Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his 10 minutes.

3.19 pm

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). I was fascinated by his speech and I will certainly re-read it tomorrow. It was well worth listening to.

In recent weeks, the Prime Minister has repeatedly told us that the war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban is not about religion or Islam, but solely about terrorism. Such historical and theological ignorance does a grave disservice to us all.

Consider for a moment three recent and indisputable facts. The first is Mohammed Atta's last will and testament, in which he informed us that if he flew a plane into the twin towers, Allah would provide him with 72 virgins for the purpose of sexual congress in paradise. Secondly, shortly after the appalling atrocity on the twin towers had been committed, quite the nastiest and silliest response came from Islamic fanatics and evangelical American Christians. The Reverend Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson told us that the attack on the towers was God's vengeance on America, which had become a country of pagans, gays and lesbians, secular courts and secular schools, and of people who believe in civil liberties. For their part, fanatical Islamic clerics—some of them in the United Kingdom and some of them close to the area that I represent—expressed joy at the attacks. Thirdly, last Sunday, a group of murderous Muslims entered St. Dominic's church at Bahawalpur and killed 16 Christians—mostly women and children—and one Muslim guard.

More generally, the Islamic world seems to be in a state of denial. Our Prime Minister cannot confront the issue because, publicly at any rate, it does not suit him to do so. Denial, as I define it, consists of the failure of the people of the Islamic world to come to terms with modernity and to accept the true nature of what is going on. Denial is part of the deliberate and wrong-headed moves to separate Islam from modernity on the part of those ruling elites who govern theocratic and autocratic countries and, more dangerously, on the part of Muslim clerics around the globe, including some in Britain.

Chris Grayling: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sedgemore: I am sorry, but I only have 10 minutes.

One result of that separatism is a refusal to engage in democracy, or to acknowledge human rights and rights for women in particular. One distinguished person who is in denial is Imran Khan, who on television last week refused to accept the evidence that Osama bin Laden is a terrorist, despite the fact—and ignoring everything about

1 Nov 2001 : Column 1051

the acts against the two towers—that he must know that bin Laden issued a fatwa in 1998 calling for the killing of American civilians and that he recently had a video sent around the globe to incite Muslims to mass murder. If that is not terrorism, then the year that I spent studying the subject was clearly in vain. It is more likely, however, that it was Imran Khan's education at expensive schools in the United Kingdom that was in vain.

The reasons behind the separatist tendencies in modern Islamic thought are difficult to understand. I do not have the Koran at my bedside like the Prime Minister, but after a 30-year gap I am reading chunks of it again. Far from supporting separation, Islamic tradition holds that there have been 128,000 prophets—I will not list them all—including Moses and Jesus as well as Mohammed. Islamic tradition also holds that there have been 104 revealed books, the four most important of which are the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospel and the Koran itself.

The desire for separateness on the part of many teachers of Islam seems to defy both the Islamic traditions and such coherence as the religion has. How can hatred be created out of such holy and common roots? Why has Islam produced so many theocratic and autocratic states? Is it the power and control of clerics rather than God, faith, prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage that hold the worldwide ummah together? How is it that the so-called purest Islamic state, Afghanistan, is also the poorest and the most despotic?

By refusing even to address those questions, President Bush and our Prime Minister are not only ignoring fundamental issues but allowing confusion to fester and spread. Yes, they are right to say that we must get bin Laden, destroy his networks of terrorism and bring down the Taliban who have succoured him. Yes, we need to look at the role of others in succouring terrorism, including the house of Saud, which spawned and took no action against the Saudi Arabians who make up the majority of the terrorists thus far directly implicated in the attack on the twin towers. Are we going to defend the house of Saud or support dissenters who might wish to bring it down?

War makes cowards of us all. Perhaps the Prime Minister is right to call on us to be resolute when things go wrong. However, doing so would be easier if we knew the endgame, and if there were more clarity about the political, military, diplomatic and humanitarian aims, as well as progress in the conduct of the war. The Prime Minister was probably wrong to suggest that a serious humanitarian programme could be run in parallel with the bombing. The impossibility of it may even be dawning on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

Ironically, the arrest of Osama bin Laden could ultimately be achieved only by a more judicial approach of a kind that President Bush and the Prime Minister have so far spurned. Today's heresies are often tomorrow's truths.

