Tony Blair is under mounting pressure to expel a controversial Muslim cleric who declared last night that suicide bombers were "martyrs" whose actions were justified by Islam.
Egyptian-born Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who also has extreme views on Jews and gays and has said that husbands should beat "disobedient" wives, is on a speaking tour of Britain and will be "guest of honour" at a conference organised by the Greater London Authority. Although he has been banned from entering the United States since 1999, the British government did not bar him because the intelligence services did not have any evidence to justify such a move. The cleric fuelled the controversy over his visit by defending suicide bombings on BBC2's Newsnightlast night. "This is not suicide, it is martyrdom in the name of God," he said. "It is allowed to jeopardise your soul and cross the path of the enemy and be killed, if this act of jeopardy affects the enemy, even if it only generates fear in their hearts, shaking their morale, making them fear Muslims."
Michael Howard, the Tory leader, demanded to know why the Government had not acted to stop Mr Qaradawi entering the country. He told Mr Blair at Prime Minister's Questions: "When I was Home Secretary, I used my powers to ban people whose presence here was not conducive to the public good. Why doesn't your Home Secretary do the same?"
Mr Blair said that the case would be kept under "very strict review" but added that any exclusions had to be lawful. "We are totally opposed, as is everyone, to people coming to this country and using it as a platform for views in support of terrorism or extremism of any sort at all," he said. David Winnick, the Labour MP for Walsall North, said: "This country is contaminated by the presence of such a creature. He should be kicked out. I hope the message will go out loud and clear that we will not tolerate outright racists in Britain."
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said that he would attempt to ban Mr Qaradawi if he was shown "to be dangerous". The row overshadowed his announcement yesterday that he is to resurrect plans to create a new criminal offence of inciting racial hatred.
Mr Blunkett said he would introduce legislation "as soon as possible" to outlaw attacks on religious groups. The controversial powers, bringing incitement to religious hatred in line with race-hate laws, were struck out of emergency anti-terror legislation three years ago by the House of Lords. The law would give Muslims the same legal protection as Jews and Sikhs.