Fears of ‘undue spiritual influence’ on voters as community leaders ’emphasize Islamic values’

Nearly a decade ago, the mayor of Tower Hamlets was sensationally removed from office after an electoral tribunal found him guilty of a series of “corrupt and illegal practices” including vote-rigging, bribery and vote-buying.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the verdict was that Lutfur Rahman was found to have exerted “undue spiritual influence” to win votes among the East London borough’s Bangladeshi Muslim community.

Simply put, this means using religion to pressure people to vote in a certain way. This was the first and only successful case of its kind since the 19th century.

Fast forward to these elections and there are renewed fears that imams are exerting “spiritual pressure” on Muslim voters – a form of election interference that is illegal under the Electoral Act 2022.

The Sunday Telegraph has seen a dossier of messages circulating among Leicester’s Muslim community in which religious leaders are urging voters to get behind certain candidates.

Religious leaders support Lib Dem

One message tells voters that the ‘ulama and masaajid’ of Leicester East, that is, religious leaders and mosques, are backing the Liberal Democrat candidate Zuffar ul Haq.

Community members are told that it would be “unwise” for Muslims to “not elect a religious person who promises never to compromise on Islamic principles.” The message goes on to say that Mr Haq “is Muslim, God-fearing, understands Islamic values ​​and will always stand up for Palestine”.

It is noted that Claudia Webbe, the constituency’s former MP, who is running as an independent in these elections, has also “come out in favour of Palestine”, but adds that “this is not a special favour”.

The message continues: “Every decent person should condemn genocide. As an MP who has been expelled from Labour, it is politically advantageous for her to speak on the Palestinian issue.”

Ms Webbe was elected as a Labour MP in 2019 but has been an independent since 2020, when she was expelled from Labour following her criminal conviction for harassing a love rival.

Another message being circulated in Leicester East is entitled: “Why we as a Muslim community should vote for Claudia Webbe.” It states that a vote for Labour or the Conservatives is a “vote for genocide”.

There are no indications that Ms Webbe or Mr Haq are involved in spreading such messages.

According to The Telegraph, the file has been handed over to Leicestershire Police to investigate whether any laws have been broken.

Problem ‘has been going on for decades’

Fiyaz Mughal, an interfaith campaigner who runs the charities Tell Mama and Faith Matters, said the problem of religious leaders pressuring their communities to vote for certain candidates has been going on for “decades”.

But he went on to explain that it has “become much more widespread in this election”, adding that he has noticed similar things happening in Luton, around Yorkshire and Lancashire, and in east London.

“To me, this really crosses the line between undue spiritual influence and psychological and social influence,” Mughal said.

“What we also see is a hardening of this sense of Islamic identity. There is a lot more activity on WhatsApp and no way to monitor it. “Imagine if messages were sent out asking people to vote for a white candidate – there would be an uproar.”

The clergy influence laws were originally intended as an attempt to counter the influence of the Roman Catholic clergy in elections, largely in the southern counties of Ireland.

Francis Hoare, a barrister at Field Court Chambers who brought the case against Mr Rahman in 2015, said the law had since been updated to broaden the definition of “spiritual influence”.

“It was established that the prior offence required threats, normally from a clergyman, of adverse consequences for the afterlife if a voter did or did not vote for a particular candidate,” Mr Hoare explained.

“While ‘spiritual pressure’ suggests that a lower standard may need to be applied, this has yet to be tested by the courts.”

He added that while the definition is now broader, judges may be cautious in interpreting it.

In the Harborough, Oadby & Wigston constituency in Leicestershire, workers' signs were defaced with graffiti depicting the Star of David

In the Harborough, Oadby & Wigston constituency in Leicestershire, workers’ signs were defaced with graffiti depicting the Star of David

Meanwhile, tensions are also running high in the neighboring constituency of Harborough, Oadby & Wigston in Leicestershire.

Hajira Piranie, one of the Labour candidates, says she has been targeted in a series of criminal acts designed to create an “atmosphere of fear”. A volunteer from her campaign noted that “sectarian politics are growing enormously”.

Tim Durham, Ms Piranie’s vice-chairman of campaigns, said there had been a series of incidents over the past three weeks that initially seemed “random”. It started with election signs disappearing overnight, but then quickly escalated.

“Then someone broke into my garage and stole a stake and a sledgehammer – the two items you need to drive stakes into the ground,” he said.

More valuable items such as bicycles and power tools had been left behind, leading Mr Durham to suspect that only the equipment needed to hang campaign posters on poles had been taken.

The following weekend, Labour placards were defaced with spray-painted Stars of David and the word ‘genocide’. Then his house was set on fire while his three children were asleep inside.

“On Monday morning I saw that someone had tried to… [Labour] “I put a banner on my house. Luckily it wasn’t flammable because in this heat the whole house would have collapsed,” Mr Durham said.

Graffiti ‘due to incorrect information about policy’

The father of three said his family went into ‘lockdown’ mode after the arson attack.

“We’re going to have security cameras, we don’t want to leave the kids alone,” he said. ‘There are assumptions about being British and having British values ​​that you assume everyone shares. But it seems some people don’t share these values.”

Ms Piranie, 28, said the series of criminal acts left her feeling “anxious”. She added that she believes the graffiti on her signs is the result of “misinformation on social media” about Labour’s policies in the Middle East.

A Leicestershire Police spokesman said they have received reports of theft and criminal damage to election billboards, the setting fire to a banner and theft from a garage, and that all incidents are being investigated.

“We have been in contact with the election candidate and support and security advice has been offered by the force to the election candidate and their team,” said a spokesperson for the force.

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