Previous SectionIndexHome Page

1.36 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) for his conciliatory and wise words and, in particular, his description of these awful acts in the United States as evil. It is important for all Muslims to speak out and call these acts evil so that it is associated in the minds of others who may try to attack Islam that these acts can have nothing to do with one of the world's great religions.

I am wearing a black tie today—like my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench and others—as a mark of respect and a gesture of support for the American people and their Government. Together with Government and Opposition Front Benchers, who have said wise words today, I will support the American Government in justified and reasonable retaliation.

I would like to make two points, one about Afghanistan and the other about the situation here. I am a trustee of the HALO trust, the largest mine-clearance agency in the world, which has 1,200 local employees in Afghanistan. We had two or three expatriates there until Wednesday or Thursday, when they got out. The local employees are decent, hard-working people whose work in mine clearance has made Kabul a safe city in which children can play. Such people have as much right to respect as the Americans, ourselves or anybody else.

I shall refer to the history of Afghanistan, although I shall not labour the point. The country was occupied for 20 years by the Russians. Kandahar, the second city of the country, was just about razed to the ground during the war, largely by Russian bombing. Following that, there have been 10 years of civil war—the war still continues—and the most frightful drought and famine. Afghanistan is in a very difficult situation and has a Government who are not regarded favourably in most capitals of the world.

The bizarre coincidence of the attack on Masoud the day before the bombings in America should be noted, because a suicide attack—as seen at the World Trade Centre and elsewhere—is not traditionally a method used by Afghans, but is more closely associated with other parts of the middle east. If, as seems likely, there is the possibility of some form of retaliation against Afghanistan or targets in Afghanistan, it must be measured and carefully directed.

It should be recognised that Russia, which is geographically and strategically extremely important in the present situation, may not be the best choice as an active ally, because Afghans still have vivid memories of the Russian devastation. Moreover, what happened recently in Grozny plays loud in the Muslim world. By all means let us have the Russians on side, but let us be careful about the active collaboration that we expect of them. Russian involvement could make the situation yet worse, if that were possible. The best thing that could happen would be for the Taliban to deliver bin Laden to the United Nations or the United States for questioning, but that is rather unlikely at present.

There has been much talk of war. By invoking article 5, NATO has determined that the current situation is a war, and President Bush has said that it is a war. That will have an impact on the values of freedom and democracy in this

14 Sept 2001 : Column 657

country, about which both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary spoke so eloquently. We are in danger of not being able to protect our values of freedom, tolerance and liberal democracy, because people who have come to this country wish to undermine those values.

We are liberal and tolerant, and we relish our freedom, but on "Question Time" on the BBC yesterday evening, I saw the former American ambassador, Clinton's appointee, Philip Lader, almost in tears as he said that he would not have believed that he would hear people saying, to general acclaim, that they despised America, as somebody did on the programme. I do not despise America. The people whom I know do not despise America. My constituents do not despise America. How could such an opinion receive applause, especially at such a time?

This morning on the "Today" programme, an asylum seeker who is being put up in a hotel near Heathrow said that he believed that the attacks were justified. I thought that he was fleeing an awful regime. By making such a comment, surely he has put himself beyond any claim to asylum in this country.

We must ensure that our tolerance, our freedom and our liberal democracy are not abused and used against us. We have heard today about Sheikh Abu Hamza, who called for a jihad. He and others raise money for bin Laden and his like. We must re-adjust the way in which we see such people and the law that governs them. We must not let our freedom and our democracy be destroyed by others' lack of tolerance.

1.43 pm

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): I am grateful to be called to speak in the debate. I have been present since early morning, and an important feature of the debate is that the best speeches come from the heart. There is no doubt that we have heard many fine speeches today, all of them from the heart. My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) made excellent speeches in a difficult situation for them. They explained fully how the Muslim communities—those who believe in the Koran—in our country are settled, integrated and positively horrified by what they have seen on television.

There is a view that those events are a fundamentalist Islamic attack on Christianity. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) made a pertinent point when she suggested that we should remove the concept of Islam from fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalism, if that is the proper name, gave rise to the crusades a thousand years ago and to the Spanish inquisition. There is nothing at all redeeming about the concept of fundamentalism, whether it is based on Islam or on Christianity. I see in this attack an attack by fundamentalists on our Christian society.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was the first speaker in the debate to invoke God. As Second Church Estates Commissioner, I have been touched throughout by the reference to God, first by the President of the United States and then by those who were caught in this situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) and others talked about being on Capitol Hill and being told to run for their lives. The staff on Capitol Hill spent the first five minutes in prayer before beginning to run. A survivor of the World

14 Sept 2001 : Column 658

Trade Centre attack who was on the 82nd floor also survived the 1993 attack, so she has survived twice. She invoked her Christian religion.

The right hon. and learned Member for North–East Fife (Mr. Campbell) referred to the values of the United States—the Christian ethos, which we saw very clearly. We are in an age in which we are told that the Christian ethic is slipping, but it is strong in the United States.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) made a powerful speech, but he confused the explanation, as he sees it, for fundamentalism with the justification. We must be careful when explaining what he considers to be the reasons for the surge of restlessness, animosity and hatred in case we justify it. I am glad that he is still in the Chamber and I am sure that he does not think that there is a justification for such actions.

When considering Islamic fundamentalism, if I may give it that name, and relating it always to the situation in Israel and the middle east, we must not forget that it destroyed apartment blocks in Moscow or that, at this very moment in Algeria, busloads of children, villagers and farmers are being taken out to have their throats cut in the name of Islamic fundamentalism. That has nothing to do with the situation in the middle east and nothing to do with the conflict between Palestine and Israel.

The debate has gone on for quite a while, but no one has yet mentioned the Mitchell principles being proposed for some form of settlement of the middle eastern crisis or the meetings with Shimon Peres alongside Yasser Arafat. There are peace proposals going forward there, but we must be careful that we do not justify the reasons for that fundamentalism while seeking to define it. The Prime Minister was very strong on that point.

The point has also been made that this is a war of poor people against rich. The four-year-old child who took her first and last aeroplane journey would not have understood that concept nor would those who went to work early in the morning and lost their lives. We ought to move away from the proposition that there is conflict between what are called poor and rich people. The incident is much more fundamental than that. It is an attack on our democracy, an attack on our morality and an attack on our way of life.

The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), the leader of the Liberal party, quoted the angel of death speech made in the House in 1855 by John Bright. It was, of course, a quote from the scriptures and we note a certain continuity. A Liberal Foreign Secretary looked over St. James' park in 1914 and said:

On 11 September, each one of us saw a light diminish and die, and it is up to each one of us in the House, in our country and in the United States to ensure that the values of democracy, the values of the Christian ethos and the values of all those of other religions who have today expressed their strong, sincerely held religious convictions rest as pillars of our society and receive our support. We give full support to the Government in their relations with the United States and in any actions they may take.

Next Section

IndexHome Page