Moderate British Muslim leaders yesterday decided to develop a network which will counter extremism within their own communities after meeting Tony Blair and senior colleagues at Downing Street in the wake of the London transport bombs.
But the prime minister was left in little doubt that many of his visitors reject his insistence that a different foreign policy in Iraq would not have prevented the attacks which took at least 56 lives on July 7 – and was warned that it will be hard for them to reach radically disaffected young people in their midst.
The hour-long session was designed to send a high-profile message of inclusivity, with Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy – representing the two main opposition parties -in supportive attendance.
Mr Blair later told reporters: “The meeting revolved around a very strong desire of people from right across the Muslim community in our country to be united, not just in a condemnation of the terrible terrorist attacks here in London but also to confront and deal head-on with the extremism that is based on a perversion of the true faith of Islam but nonetheless is real within parts of our community here in this country.”
As such the Muslim groups – representing mostly established figures in their 40s and older – agreed to establish a task force which will develop a network capable of penetrating what are often poor and introverted communities.
“They will be people who are going to be supported by the rest of us but from the community, able to talk to the Muslim community and confront this evil ideology, take it on and defeat it by the force of reason. I think that’s the best thing we can do,” Mr Blair explained.
Downing Street later confirmed suggestions that the task force would be Muslim led, but government supported, though it said it is too early to know if that will mean forms of financial support.
Also present were Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, and the home secretary, Charles Clarke, who warned against the danger of confusing the London bombing and the opposition to the Iraq war. But several Muslim representatives said the invasion of Iraq as well as other parts of UK foreign policy were a grievance for young Muslims.
When told this directly Mr Blair repeated his insistence since July 7 that the terrorists would have found some other excuse for the bombing, even if Britain had not supported the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
No 10 later repeated that 26 al-Qaida related attacks pre-date the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan, endorsing Mr Blair’s view that the root cause of the problem is a perverted interpretation of Islam which has gone unchallenged for too long.
Some of the peers and four Labour Muslim MPs present share that view in varying degrees. So does the prime minister of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, coincidentally in No 10 for talks, and with whom Mr Blair appeared.
One MP present, Sadiq Khan, later warned against treating Muslims like “one homogeneous blob” and of raising expectations too far as to what could easily be achieved.
“You wouldn’t expect a vicar to be able to reach a white boy on a street corner, so it’s dangerous to expect Muslim leaders can reach their troubled youth,” he said.
Twenty five Muslim community leaders were present. Among groups not invited to the meeting was the Muslim Association of Britain, which was active in organising opposition to the Iraq war, and the Islamic Human Rights Commission (HRC) which has been critical of the police.
Massoud Shadjareh, of the Islamic HRC, said: “The overwhelming majority of youth and others in the Muslim community are alienated not just from British institutions, but from Muslim institutions as well. Mr Blair met too narrow a group of Muslims. He invited those who he knew would agree with him.”