Thatcher's words 'will encourage race attacks'

War on terrorism: Tories
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Baroness Thatcher was accused yesterday by Tory politicians and Muslim leaders of inciting racism by saying that Islamic clerics had not been firm enough in condemning the attacks on America.

The former Tory cabinet minister Michael Heseltine said Lady Thatcher's comments "could only encourage" racists to persecute Muslims in Britain, and the Conservative Party publicly distanced itself from her remarks.

Islamic leaders also accused Lady Thatcher of a grave misjudgement, saying that her complaints were completely "unjustified" and "insensitive".

Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the leader of the self-styled Muslim Parliament, said: "People need to know that out of over 6,000 people who died in this terrible incident, more than 1,500 of them were Muslims. The Muslim community has had to suffer twice – once when someone dear to them died, the second time when people say things like this."

Lady Thatcher said in yesterday's Times newspaper that she had "not heard enough condemnation from Muslim priests". She said: "The people who brought down those towers were Muslims, and Muslims must stand up and say that is not the way of Islam."

Yousuf Bhailok, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he was "surprised that such an experienced politician should be so insensitive [at] a time like this". He added: "We have all been sharing in the grief. I think she is ill-informed and losing touch."

In the clearest sign yet that the Tory leadership may be tiring of Lady Thatcher's unexpected interventions, the party issued an official statement on behalf of Iain Duncan Smith, which said: "We simply do not agree with Margaret's statement on this issue."

Other senior Conservatives were embarrassed by her "unwise" and "ill-timed" remarks. Gary Streeter, the former Tory spokesman on international development, said: "Her comments are unhelpful. I'm afraid it's a comment from history."

Downing Street also expressed its distaste for Lady Thatcher's views. Tony Blair's official spokesman said the Prime Minister had made his position clear. He said Muslim leaders had "stood side by side with [Mr Blair] in Downing Street to deliver not just their condemnation of what happened on 11 September but also their strong support for bringing those responsible to account and ending terrorism".

Lady Thatcher's comments followed hard on the heels of an announcement by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, that he planned to introduce a new crime of religious hatred.

In Parliament, which was recalled yesterday for an emergency debate on the response to the terrorist attacks, MPs from all parties said Lady Thatcher was ill-informed. Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader, said she was "out of touch".

Anti-racist groups also warned that she was "playing into the hands of extreme-right organisations such as the British National Party".

The National Assembly Against Racism sent evidence to Mr Blunkett of a rise in racist attacks on Muslims and Sikhs, in Manchester, Oldham and London. The group said Lady Thatcher's comments were "extremely dangerous in this context".

The assembly's co-ordinator, Milena Buyum, said: "As a former prime minister, she should act more responsibly."