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  • The Open Letter to the Prime Minister Controversy - August 2006: Critiques of Minister Blair's Foreign Policy

  • The background
  • Contrasting reactions from British Jews to Israel's actions in Lebanon
  • Reactions from Government and political circles (updated 29th August)
  • Other comments (updated 29th August)

    On 12th August 2006,an open letter was signed by three of the four Muslim MPs (signatories were Shahid Malik, Sadiq Khan and Muhammad Sarwar, with Khalid Mahmood the exception), three Muslim peers (Lord Patel of Blackburn, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham and Baroness Uddin), the Muslim Council of Britain and its leading affiliates across the country, the British Muslim Forum, the Muslim Parliament and other voluntary sector and civil society bodies. The thesis of the letter was that the Government's foreign policy - the most recent example being its provision of military and diplomatic support to Israel in its attack of Lebanon - was against the national interest. Its underlying message was that extremism and alienation could be better tackled by making all sections of society stakeholders in the political process, including the shaping of foreing policy.

    Prime Minister,

    As British Muslims we urge you to do more to fight against all those who target civilians with violence, whenever and wherever that happens.

    It is our view that current British government policy risks putting civilians at increased risk both in the UK and abroad.

    To combat terror the government has focused extensively on domestic legislation. While some of this will have an impact, the government must not ignore the role of its foreign policy.

    The debacle of Iraq and now the failure to do more to secure an immediate end to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East not only increases the risk to ordinary people in that region, it is also ammunition to extremists who threaten us all.

    Attacking civilians is never justified. This message is a global one. We urge the Prime Minister to redouble his efforts to tackle terror and extremism and change our foreign policy to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever they live and whatever their religion.

    Such a move would make us all safer.

    Signatories: Sadiq Khan MP, Shahid Malik MP, Mohammed Sarwar MP, Lord Patel of Blackburn, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, Baroness Uddin, Association of Muslim Schools, British Muslim Forum, Bolton Mosques Council for Community Care, Confederation of Sunni Mosques Midlands, Council of Nigerian Muslim Organisations, Council of Mosques, London & Southern Counties, Council of Mosques Tower Hamlets, Da'watul Islam UK & Eire, Federation of Muslim Organisations - Leicestershire, Federation of Students Islamic Societies (FOSIS), Indian Muslim Federation, Islamic Forum Europe, Islamic Society of Britain, Jama'at Ahle Sunnat UK, Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith UK, Jamiat-e-Ulema Britain, Lancashire Council of Mosques, Muslim Association of Britain, Muslim Council of Britain, Muslim Council of Wales, Muslim Doctors and Dentists Association, Muslim Parliament, Muslim Solidarity Committee, Muslim Students Society UK & Eire, Muslim Welfare House (London), Muslim Women Society (MWS), Muslim Women's Association, Northern Ireland Muslim Family Association (NIMFA, Sussex Muslim Society, The Council of European Jamaats, UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, UK Islamic Mission, UK Turkish Islamic Association, World Federation of KSIMC, World Islamic Mission, Young Muslim Organisation UK, Young Muslim Sisters (UK) Young Muslims UK

    The background

  • Israel's violation of UN resolutions and international law Click here

  • Israel's violation of UN resolutions in Lebanon, including the Shaba farms area Click here

  • Timeline of events - June 2006 onwards Click here- extract in box below (with further editions by Salaam editor).

    Author Sherat Lin notes, "The only logical starting point for objectively examining the sequence of causes and effects is to begin with a watershed event that was clearly independent of any preceding military or political provocation. In 2006 that event was the Palestinian elections of January 25 [with victory to the nationalist-political group Hamas].

    June 11

    An Israeli air strike kills two Hamas commandos in Gaza. Palestinians respond with more Qassam rockets.

    ...

    June 15

    Palestinians fire Qassam rockets into the Israeli town of Sederot.

    Hamas announces its willingness to reinstate the 16-month ceasefire if Israel will stop all attacks on Gaza and the West Bank. Israel refuses, demanding that the Palestinian rocket attacks stop first.

    June 21

    At least a dozen more Palestinian civilians are killed by Israeli attacks in Gaza over an 8-day period.

    June 24

    Israeli forces abducted two civilians, a doctor and his brother, from Gaza

    June 25

    Palestinian commandos kill two Israeli soldiers and capture Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit after tunnelling 300 yards into Israel from Gaza. Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees, and the Army of Islam participate in the raid south of kibbutz Kerem Shalom, just north of the Egyptian border.

    Shalit is the first Israeli soldier captured by Palestinians since 1994. Hamas government spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, publicly urges the captors to “protect his life and treat him well.”

