Moderate Muslims mounted a damage-limitation exercise after a leading British Islamic figure suggested that the West was waging a "war against Islam".
Mahmud al-Rashid, deputy general secretary of the respected Muslim Council of Britain, questioned the motives of a campaign that Tony Blair has been at pains to describe as a "war on terrorism". Mr al-Rashid said that if the West was conducting a war on Islam then its tactics would be indistinguishable from those being used.
He said: "Afghans, who are Muslims, are fleeing their country in terror. Afghans are being killed. Afghans' mud huts are being destroyed. So if it was a war against Islam how would it be different to how it is now?"
The comments, made to political website YouGov.com, were embarrassing for the Government as they came only hours after Mr Blair went on breakfast television to reassure British Muslims that the conflict in Afghanistan was just.
Speaking on GMTV, the Prime Minister said: "No one should ever allow the lie to get about that this is to do with West versus Islam. It is to do with people, decent people everywhere, including Muslims, who are victims of terrorism, against terrorists."
"Don't fall for propaganda that it's anything to do with a battle against Islam – it's not."
Mr al-Rashid, a barrister, suggested Britain and America might have an ulterior motive for wanting a long-term presence in Afghanistan. He said: "There is perhaps a wider purpose to this war. Tony Blair is now saying 'We will not walk away from Afghanistan'. That can be read one of two ways: one is that there will always be a humanitarian presence for assistance, but it could also mean something more sinister."
He said that having a large American presence in Afghanistan "would be of great strategic relevance".
Mr al-Rashid talked of the "green menace" of Islam replacing the "red menace" of communism as the perceived enemy of the West. He said: "There is a concerted effort, in politics, academia and popular culture, to create another opposition enemy and it is Islam."
The Muslim Council of Britain plays a key role in informing Muslim opinion and its representatives were invited to Downing Street in the wake of the terror attacks, to be told of the government response.
But the bombing attacks on Afghanistan have invoked almost universal opposition from British Muslims. The council has felt obliged to speak out against the war and has taken part in protest marches against the bombings.
However, last night, council spokesman Inayat Bunglawala said the council distanced itself from some of Mr al-Rashid's comments.
He said: "Certainly we don't regard in any way Islam as the enemy of the West.." Mr Bunglawala said the council's relationship with the Government was of "co-operation, certainly not of confrontation".
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