The City Circle is an open circle for open minds

Like most people, I hate admitting when I am wrong. But the BBC proved me wrong last night by showing an episode of Question Time that wasn't the car-crash I was expecting. My concern has always been that it was the wrong platform for Griffin as it doesn't usually allow sufficient space for people to challenge each other. And so Griffin could have got away with pretending to be a "normal" politician by offering populist rants on Royal Mail, Afghanistan and other issues.

As it happened, the BBC's David Dimbleby did not let him off the hook so easily and made him answer up to his highly controversial past. He was caught out: flustered, making inane statements and pretending he was being stifled by European law when asked to explain his antisemitic views. He must have felt stitched up.

But the BNP and Nick Griffin are very polarising people, so it's likely most came back with their prejudices confirmed. Griffin sent out a triumphant email and his supporters will no doubt rally behind him.

And how did they all do? The verbose Jack Straw could have spent a bit more time rehearsing succinct answers to predictable questions: he floundered a bit when asked to talk about immigration. Sayeeda Warsi, the politician who had the most to gain, clearly rehearsed her points and came across quite well. She even made her party's policy on immigration sound immeasurably more populist and clearer than Labour's though it is now the same as the government's view.

Chris Huhne was unusually aggressive, when he did speak, but at one point was amazingly trying to sound even more hardline than New Labour and the Tories on immigration. I thought Bonnie Greer performed rather poorly, though the lefties on Twitter seemed to love her. Which is perhaps why I was less than impressed.

There was Nick Griffin himself, described by my self-selected group of Twitter friends as: "incoherent", "shifty", an "arse" and more. Generally, we thought he was exposed as the nasty man he was. But then we would think that, wouldn't we?

My favourite moments, however, came from the audience itself, especially when people said they were proud of this country and wouldn't "go back" even if Griffin encouraged them to. "I'm sure we can have a whip around to buy you a plane ticket out of this country," said one. It's nice to see patriotic British Asians on TV.

Listening to radio debates following Question Time, it also struck me how many people now claim on radio and websites that although they weren't racist and would never vote for the BNP, they nevertheless understood why others did. Funny: this argument is never used with Muslim extremists.

And what now? In an interview following Question Time, Peter Hain stuck by his view that the BBC made a big mistake by inviting him on the show and giving him that air of respectability. That was backed up by Mr Griffin himself, who came on after to say that since he had been on the country's top political panel show, he was now "part of the mainstream" and ready to sit permanently among the big boys.

Nick Griffin knows this much: it doesn't matter how badly the haters try to expose him, his followers feel under siege enough to ignore all that as part of some massive left-wing conspiracy. What he really wants is to be accepted as part of the furniture and for his deeply racist views to be brushed under the carpet. He is playing the long game. Let's see if it pays off.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 23rd October 2009.

So after the high jinx and high drama of Question Time, where are we as regards Nick Griffin and the British National party? Certainly his position, having been given an unprecedented opportunity to air his views and parade his personality, is no better. His problem is not that he comes across as wicked and shouty, because he is smarter than that. The problem is that when pressed as he was last night, he just seems ridiculous and weird.

But let's not run away with ourselves. What happened? He went to what is basically a televised dinner party discussion and came off worst. How much does that matter? A bit. But let's see how it plays in the real world.

Griffin's progress thus far, a million votes and two Euro seats, hasn't been achieved through his ability to shine in television appearances because he doesn't or to provide much by way of coherent policy. The party's strategy thus far has been simple. Find an area full of disaffected working class whites and lovebomb them. Tell them the world is dreadful, more dreadful than they know, and that the blacks/Muslims/Poles/gay people are responsible. Tell them that Nick is their only friend. This works best in areas where Labour has dropped the ball, through lack of activism or arrogance and the Tories and the Lib Dems have failed or haven't bothered to capitalise. The BNP never thrives on a national stage. It thrives on the death of local politics.

