A prominent Muslim leader who has expressed support for suicide bombings in Israel attended a conference funded by the Foreign Office, it has emerged.
Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi was among 180 people flown to Istanbul by the Foreign Office for the event 10 days ago.
An official said it wanted to engage with people “who don’t necessarily share the same point of view”.
It comes amid fresh criticism of the Foreign Office’s alleged policy of engaging with radical Islam.
Two years ago, Prime Minister Tony Blair, told MPs: “Let me make it absolutely clear. We want nothing to do with people who support suicide bombers in Palestine, or elsewhere or support terrorism.”
And last week, on the eve of the anniversary of the London tube bombings, he said: “If we want to defeat extremism, we have to defeat its ideas.”
But it has emerged Mr Blair’s call to verbal arms came 24 hours after the Foreign Office had funded a conference on Muslims in Europe attended by Dr Qaradawi.
The conference in Turkey brought together a wide range of influential Muslim thinkers, including a group from the UK, who argue that Islam is entirely compatible with European societies.
The participants produced a declaration saying Islam forbids terrorism. “We condemn and abhor the violent actions of a tiny minority of Muslims who have unleashed violence and terror – by distorting the teaching of Islam upon innocent neighbours and fellow citizens,” said the declaration.
Sheikh Qaradawi is the spiritual leader of a movement aligned to the outlawed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most influential Islamist group in the Middle East.
Its opponents say it has a history of violence, but it says it is committed to peaceful means to create an Islamic state.
Sheikh Qaradawi has condemned suicide attacks in the West but he has promoted the idea of Palestinian suicide attacks against Israelis, describing the bombers as “martyrs”.
He has also told Muslims they have a duty to confront and resist foreign troops in Iraq. He is banned from entering the United States.
Sheikh Qaradawi and his wife were amongst 180 Muslim leaders from Europe, Egypt and Saudi Arabia flown by the Foreign office to the Turkish city of Istanbul for a conference called “Muslims in Europe” held in a luxury hotel.
A Foreign Office spokesman said the estimated ?300,000 cost of the conference was “about right.”
He said the event was “facilitated” by the Foreign Office’s department “Engaging with the Islamic World” headed by Frances Guy, former British ambassador to Yemen.
There is currently a Foreign Office ban on formal contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, where it remains banned. Britain’s ambassador to Cairo Sir Derek Plumley has expressed caution against lifting the ban.
The Foreign office says “facilitating” a conference attended by Sheikh Qaradawi is not a change in policy because he is an individual and part of the more diffuse Brotherhood movement.
But the spokesman added: “In reality to achieve proper dialogue you must engage with individuals who don’t necessarily share the same point of view.” Several Foreign Office officials attended the event.
The spokesman denied that this and the fact that the Foreign Office funded it amounted to “hosting” it.
Asked why the names of the officials had subsequently been withdrawn from the conference website he said: “Officials didn’t actually participate in the actual event so the earlier inclusion was a mistake.”
He also said that although Mrs Guy met Qaradawi no “substantial conversations” took place.
In July 2004, Qaradawi hit the headlines in the UK when he was embraced by the London Mayor Ken Livingstone while hosting a conference at City Hall.
The then Home Office Minister Fiona McTaggart was reported to have withdrawn her backing for the conference because of his presence.
Commenting on Dr Qaradawi’s presence at the Istanbul conference, Conservative shadow homeland security minister, Patrick Mercer, said: “This seems to fly in the face of everything Tony Blair has said about inciting and glorifying terrorism.
“How can this man be subsidised for his appearance in Turkey?”
The Foreign Office’s attempts to engage with radical Islam will come under the spotlight later this week in a pamphlet published by Conservative think tank Policy Exchange.
The document, by New Statesman political editor Martin Bright, is entitled “Progressives Treat with Reactionaries: the British State’s Flirtation with Radical Islam”.
Mr Bright will also address the subject in a Channel 4 documentary to be aired on Friday.