show how we have more in common…”
Critiquing these statements is not to hold a position on Wilayat Faqih – many Shias adhere to this position and many do not. But it is to ask the question, why Field can promote bridges and compromises to be made across the spectrum of British society but not with other schools of thought within his own religious belief? As British Muslims, we should be united to stand-up to the collective Islamophobia and anti-Muslim legislation that we face. Not to use that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim legislation to divide us further from each other. The community should be standing together in unity against this strategy, not standing in unity with this strategy to isolate and endanger its own members.
What is particularly concerning is that Hani Al Wardi, a senior member of ICEL staff, who is seen as Sheikh Shomali’s right hand man and spokesperson in the community was present throughout this conversation. But there is absolutely no resistance to Mustafa Field or his position. In fact, he comments in support of isolating AIM;
“To clarify…AIM…is not associated with the Office of Sayyed Khamene’i….Sayed Khameni in particular has a well established network of representatives across the world…[who] should the first point of call.
Instead of being representative of a leadership that guides the community to an inclusive unity, they remain silent and watch government-funded Mustafa Field steer and manipulate conversations where he openly belittles their ideology and the leadership that they are supposed to represent. Additionally, Al-Hani’s comments help fuel Field’s politically-motivated assertions against AIM. Unfortunately this is just one small example of the kind of action that has been taking in these “continuing efforts”.