The experience of Slade Green, an estate in Bexley, Kent is instructive. The BNP, picking up that whiff of decay, sent its people there en masse and came within a whisker of winning a council seat in 2002. The authority took that as a cue, not to replicate the party's saloon bar racism but to raise its game and to reconnect with residents who just wanted to feel they were being listened to. As we saw in the elections in May, people tend not to use the BNP as a vehicle for their protest if there is an acceptable alternative. In Slade Green, once the people and mainstream politicians re-engaged, the BNP became irrelevant. The area has three Labour councillors now. The BNP hasn't had a look-in since. The Question Time audience heard similar things about the BNP being pushed back by Lib Dems in Burnley.

Yes, Jack Straw, Bonnie Greer, Sayeeda Warsi and Chris Huhne, the audience and the masterly David Dimbleby did well by asking Griffin the appropriate questions. For once his inquisitors on the BBC did their homework. Its journalists should never again fall below that standard.

But the real battle must occur on the streets, not with boots and fists, as Griffin once dreamily prophesised, but with activists from the mainstream parties showing marginalised communities that, whatever the national sideshow, local politics works and that decent councillors deserve their support.

Griffin likes to quote Churchill, and the icon well described where we stand post Question Time. This is not the end or even the beginning of the end. It's probably the end of the beginning.

This article was published in the Guardian on 23rd October 2009.

Ever since our successful demonstration against al-Muhajiroun (under the name of Islam4UK) on the 31 October which turned into a celebration of democracy and freedom, we have been inundated with calls and emails from Muslims and non-Muslims alike who have expressed their appreciation at our efforts to uphold democratic values and those of freedom and liberty in the face of extremism and bigotry. These are the values which are supposed to underpin our society and foster community cohesion.

Upon finding out that a campaign group called Stop Islamisation of Europe (SIOE) was planning a protest on 13 December outside Harrow mosque over its extension, similar to another one held by the English Defence League on 11 September 2009, British Muslims for Secular Democracy felt it necessary to open up a dialogue with SIOE to try and deter them from going ahead with their plans to protest outside a place of worship. In this regard I wrote a letter to the SIOE spokesperson Stephen Gash who happened to be present at the anti-Islam4UK demonstration at Piccadilly Circus, and with whom some of our supporters had an interesting exchange of ideas about the role of Islam as a religion in the UK and SIOE's viewpoint. In my letter a sincere attempt has been made to convey to SIOE our deep-seated concerns about the perception of SIOE's aims and in particular the methods they employ to highlight their concerns. They are alienating an increasing number of British Muslims who are otherwise equally concerned about the rise of political Islam and are appalled at religious extremism within their own communities.

We are confused about SIOE's choice of venue for the protest, since Harrow as a borough is deemed to have harmonious community relations and any protest outside a place of worship is in principle hugely distasteful. The point we put to SIOE is that just because Muslims attend certain mosques out of convenience this does not mean that they subscribe to the views of the mosque committees and management who might have extremist or hardline sympathies, which, in any case, does not appear to be the case with Harrow Central Mosque. Representatives from the mosque joined our protest against al Muhajiroun and their leading members wholeheartedly support the merits of secular democracy alongside BMSD.

It has become apparent since the 31 October demo any attempts to curtail the religious freedom and human rights of the citizens of this country will be met with stiff resistance by pro-democracy groups like ours. Whether such attempts are made by the likes of Anjem Choudary who daydreams of implementing his own version of sharia in this country, or the SIOE campaign which aims to restrict Muslims' right to practice their religion, each campaign will be matched by enthusiastic democrats who have decided not to sit on the sidelines anymore and will come out to peacefully defend the fundamental rights of the people of Britain. However, at the same time, BMSD strongly advises all Muslims to exercise extreme caution and not to patronise any religious institutions, be they mosques or madrasas, which spread hatred or promote mental and physical segregation from mainstream society. Unfortunately there are a few such Muslim institutions whose activities and that of those affiliated to them have given ammunition to the groups including SIOE and the English Defence League.

