“Spiritual influence” and elections updated: Lutfur Rahman found guilty of illegal electoral practices

Background

In February we noted that the elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, had been accused at the Election Court inquiring into his re-election of securing victory, inter alia, by telling Muslims that it was their religious duty to vote for him and that Richard Mawrey QC, the Election Commissioner, had said that priests and imams could be committing the 19th-century offence of “spiritual influence” if they told their supporters that it was forbidden to vote for a certain candidate.

The BBC now reports that Mr Rahman has been found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices, barred from standing again and ordered to pay £250,000 in costs. Mr Commissioner Mawrey was satisfied that there had been instances of personation, fraudulent postal voting and the exercise of “undue spiritual influence” on Muslim electors.

The conclusion of “undue spiritual influence”

In Erlam & Ors v Rahman & Anor [2015] EWHC (QB) 1215, on the issue of “undue spiritual influence”, the Commissioner said that on 16 May 2014 (six days before the election) the Weekly Desh, a newspaper published in Bengali and in English with a circulation of about 20,000, had carried a letter, solely in Bengali, signed by 101 imams and other religious leaders: it was a serious matter and the letter was intended to be taken seriously [546 & 547]:

“549. Bearing in mind that any grammatical infelicities are the responsibility of the translator and not the authors of the Bengali original, the text of the letter is as follows:

‘BE UNITED AGAINST INJUSTICE: MAKE LUTFUR RAHMAN VICTORIOUS

Creating opportunities, making provisions and providing services to the citizens on behalf of Her Excellency the Queen. In this case everyone has a freedom of right to choose a candidate who is suitable and able to provide the services. However we are observing that the media propagandas, narrow political interests etc involving the Mayoral election of Tower Hamlets Council have created a kind of a negative impression which in turn have created confusions amongst the public, divided the community and put the community in question. We are further observing that today’s Tower Hamlets have made significant and enviable improvements in the areas of housing, education, community cohesion, inter-faith harmony, road safety and youth developments. In order to retain this success and make further progress it is essential that someone is elected as Mayor of the Tower Hamlets Borough on 22nd May who is able to lead these improvements and who will not discriminate on the basis of language, colour and religious identities.

We observe that some people are targeting the languages, colours and religions and attempting to divide the community by ignoring the cohesion and harmony of the citizens. This is, in fact, hitting the national, cultural and religious ‘multi’ ideas of the country and spreading jealousy and hatred in the community. We consider these acts as abominable and at the same time condemnable.

With utmost concern we observe that by shunning the needs and opportunities of the Tower Hamlets Council and its citizens, Islamophobia, which is the result of the current political stance and which has derived from false imagination, has been made an agenda for voting and voters. The mosques and religious organisations have been targeted. It is being publicised that any relationship [involvement] with the religious scholars and clerics are condemnable and is an offence. Religious beliefs and religious practice are being criticised. One of the local former councillors of the Labour Party has stated in the BBC’s Panorama programme that ‘Religions divide people’. Even in the same programme the honourable Imam of the Holy Kaba Sharif was presented in negative and defaming ways and thus all the religious people, particularly the Muslims, have been insulted and thrown in to a state of anxiety. We cannot support these ill attempts under any circumstances. We believe that it is not an offence to be a Muslim voter, an imam or Khatib of a mosque and have involvement with all these. Under no circumstances it is acceptable to give a voter less value or to criticise them on the basis of their identity. As voters, like in any other elections we also have a right to vote in the forthcoming Tower Hamlets Mayoral Election and we should have the opportunity to cast our votes without fear. As a cognisant group of the community and responsible voters and for the sake of truth, justice, dignity and development we express our unlimited support for Mayor Lutfur Rahman and strongly call upon you, the residents of Tower Hamlets, to shun all the propagandas and slanders and unite against the falsehood and injustice.’

The Commissioner concluded that though the document spoke of ‘the community’ throughout in a neutral fashion, it was published solely in Bengali and ‘the community’ was intended to be taken as ‘the Bangladeshi community’ [550].

“551… [T]he Imams’ message is clear; our religion is under attack, our enemies despise us and wish to humiliate us; it is your duty as faithful sons and daughters of the [Church][Mosque] to vote for candidate X: only he will defend our religion and our community. As the Imams’ letter puts it ‘[our opponents are] spreading jealousy and hatred in the community. We consider these acts as abominable and at the same time condemnable’…”

There was “a world of difference, however, between what might, if unkindly, be termed a general ecclesiastical bleat about how politics has gone to the dogs, and a specially targeted letter aimed at one particular body of the faithful, telling them their religious duty is to vote for candidate A and not for candidate B” [554]. There was a substantial body of credible evidence that the imams were declaring that it was the duty of faithful Muslims to vote for Mr Rahman [556]. Moreover:

“559. Although the official line was that this document was compiled entirely by the clerics involved, it is noticeable that much of the language does bear a striking resemblance to that of the political messages put out by Mr Rahman’s campaign. Although Mr Rahman claims to have been taken by surprise by the appearance of the letter, it beggars belief that neither he nor his close associates knew that it was coming out…”

560. The only inference one can draw from the evidence is that, at a relatively early stage, Mr Rahman decided to run his campaign on the basis that it was the religious duty of faithful Muslims to vote for him …”

In conclusion, therefore:

“564. Controversial though it may be, and likely to cause offence, it is none the less the clear duty of this court to hold that the participation of the Muslim clerics in Mr Rahman’s campaign to persuade Muslim voters that it was their religious duty to vote for him and, in particular, the Imams’ letter, did, however unwittingly for most of the signatories, cross the line … between what is permissible and what is impermissible.

565. Sadly, therefore, the court feels it has no option but to find that there was undue spiritual influence contrary to s 115(2) of the 1983 Act.”

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "“Spiritual influence” and elections updated: Lutfur Rahman found guilty of illegal electoral practices" in Law & Religion UK, 23 April 2015, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2015/04/23/spiritual-influence-and-elections-updated-lutfur-rahman-found-guilty-of-illegal-electoral-practices/

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