Britain's relations with the Muslim world are unarguably at a difficult and testing juncture, and in this debate I want to probe the Government's mind on the difficulties and tests that face them in relation to the strategically placed, vast and growing world of Islam, with its more than 1,000 million adherents across many continents—including, of course, perhaps 2 million citizens of our own country.
Inasmuch as my speech, limited as it is to 15 minutes, will be something of a Cook's tour, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will at least heed the general direction of my concerns, some of which are well enough known to him, but not to others.
I want to start at home, with what I believe will be a major headache for the Government in the weeks to come—the trial of a large number of British nationals in Yemen. They are charged with forming an Islamic extremist terror group with intent on creating mayhem in that poor Arab country, which has already suffered much from the near decade-long crisis in the Gulf. Public opinion in the Arab world is simply dumbfounded at the allegation that, rather like selling coals to Newcastle or sand to Arabia, Great Britain may now be exporting such terrorism to Muslim countries.
I do not want to add to the difficulties of the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), but I must tell him that I do not like the look of Finsbury's Park's "ayatollah", Mr. Abu Hamza al-Masri—and I do not, of course, mean his hooks for hands or his glass eye. I do not suppose that I am alone in that opinion, but the difference is that I never liked the look of the rag-bag of obscurantists who constituted the so-called "holy warriors" of the Afghan jihad. But of course these elements, who have now razed Afghanistan to stone age ruins, and who have grievously affected the economic, social and political life of neighbouring Pakistan, were conceived, financed, armed, trained and politically supported, not only by the United States of America, but, it is clear only now, by previous British Administrations. So we and our allies played Dr. Frankenstein in the creation of some of the monsters that we now bemoan.
Of course the individuals on trial in Yemen must be tried fully in accordance with the law in that country. That criterion is an important distinction from the demands being made in some of the commentary on the case. Of course Yemen will be expected to conform to the international norms to which it has signed up, and to the norms of diplomatic practice; but terrorist suspects cannot expect to be dealt with differently in Yemen just because they are British. The irony will not escape the House that the alleged targets of the alleged terrorists included the British embassy, which is now being asked to mount a defence campaign.
I regret to say that our position is not helped by the fiasco that surrounded the release, after serving a fraction of their sentences, of the two British nurses convicted of the murder of their colleague, Yvonne Gilford, in Saudi Arabia. If my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had asked my advice, I would have said that it was exceedingly unwise to intercede with King Fahd to try to secure the early release of those prisoners. The lucrative festival of crude anti-Muslim, anti-Arab racism in which sections of our media wallowed over those two women was entirely predictable and deeply offensive and damaging in itself.
Of course, we shall now be under considerable pressure to make the same type of intervention in Yemen—and already, with their courtroom outbursts about torture and even sexual abuse, the Yemen Eight are clearly not unmindful of the highly successful script first written on behalf of the Saudi Two. If we do not intervene, there are no prizes for guessing what charge will then be levelled against us; or for predicting that the whole affair will give a further twist to the alienation of so many in the Muslim community in our midst which is caused by the perceived racism, Islamophobia, discrimination and perceived double standards in British policy towards Muslim countries.
In the past three years, surveys conducted by the Runnymede Trust and other important surveys have amply demonstrated that anti-Muslim racism is a virulent and increasing issue in this country. It is not the province of bovver-booted skinhead lumpen thugs only. Indeed, it has been said that Islamophobia is the last "acceptable" form of racism, suitable for even the dinner tables of Islington and Hampstead.
Although in this short debate I do not want to over-dwell on the issue that the Minister and I have often debated—the conflict in the Gulf—it clearly cannot be separated from any review of the problems of relationships with the Muslim world.
Till the day I die, I will never understand what possessed the British Government to participate in the bombardment of an Arab capital city during the holy month of Ramadan. With all the centuries of collected wisdom, not least the once almost unique understanding of the Arab world within the British Foreign Office, how could it be that the devastating effects on Britain's standing in the region were not foreseen?
Early last year, with other parliamentary colleagues, I inspected the splendid work being done by the British Council in Damascus. By the end of the year, the premises were ruined, torn apart by the rage of the Syrian people at the outrage of the Ramadan attack. In Morocco, in Jordan, in Egypt, in Palestine and in Algeria, our flag burned with the stars and stripes, and was trampled underfoot in demonstrations that numbered, not hundreds of thousands, but millions of angry citizens.
It is no good pretending to public opinion in this country that we have support in the Arab world for the Anglo-American policy. It is no good for Ministers to state in the United Arab Emirates—where I was just yesterday—that the Government's policy towards Iraq is the same as the UAE's policy, "with slight differences". Well, as President Clinton might say, it depends on what one means by "slight". The UAE is completely against the bombing of Iraq; we are doing the bombing. The UAE is in favour of lifting the sanctions urgently; we are the strongest supporter of that sanctions policy.