A Bangladeshi writer was blocked from speaking at a Tower Hamlets library after threats of “disorder and violence” from an alliance of Sylheti “community leaders” and Christian fundamentalists.
Eighty-one year old Abdul Gaffar Choudhury, a journalist, poet, and freeman of Tower Hamlets, was booked to speak on a panel at Whitechapel Idea Store alongside Mayor John Biggs and others on Sunday for International Mother Language Day.
But the panel event was cancelled at the last minute after the council received a letter from the Greater Sylhet Council UK and Voice for Justice UK warning of “public disorder, protest and violence” if Mr Choudhury was allowed to speak.
The letter, signed by Nurul Islam Mahbub, chair of the Greater Sylhet Council UK, which purports to represent Bangladeshis from the city of Sylhet, and Kalam Choudhury, of the Biblical literalist group Voice for Justice UK, claimed Mr Choudhury made “defamatory remarks about our Sylheti Bangladeshi community, the founder of Channel S and other community leaders on live TV”.
It also accused him of making “anti-religion remarks”, adding: “Our community are so upset and furious against him. If you allow him to come at the Idea Store, there will be a public disorder, protest and could violence. [sic]
“So our humble request to you please do not allow him to come at the Idea Store.”
Mr Choudhury has defended his remarks, saying they have been misinterpreted.
However, politicians in Bangladesh have made hay with them, with the Jamaat-e-Islami saying it is the “duty of every Muslim” to “raise their voice” against him, and the more extreme Hefazat-e-Islam calling for his death.
A separate event at the Brady Arts Centre on Saturday where Mr Choudhury was booked to speak was also called off after the council denied permission to use the public building.
Writing to the organisers, council chief executive Will Tuckley said the decision was taken in line with the council’s terms of hire, which “as a general rule” don’t allow public buildings to be used for “controversial or sensitive” events.
He added: “In making its decision, the council does not make a judgement on any individual. The decision was informed by an assessment of risk that the proposed event, taking place in a council building, may have become controversial or impacted on community cohesion.”
Nurul Islam Mahbub, chair of the Greater Sylhet Council UK, told the Citizen he wrote the letter to “keep peace and harmony” in the borough.
He claimed his group has 3,000 members, mostly outside Tower Hamlets, and wrote the letter with the Christian Voices for Justice group as two representatives of a broad “federation of community organisations”.
He told the Citizen: “The community is very angry about what he said. We don’t want violence. We want peace and harmony.
“We’re not going to make people go and make hassle to nobody. [But] he should not say bad things about the community.”
He added: “Nobody has the right to harm his life but he doesn’t have the right to harm the community.”
Mr Mahbub, who does not live in Tower Hamlets, said Mr Choudhury’s remarks had criticised former mayor Lutfur Rahman, who is also Sylheti.
“He said something [about Mr Rahman]. He said he made all Tower Hamlets the Islamic State. We’re concerned to the way he make with the present climate to make everybody a criminal. [sic]”
Mr Rahman was thrown out of office in April after being found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices, including the “spiritual influence” of 100 imams telling Muslims it was their duty to vote for him.
Asked about freedom of speech, Mr Mahbub said: “I don’t have the right to criticise anyone’s religion.
“If you are trying to upset people, you are looking for trouble.
“If you are intentionally trying to upset people, that’s a crime, that’s not freedom of speech.”
Asked if he would be happy if complaints and threats were used to stop himself from speaking in public, he replied: “If I’ve done something wrong then I shouldn’t be unhappy.”
A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Council said: “After very careful consideration, we decided that the event with poet and journalist Abdul Gaffar Choudhury at the Idea Store, Whitechapel, would not go ahead this weekend.
“The decision is no reflection at all on Mr Choudhury, and has been taken in line with established guidance on events that may be sensitive or provoke community tensions.”
When asked whether the council was allowing or imposing censorship, the spokesperson said: “On the issue of censorship, these decisions are taken carefully on a case by case basis on the available evidence and possible options.”
The council declined to say whether it was confident it could maintain public order in the borough or whether Mr Choudhury would be free to speak at future events in public buildings.
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