This Is London, August 28, 2008
Muslim council leaders have sparked outrage after trying to ban all councillors eating in meetings until sunset during the holy month of Ramadan.
Politicians have hit out after the move to impose hardline Islamic rules on non-Muslim colleagues throughout September.
The bombshell has been dropped by Labour chiefs of the notoriously loony Tower Hamlets Council in east London.
The storm was sparked by an e-mail sent to all councillors this week highlighting arrangements for Town Hall committee meetings next month, which marks the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan.
The memo said that new council leader Lutfur Rahman and his deputy, Siraj Islam, had requested that meetings be kept to a minimum to accommodate fasting councillors.
They have also urged all other councillors to resist eating until the breaking of the fast at sunset.
Cllr Stephanie Eaton, leader of the Lib Dem group on the left-wing East End authority, said she would be ignoring the new Ramadan regime.
She insisted the new Labour leadership was favouring one religious group over others.
Cllr Eaton said: ‘The Liberal Democrats have enormous respect for the contribution of all faith groups and cultures to the life of the community of Tower Hamlets.
‘But we fervently believe that the rules of any one religion should not be imposed upon others.’
It is the first time such a request has been made and it comes as Ramadan falls earlier this year during the longer daylight hours.
Council bosses have also ordered that the town hall’s business agenda should be reduced, with only seven scheduled committee meetings for the entire month, to deal with the Ramadan restrictions.
Officers have also been barred from arranging any more and been told to explore ways of dropping some of the scheduled seven.
Those going ahead generally start at about 6.30pm.
So with sunset due to fall just after 7.30pm at the beginning of September and around 6.30pm by the end of Ramadan, the breaking of the fast will take place during meetings.
At those points, there will be 45-minute adjournments to allow members to eat and pray, council leaders have ordered.
But it is the arrangements for the food and other refreshments that has angered Cllr Eaton and the rest of her party, which includes two Muslim councillors.
Normally tea, coffee and sandwiches are set aside for councillors to nibble at during evening meetings.
But during Ramadan these will be reduced and complemented by special Muslim food packs containing chicken, lamb and vegetarian snacks.
But in his email, John Williams, the council’s head of democratic services, said: ‘It is requested that members do not partake of any refreshments until after the Iftar refreshments are served.’
Cllr Eaton said that was going too far. Speaking on behalf of all her stunned party colleagues, she said: ‘I was rather disconcerted to see that the arrangements put in place for Ramadan, which we support for Muslim colleagues, have been imposed upon all councillors.
‘We object to the request that non-Muslim councillors observe the fasting rules for Ramadan.
‘This sends out the wrong message to our community. Our community consists of a huge number of different religions, all of which should be valued, and no one religion should be accorded more status or influence than others.
‘Freedom of belief is an important human right, and we Liberal Democrat councillors, Muslim and non-Muslim, agree that this request is inappropriate.’
Cllr Eaton has also written to Town Hall bosses about her concerns that their move ‘will not enhance community cohesion and asking for their reassurance that no faith is given any particular status or priority in the operation or decisions of the council’.
Council bosses said their arrangements were in place ‘where it is not reasonable to expect members observing Ramadan, and who are required to attend a formal committee or other meeting, to travel home in time for sundown in order to break fast and undertake prayers’.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic Lunar calendar and the holiest of the four holy months. It begins with the sighting of the new moon after which all physically mature and healthy Muslims are obliged to abstain from all food, drink, gum chewing, any kind of tobacco use, and any kind of sexual contact between dawn and sunset.