A 5Pillars investigation has raised concerning questions about the Labour Party candidate in the upcoming Rochdale by-election and his links to a government-backed Muslim organisation launched during the Iraq war, as well as his alleged championing of the Prevent strategy.
A Company’s House document confirms that Azhar Ali, who will contest the election on February 29, was a director at the Sufi Muslim Council (SMC) which was launched in Parliament in the presence of government ministers in 2006 at the height of the Iraq war.
The organisation was created “to represent” Sufi Muslims and “tackle extremism,” taking a particularly strong stand against “Islamic extremism” in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005.
But critics say it was a government-backed attempt to create a state-friendly version of Islam at a time when representative organisations were heavily criticising Labour over the illegal and deadly invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Sources have told 5Pillars that the SMC pitted itself against “extremists and extremism” as defined by the government and adopted the language of government ministers.
Azhar Ali and SMC co-founder Haras Rafiq (later of the Quillaim Foundation) both served on the government’s Muslim taskforce to tackle “Islamic radicalisation” following the 7/7 London bombings.
At the time of the SMC launch, Haras Rafiq said: “The Prime Minister and others have on many occasions rightly called for moderate Muslims to stand up and be counted. In response to this call, and following extensive consultations within the Muslim community, we have decided to establish the Sufi Muslim Council.”
Ruth Kelly, the then communities and local government minister, added: “We must work together to protect our young people from recruitment to violence and help them reject forces that seek to destroy our wonderfully diverse society. That is why we are looking to organisations and individuals across the Muslim communities to be vocal and challenge the ideology of the extremists.”
Funding to the SMC between 2006 and 2009 was allocated under the Preventing Violent Extremism Community Leadership Fund and as part of central support for National Prevent Projects. This money ran into hundreds of thousands of pounds at least.
It is also alleged that the SMC formed links with U.S. and UK neoconservatives and tacitly supported, or was silent about, Western and Israeli foreign policy in the Muslim world during the “War on Terror” years.
Commenting on the revelations, a spokesperson from CAGE International told 5Pillars: “The Sufi Muslim Council was a state-sponsored effort, celebrated by the pro-Israel, Zionist Board of Deputies, to engineer a politically acceptable Islam. It aligns perfectly with the aims of the Islamophobic Prevent programme. The Labour Party has over the last two decades been complicit in the genocide of the ‘War on Terror’ that saw upwards of one million people killed, and now again through its unconditional support for Israel.
“Labour believes it can get away with assisting the genocide in Palestine by selecting party machine products with Muslim identities. Muslim communities must build power outside the broken Westminster bubble in order to protect our community and defend our common values.“
We can further reveal that Azhar Ali had a five year stint as a government advisor, serving under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In particular, he advised Tony Blair on counter terrorism and community safety in the wake of the 2005 London Bombings.
And he was one of 25 leaders who agreed to set up a Muslim task force to explore the extent of disaffection among British Muslims and pledged to root out “extremism” in their communities. This was part of the Preventing Extremism Together workgroups set up by the Home Office after July 7, 2005.
Ali later became a county councillor in 2013 before taking on the role of Labour leader for Lancashire County Council. In 2020, he received an OBE for services to the community in the North West.
And sources have also told 5Pillars that Ali used to be a Prevent advisor. In 2016, he was described by Lancashire County Council as a “Champion for the Prevent agenda.”
More recently, Ali has written that he is concerned about events in Gaza and wants to see an immediate ceasefire. He has previously expressed his dissatisfaction with Labour’s position on Gaza and supports a two-state solution.
In October 2023, along with other East Lancashire councillors, Ali signed a letter addressed to Keir Starmer calling for a shift in his position over the war in Gaza and has also said that he wants Starmer to take a more oppositional tone to the UK government and push for a ceasefire.
Azhar Ali is due to contest the Rochdale by-election at a time when polling shows that the Muslim vote for Labour has collapsed.
Experts say that this is because of Muslim anger over Labour’s backing of Israel as it carries out a genocide in Gaza, as well as a host of other issues such as Keir Starmer describing himself as a “Zionist,” Labour’s backing of India and the expulsion of many Muslim activists from the party.
Ali will face a stiff challenge in the Labour “safe seat” on February 29, which has a 30 per cent Muslim population, from George Galloway and the Tories.
He has already found the campaign trail hard going with several Muslims giving him a rough ride.
5Pillars approached Azhar Ali for comment about the above facts and allegations but he did not respond.