Sometimes—I say this in the friendliest spirit—the Prime Minister gives us the impression that the last place on earth he would go for advice is the Chamber of the House of Commons. He may not be listening, but I will say this. First, he should tell the Home Secretary that in the aftermath of 11 September it becomes more, not less,

1 Nov 2001 : Column 1052

incumbent on us to protect our liberties and that detaining innocent people without trial for indefinite periods is not on. Measures to protect religions whose absurdities and hatreds are part of the problem rather than the solution are not acceptable.

Secondly, I believe that the Prime Minister should devote more of his personal attention to the problem of supplying and distributing humanitarian aid, and give more help to the Secretary of State for International Development—although she may not thank me for saying so.

Thirdly, the Prime Minister should stop being so damned preachy about the alleged moral superiority of this backward, fractious island of ours off the coast of north-west Europe, whose culture sometimes seems close to irreversible decline. He should realise that not everyone wants to be British, thank God.

Finally, my right hon. Friend should accept that the British people, not to mention Parliament, expect him and the allies to improve their performance significantly if Operation Enduring Freedom is to succeed. In that regard, those pathetic and autocratic Ministers who seek to blacken the characters of those who challenge the war aims by likening them to the appeasers of Hitler should, in my view, be sacked. If this is to be a fight for democracy, as I believe, we should begin by reinforcing our belief in democracy in this Chamber.

3.28 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge). A family medical emergency is keeping her away from the Chamber, although she greatly wishes that she could be present.

In the brief time available to me, I want to concentrate on the middle east. Before I do so, I have a number of observations about cluster bombs and the humanitarian effort. I accept that cluster bombs are not illegal in international law. I also accept that for some military purposes they are extremely effective. However, there is no disguising the revulsion with which they are regarded by many people in the United Kingdom. A Government anxious to maintain a domestic coalition of support would be wise to heed that expression of public opinion. And a Government anxious to maintain an international coalition of support would be wise to do the same.

I cannot believe that the success of the military action in Afghanistan stands or falls on the use of cluster bombs on targets in or near areas of civilian population. It may well be that, in arguing that the use of cluster bombs should be inhibited, one is responding to a political or humanitarian imperative but it is sometimes worth giving up a military capability where the benefits of the political advantage that would be created are so substantial as to outweigh any military advantage that might be discarded.

Let me come to the humanitarian element. I said on 16 October in the House, and it is worth repeating:


We must do that in practical ways. We should make a bargain with Pakistan and Iran to the effect that if they open their borders to allow unlimited access to refugees, the international coalition will pay all that is necessary to feed, clothe and house those who take refuge there.

1 Nov 2001 : Column 1053

We should continue to explore the possibility of safe corridors for the transport of humanitarian assistance. Leaving aside the military and political objective of the capture of Mazar-i-Sharif and its airport, we should accept that there is a humanitarian priority in the capture of that town owing to its potential contribution to the humanitarian effort and the access that it will give to Uzbekistan, from where aid could be provided by road.

I was much taken—as, I suspect, were many hon. Members—by the speech of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who is no longer in his place. He speaks on the middle east with rare authority and, as a member of the Jewish community, no doubt with a considerable amount of courage. He was right when he said that the Prime Minister was right to go to the middle east. On that rather uncomfortable visit, the Prime Minister must surely have learned that the difficulty of achieving a settlement in the middle east is equalled only by the urgency of doing so. That effort cannot be postponed. It must be commenced now. It should operate in parallel with the military action in Afghanistan, because no diplomatic task is more urgent for sustaining the coalition than a demonstration of wholehearted commitment on the part of the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States to endeavouring to achieve a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Such an effort is required to provide an antidote to the well-founded scepticism demonstrated throughout the middle east, born of decades of disappointment, and, in the past decade, of disappointment of the promise offered after the Gulf war, which took form in the Madrid conference and later in the Oslo agreement.


Next Section

IndexHome Page