I have a confession to make. It isn't often that I describe a public figure's remarks as "bigoted and stupid" and then get an email from said figure inviting me to interview him.
But that's what happened after I wrote a column in the New Statesman/Huffington Post earlier this month denouncing anti-Semitic comments made by Baron Ahmed of Rotherham. A few days later, I found myself sitting opposite the peer - who has been suspended from the Labour Party - in the House of Lords tea room.
Lord Ahmed, according to a recording of a Pakistani television interview obtained by the Times, accused Jews "who own newspapers and TV channels" of being responsible for his 12-week prison sentence for dangerous driving in 2009. The judge who put him behind bars, he told his Pakistani interviewer, was appointed to the high court after helping a “Jewish colleague” of Tony Blair’s during “an important case”.
What was his initial reaction to seeing the video on the Times website? "I was horrified," he tells me, in his first interview since the story broke, "because this is not me... I could not believe that this was me." He says he can't remember the "exact contents" or date of the interview but disputes the claim by the Times that it was aired in April 2012. He says the video is from two or three years ago.
I'm confused. "This is not me" is a curious formulation. He's surely not suggesting, is he, that the video was faked or that his remarks, as some of his supporters have claimed, were 'edited out of context'?
"No, no, no," he replies. In fact, a fortnight on from the Times scoop, the rotund and bearded Ahmed is a model of contrition. "I completely and unreservedly apologise to the Jewish community, to the judiciary, to the newspaper owners."
Ahmed says he is "not anti-Semitic". Over the course of his 15 years in the House of Lords, he says, "I have had the honour of addressing the World Jewish Congress in 2000... working with the Maimonides Foundation, One Voice, the Joseph Interfaith Foundation, going to Israel and synagogues here in the UK." He isn't an Islamist or Muslim extremist, either: lest we forget, and as I acknowledged in my column, "in 2007, he flew out to Sudan to help free the schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons from the clutches of the odious Islamist regime in Khartoum".
Lord Ahmed with British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons in December 2007
The peer says he has "the greatest respect" for the Jewish community and could not "believe [the video] when I saw it".
I am relieved to hear him confess that his comments were "completely wrong. Unacceptable."
So why make them? At first, the former Labour councillor and property developer is defensive. "Probably because of the terrible experience of the accident…" His voice trails off. "I cannot honestly say why.." He starts to stutter. Then a pause. Then, a refreshingly honest admission: "It must have been a twisted mind that said those things."
To clarify, he doesn't believe he was the victim of a conspiracy involving Jewish newspaper owners and a pro-Jewish judge?
"I do not believe this, no," he says, his voice getting louder. "In fact, I said in my original interviews after the [prison] sentence that I was completely satisfied with [it] and I've also worked with [road safety] organisations to improve bad habits such as texting while driving."
Some of his critics would argue that Ahmed has, Yasser-Arafat-style, a habit of telling a British non-Muslim audience one thing in one language and a Pakistani Muslim audience something else in another. Is he guilty of using Urdu-language interviews to promote or indulge Pakistani conspiracies about 'Jewish power'? The peer rejects the charge. "First of all I have never run any Jewish conspiracies before. There have never been any allegations of this. There have been two allegations before this, one in relation to President Obama, which never was and was proved to be wrong, and one in relation to Malala Yousafzai, that was completely wrong and misinterpreted."
Ahmed's argument is that that it is mistranslations and misinterpretations of his views and interviews that have caused him such trouble in the past. "That’s why when the Times first contacted me. I said 'If you’ve seen this video it might be so, but I cannot recollect it'. Some videos in Urdu have been mistranslated…"
But, again, to clarify, not this particular interview? He did refer to "Yehudis" [Jews], did he not? "Yes, 'Yehudis'." He adds: "The thing is that in Urdu there is no word for 'Zionist'."
Would accusations of a Zionist plot to send him to prison, however, be any more acceptable or believable? Thankfully, Ahmed says he "totally accepts" that it wouldn't: "'Jewish' or 'Zionist' is wrong, absolutely. Outrageous." His voice gets quieter. "I don’t really have any explanation or excuse."
Lord Ahmed with Jewish Labour peer Lord Janner on a visit to Jordan in 2000
I point out to the peer that this isn't the first time has been accused of anti-Semitism: in 2005, he provoked controversy by inviting the Holocaust-denying journalist Israel Shamir to speak in the House of Lords. Shamir has been described by the anti-racist Searchlight magazine as a "Swedish anti-Semite". "Lord Ahmed's Unwelcome Guest," read the headline the Times in April 2005.
"Let me, first of all, clear that up," he responds. "When I met with Israel Shamir, I did not know him. I met him in Jerusalem [and] I was introduced to him as an Israeli Jew. I did not know he was anti-Semitic." Ahmed says that when he invited Shamir to speak in the Lords on the subject of Palestine, and heard him speak for the first time, "I interrupted him in the Lords comittee room upstairs to say ‘I do not agree with you and I want to make it very clear that I do not share your views'." This, he complains, was never reported by the press.
But why invite Shamir to begin with? Didn't any alarm bells go off? "I didn’t Google him - that’s my biggest mistake," he admits. "Since then I’ve never met him, or invited him here, again."
Does he regret the Shamir invitation? "I do. Because that’s kind of a big stain on my reputation."
He may not be an anti-Semite but he has been pretty gullible, hasn't he? "I think I probably have been," shrugs Ahmed.
In my column on Lord Ahmed, I raised the issue of "the rampant anti-Semitism" in some parts of the Muslim community. Does he agree with me that "anti-Semitism isn’t just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community; it’s routine and commonplace"?
"I think there's anti-Semitism around the world," he replies, before adding that some Muslims do "cross the line between the 'Israeli government' policies and 'Jewish' policies. On many occasions, I have interrupted people and said: 'This is not a Jewish issue.' As far as I am concerned, we [Muslims] don’t have any problem with the [Jewish] faith."
Does he wish someone had interrupted him during his now-notorious interview on Pakistani television? He sighs. "Yes, I wish somebody had interrupted me and repeated it back to me. 'This is what you’ve just said'."
As the Oscar-winning Pakistani documentary-maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has observed, "If you spend any time in Pakistan, you realize that it's a land full of conspiracy theories" including "9/11 was a Jewish Mossad plot".
Does he therefore worry that he has given a huge boost to the conspiracy theorists? "I only believe in facts and to be honest I should have stuck with the facts rather than with conspiracy theories."
The Labour high command's response to the Times story was to suspend Lord Ahmed "pending an investigation". This is the third time he has been suspended from the party - the first was in the wake of his prison sentence and the second over the (misquoted) remarks about President Obama in 2012. Will it be third time lucky for the peer? Will this public apology be enough to get the suspension lifted?
"I think it’s a matter for the National Executive Committee," he replies. "I don’t really want to say anything about that.'
Does he have a message for party leader Ed Miliband, who described Ahmed's remarks as "disgraceful"? He pauses and leans back in his chair. "He's of the Jewish faith and I'm sorry that I embarrassed him - or anybody else in the Labour Party." He continues: "I’m particularly sorry to all my colleagues in the House of Lords and in the House of Commons because one thing many of them know is that I'm not anti-Semitic or a conspiracy theorist."
Forget Miliband, hasn't he embarrassed himself?
"I am embarrassed. And I think I've embarrassed my friends. I want to make sure that no Jewish, Christian or Muslim friend is embarrassed by my action. I take full responsibility [for that TV interview] and that is why I have come out very openly and apologised.”
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