HL Deb 16 December 2002 vol 642 cc445-8

2.43 p.m.

Lord Ahmed asked Her Majesty's Government:

What they mean by "Islamic terrorist".

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government do not believe that the term "Islamic terrorist" is appropriate. We should not allow any credibility to the claims of some terrorists that they are motivated by religious conviction. They must know, as we do, that Islam is a faith of peace. As many leaders, political and religious, have made clear, terrorism is an anathema to Islamic faith and practice.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for her reply. Is she aware that since 9/11 "terrorism" has become interchangeable with "Islam"? Terminology such as Islamic terrorist, Islamic jihad and Islamic warlords is offensive to all Muslims such as me. Does she agree that a terrorist is a terrorist, whether they are IRA, ETA, Irgun, Tamil Tigers or the Hindu extremists such as RSS, Shiv Sinna and Bajrang Dal?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government condemn all terrorism, but the fact is that some terrorist groups refer to themselves as Islamic. That is the problem. They claim Islam as their justification. They are entirely wrong in doing so. Islam provides no justification for their terrorist activity, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear on 12th November last year, when he said that acts such as September 11th were wholly contrary to the Islamic faith.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, in the light of the Minister's immediate reply, what consideration might the Government give to helping to build up mainstream, moderate Islamic opinion in this country? The juxtaposition of the terms "Islamic" and "terrorist" is very unfortunate. The vast majority of Muslims in this country and around the world are honest, godly, decent people. They need a better voice in this country. I wonder whether we could move towards having some equivalent to the Board of Deputies of British Jews for the Muslim community, which could bring together all the different strands of Muslims and act as an articulate voice for the Muslim community in this country.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with much of what the right reverend Prelate has said. I remind him that a new unit has been set up in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to strengthen and further our relationship and dialogue with communities in this country on a whole range of issues. We have also begun Islam awareness training in the FCO. We seek new ideas about ways in which we can communicate with the Islamic community. We have also established an Islamic media unit to try to overcome some of these problems. My honourable friend in another place, Mr O'Brien, has recently recorded a message of good will to the Islamic faith in this country. We are trying to work on these issues.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, I agree totally with the Minister's definition of Islamic terrorists, but many distort the true, peace-loving face of Muslims, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford rightly said. More specifically, what is the Government's position on Abu Hamza, who is the unacceptable face and not a good advertisement for Islam?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we recognise the threat posed by some of the appalling statements that have come from Mr Abu Hamza. Again, the Government believe that for those statements to masquerade in any way as an expression of the Islamic faith is entirely wrong. We lose no opportunity in expressing that view.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that in Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, where there are the same problems with terrorism, a differentiation in terminology is made between political Islam and spiritual Islam? That is a positive and helpful definition of terminology to help make judgments on terrorists or any other people who use the name of a religion to carry out acts against humanity.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with that. It is important that we find ways of referring to these organisations that are acceptable but still descriptive of their objectives. It is worth recording that the broadest grouping of Muslim states—the Organisation of the Islamic Conference—strongly condemned the terrible acts of 11th September last year and supports efforts to track down the perpetrators of those acts and of others.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the Minister accept that discrimination against Catholics some 100 years ago helped to provide the basis from which the IRA found so many sympathisers and that it is therefore extremely important that we manage as far as possible to remove discrimination against Muslims? In that context, will she answer rather more specifically the proposal of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford that we encourage the formation of a council of Muslims in this country on a similar basis to the Board of Deputies of British Jews to demonstrate that this is now an accepted part of the faith communities of British citizens?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that my answers expressed our view that of course Islam is very much among the community of religions in this country. The Foreign Office is making a huge effort to reach out to the Islamic community. I remind the House that on 12th November this year the Prime Minister talked about creating bridges of understanding between religious faiths. He went on to talk about the pioneering work of the Alexandria process. We would want to discuss the creation of a specific organisation with the Islamic religious leaders in this country to see what their views were before saying whether that would be a suitable vehicle on which to go forward.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, although I appreciate the sensitivity of description and do not want to see any form of discrimination taking place, does my noble friend the Minister agree that, when addressing the question of what we mean by "Islamic terrorist", the difficulty is that most people would understand an "Islamic terrorist" to be someone who practises terror and does so in the name of Islam?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that was the purport of my initial reply to the House. Some terrorist groups regularly describe themselves as "Islamic". When preparing to answer this Question, I took the opportunity to look through the list of terrorist groups and found that 12 of them throughout the world describe themselves as "Islamic". I hope that I have made it entirely clear that Her Majesty's Government do not accept that that is a fair and accurate description.

Earl Russell

My Lords, if, as the noble Lord, Lard Ahmed, suggests, the words "Islamic" and "terrorist" become interchangeable, does the Minister agree that that interchange is about as illogical as "Green Park Tube station"?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords; it is entirely illogical. However, I should point out to the noble Earl that that is why the perpetrators of terrorism want to link the two. It is in their interests to appeal to moderate Islamic opinion and convince the latter that they are somehow acting on its behalf. That is not true. To put it frankly, we simply should not allow them to get away with it.