We sincerely hope that on this occasion SIOE will call off its protest and respond in kind by opening a formal channel of communication with us and other like-minded pro-democracy groups in order to address the issue of religious extremism and the rise of the far right, both of which are threatening community cohesion in this country. If they persist in their endeavours, BMSD would have no choice but to counter SIOE's protest with one of our own, one in favour of democratic rights and religious freedom.

Source: Shaaz Mahboob / Comment is free


In June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's meteoric rise from mayor of Tehran to president of one of the most influential countries in the Middle East took everyone by surprise. One of the main reasons for the astonishment was that so little was known about him.

One recently published claim about his background comes from an article in the Daily Telegraph. Entitled "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad revealed to have Jewish past", it claims that his family converted to Islam after his birth. The claim is based on a number of arguments, a key one being that his previous surname was Sabourjian which "derives from weaver of the sabour, the name for the Jewish tallit shawl in Persia".

Professor David Yeroshalmi, author of The Jews of Iran in the 19th century and an expert on Iranian Jewish communities, disputes the validity of this argument. "There is no such meaning for the word 'sabour' in any of the Persian Jewish dialects, nor does it mean Jewish prayer shawl in Persian. Also, the name Sabourjian is not a well-known Jewish name," he stated in a recent interview. In fact, Iranian Jews use the Hebrew word "tzitzit" to describe the Jewish prayer shawl. Yeroshalmi, a scholar at Tel Aviv University's Center for Iranian Studies, also went on to dispute the article's findings that the "-jian" ending to the name specifically showed the family had been practising Jews. "This ending is in no way sufficient to judge whether someone has a Jewish background. Many Muslim surnames have the same ending," he stated.

Upon closer inspection, a completely different interpretation of "Sabourjian" emerges. According to Robert Tait, a Guardian correspondent who travelled to Ahmadinejad's native village in 2005, the name "derives from thread painter � sabor in Farsi � a once common and humble occupation in the carpet industry in Semnan province, where Aradan is situated". This is confirmed by Kasra Naji, who also wrote a biography of Ahmadinejad and met his family in his native village. Carpet weaving or colouring carpet threads are not professions associated with Jews in Iran.

According to both Naji and Tait, Ahmadinejad's father Ahmad was in fact a religious Shia, who taught the Quran before and after Ahmadinejad's birth and their move to Tehran. So religious was Ahmad Sabourjian that he bought a house near a Hosseinieh, a religious club that he frequented during the holy month of Moharram to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hossein.

Moreover, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's mother is a Seyyede. This is a title given to women whose family are believed to be direct bloodline descendants of Prophet Muhammad. Male members are given the title of Seyyed, and include prominent figures such as Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei. In Judaism, this is equivalent to the Cohens, who are direct descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. One has to be born into a Seyyed family: the title is never given to Muslims by birth, let alone converts. This makes it impossible for Ahmadinejad's mother to have been a Jew. In fact, she was so proud of her lineage that everyone in her native village of Aradan referred to her by her Islamic title, Seyyede.

The reason that Ahmadinejad's father changed his surname has more to do with the class struggle in Iran. When it became mandatory to adopt surnames, many people from rural areas chose names that represented their professions or that of their ancestors. This made them easily identifiable as townfolk. In many cases they changed their surnames upon moving to Tehran, in order to avoid snobbery and discrimination from residents of the capital.

The Sabourjians were one of many such families. Their surname was related to carpet-making, an industry that conjures up images of sweatshops. They changed it to Ahmadinejad in order to help them fit in. The new name was also chosen because it means from the race of Ahmad, one of the names given to Muhammad.

According to Ahmadinejad's relatives the new name emphasised the family's piety and their dedication to their religion and its founder. This is something that the president and his relatives in Tehran and Aradan have maintained to the present day. Not because they are trying to deny their past, but because they are proud of it.

Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 5th October 2009.