Muslims sceptical of Blair's call for support

War on terrorism: Islamic Leaders
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair intensified his efforts to swing moderate Muslim opinion behind the war on terrorism, making an impassioned appeal for support from British Islamic leaders.

But his attempt to take personal charge of the campaign to win Muslim support for military action in Afghanistan was criticised as "pleasantries" by Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain.

Mr Blair told a conference of 150 leading Muslims and academics that Britain would work for a "just and lasting solution" in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

He said people of all faiths should unite to defeat terror and insisted that attacks on British Muslims would not be tolerated. He praised "the sense of unity across the faiths, across people of all persuasions against terrorism in all its forms".

But Dr Siddiqui, who attended the conference at the international Islamic Al-Khoei Foundation in north-west London, warned of opposition to the war in Afghanistan. He said: "I don't think that if they had a vote here people would agree that this was the best way to handle terrorism. Everyone is against terrorism but military action was the last option we should have used.

"People would have accepted it then and the United States would have recovered the moral high-ground."

Another delegate Asad Rehman, ethnic minorities and religious officer at Amnesty International, said the Prime Minister's speech was "very short on content". He said: "It is very important that he came here to the foundation, which has a long track record of working on human rights.

"But I do get a sense because of the context and because he needs the Muslim community's support, it is a bit like having a tick box of the people that he had to see."

Delegates broke into applause as Mr Blair promised to end military action in Afghanistan "as quickly as possible" and called for a Palestinian state as part of a "just and lasting solution in the Middle East".

Mr Blair, who was pressured to justify the Afghan bombing campaign by a Muslim caller to a GMTV phone-in on Wednesday, said: "I believe that it is essential that we work to do everything possible to secure a just settlement in the Middle East.

"We need to make sure that we have a situation in which Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in justice and peace, each in their own state, where security is guaranteed and justice for all is guaranteed."

Mr Blair said British Muslims were clearly standing against all acts of terrorism. He said: "It is clear as Prime Minister that the vast majority of people in our country want to live, and are happy living, in a decent, multicultural society and totally abhor attacks on members of the Muslim community as wrong and totally contrary to everything we believe in."

He insisted: "Whatever the religion of people who engage in terrorism, terrorists are what they are.

"But we have worked hard in these past few years to try and get the peace process in Northern Ireland. What we learned from that is the simple thing that people can carry on killing each other and can carry on with bitterness and hatred but at some stage they have to come back to the simple facts that violence will not offer a solution and that communities have to live together."

The Prime Minister added: "We are engaged in very difficult times at the moment and we want action taken to be over as quickly as possible, but I hope you understand that what is important is that we make sure at the same time we take the action necessary now in order to hold to account those who committed the actions of 11 September.

"We work also for a just and lasting solution to the problems in Afghanistan itself. These are also things that we need to take account of."

He added: "What must come out of it is something hopeful and I think it is possible, I really do, maybe it is an innate optimism that I have, but the human spirit only exists in the end by being optimistic about the future."

Prince Lel-Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, the younger son of the late King Hussein, who was chairing the conference, welcomed Mr Blair's remarks.

He said that terrorist bloodshed was unacceptable, but warned: "All of us, as I am sure you do Prime Minister, yearn for the bombing to end and for justice to prevail."