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UK: British ex-diplomat probing Tower Hamlets accused of endorsing Islamophobia

John Jenkins, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is part of a team appointed by Michael Gove to inspect council led by Muslim mayor
Tower Hamlets in east London is one of the capital's most diverse areas (Reuters)
Tower Hamlets in east London is one of the capital's most diverse areas (Reuters)

A former British diplomat working on an inspection of a local council in east London has been accused of endorsing social media posts that are “Islamophobic”, “defend Islamophobia” or that peddle in “propaganda against Muslims”.

The charges against Sir John Jenkins, who was briefly the UK’s ambassador to Syria and Libya before seeing out a longer stint in Saudi Arabia, come in a letter sent by community leaders to Michael Gove, the government minister who appointed him.

Jenkins, who is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange, the right-wing think tank founded by Gove and others in 2002, is part of a team auditing Tower Hamlets council, which is led by independent mayor Lutfur Rahman, who is Muslim. 

The government-appointed inspectors have been asked to look at a range of issues including how money is spent and senior job appointments. They have been instructed to report back by the end of May on “whether the standards expected for effective and convenient local government are being upheld”.

A group that includes Jewish and Muslim community organisers, as well as academics and local politicians, has sent a letter to Gove questioning the role being played by a former Middle East diplomat in a local government audit.

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The letter, which has been seen by Middle East Eye, noted Jenkins’s apparent endorsement of “some really worrying… Islamophobic” social media posts.

The posts include one accusing Sadiq Khan of having “small man syndrome”, after the London mayor called for a ceasefire in Gaza, and another questioning why the BBC was covering Islamophobic comments made by Lee Anderson, a former Conservative MP who was suspended by the party over the remarks.  

Jenkins liked a tweet from assistant Telegraph comment editor Sam Ashworth-Hayes, in which he said that “protesters will, inevitably, scream Islamist slogans calling for the death of Jews, and the police will do nothing” at the Remembrance Day demonstrations held in London in solidarity with the Palestinians. 

Another tweet from Ashworth-Hayes liked by Jenkins champions the recently elected far-right president of Argentina, Javier Milei, for clamping down on “illegal migrants convicted of sex offences”, while an Atlantic article headlined, “You started a war, you’ll get a Nakba”, was also endorsed by Jenkins.

The Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe, is the term used to describe the expulsion of around 750,000 Palestinians from their homes during the creation of Israel.

The former diplomat’s own articles include one he wrote for the Telegraph headlined “For Islamists, Jeremy Corbyn is a useful idiot”, and one for the Spectator titled “There’s nothing wrong with Macron’s war on Islamism.”

In the letter to Gove, Jenkins’ use of social media is described as showing that “his primary focus seems to be Islam, political Islam, primarily Muslim countries, and Muslim politicians in the UK and outside of it. All of this shows that this is the prism through which he operates and the one through which he will be conducting the inspection in the council”.

Middle East Eye has written to Jenkins and to the Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), which is led by Gove and ordered the inspection of Tower Hamlets.  

Saudi ambassador

Jenkins was ambassador to Iraq between 2009 and 2011, before spending a few months as the UK’s top diplomat in Libya, during the uprising that toppled Muammar al-Gaddafi and the beginning of the subsequent turmoil.

Between 2012 and 2015 he was ambassador to Saudi Arabia, going on to describe some of the executions that took place in the kingdom as “understandable”. 

The letter to Gove said the "long list of diplomatic roles assigned to him raises many concerns as to why a former Middle East diplomat would be assigned specifically as an inspector of this borough, which is one of the most diverse boroughs in the country”.

Last week, Gove announced a contentious new definition of extremism that prompted concerns that the government will target Muslim groups and pro-Palestine protests.

In 2015, Rahman was removed from his position as mayor on charges of corruption, which his supporters said were trumped up and politically motivated. After a five-year ban, he was elected mayor once more in 2022.

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