    Israel closes all border crossings into Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert holds the PA fully responsible.

    June 26 Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warns of military action.

    Palestinian captors demand that Israel release all 95 Palestinian women and 313 youths under age 18 held in Israeli prisons in exchange for the release of Corporal Shalit. A total of over 9,500 Palestinians (excluding those who are Israeli citizens) are known to be held in Israeli prisons.

    June 27

    Fatah and Hamas are compelled into unity in the face of looming full-scale war. They adopt a common political platform that includes an implicit recognition of the state of Israel by Hamas. The so-called Prisoners Document calls for the creation of a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders, alongside Israel, and asserts the right of Palestinian refugees to return to lands within Israel proper.

    Israeli troops and armor move in force into southern Gaza.

    ...

    July 12

    Responding to the mounting carnage in Gaza, and the Israeli seizure of much of the Palestinian government leadership, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia engages in border skirmishes with Israeli troops. In the ensuing battle, Hezbollah forces kill 3 Israeli soldiers and capture two. With Israeli forces in hot pursuit into Lebanon, another 5 Israeli soldiers die. Hezbollah casualties were not immediately announced.

    Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responds by saying, “Lebanon is responsible and Lebanon will bear the consequences of its actions.”

    Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora calls for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council, appealing for help in preventing the impending Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

    July 13

    Israel responds with military assaults from the air, land, and sea into southern Lebanon. Its combat operations in southern Lebanon are the first since withdrawing in 2000.

    Contrasting reactions from British Jews to Israel's actions in Lebanon

    "As its own citizens are being killed, Israel is, yet again, inflicting death and destruction on Lebanon. It tries to portray this horror as necessary for its self-defence. Indeed, the casual observer might regard the rocket attacks on Israeli cities such as Haifa and my own home town, Nahariya, as justifying this claim.

    While states should defend their citizens, states which fail this duty should be questioned and, if necessary, reconfigured. Israel is a state which, instead of defending its citizens, puts all of them, Jews as well as non-Jews, in danger.

    What exactly is being defended by the violence in Gaza and Lebanon? Is it the citizens of Israel or the nature of the Israeli state? I suggest the latter. Israel's statehood is based on a fundamentally unjust ideology which causes indignity and suffering for those who are classified as non-Jewish by either a religious or ethnic test. To hide this primordial immorality, Israel fosters an image of victimhood. Provoking violence, consciously or unconsciously, against which one must defend oneself is a key feature of the victim-mentality. By perpetuating such a tragic cycle, Israel is a terrorist state like no other.

    Many who wish to hide the immorality of the Israeli state do so by restricting attention to the horrors of the post-1967 occupation and talking about a two-state solution, since endorsing a Palestinian state implicitly endorses the ideology behind a Jewish one.

    The very creation of Israel required an act of terror. In 1948, following years of creeping dispossession coupled to total lack of empathy, most of the non-Jewish indigenous people were ethnically cleansed from the part of Palestine which became Israel. This action was carefully planned. Without it, no state with a Jewish majority and character would have been possible".

    Extract from an article by Dr. Oren Ben-Dor. The author grew up in Israel and teaches the philosophy of law and political philosophy at a British University

    "Today we stand in solidarity with Israel, and rarely have I felt so proud of Anglo-Jewry as I have done these past few days. Especially of our young people. Last week 1300 of them, from youth groups right across the religious spectrum, went out to Israel. Every one of them, or their families, might have said, 'No, not now. It's too dangerous.' Yet almost none of them did. I want to say to every one of those young people: Kol hakavod. You make us proud.

    Why then does a people who have consistently said Yes to life and No to death, who have consistently said Yes to peace and No to terror, find itself today fighting in Lebanon and Gaza? The answer is so simple, yet so unbelievable, that we must hear it clearly and unequivocally: Israel is fighting today in Lebanon because six years ago it withdrew from Lebanon. Israel is fighting today in Gaza because one year ago it withdrew from Gaza".

    Extract from a speech at the Solidarity Rally for Israel held in London, 23rd July 2006, by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks Sunday 23 July 2006

    Reactions from Government and political circles

    Kim Howells MP and FCO minister
    Khalid Mahmood, MP
    Sadiq Khan, MP
    Menzies Campbell, MP
    Sadiq Khan, MP
    Phil Woolas, MP

    Kim Howells MP, 12th August

    Mr Howells told BBC News 24 the letter's comments were "facile". He said: "I have no doubt that there are many issues which incite people to loath government policies but not to strap explosives to themselves and go out and murder innocent people. "There is no way of rationalising that. "I think it is very, very dangerous when people who call themselves community leaders make some assumption that somehow that there's a rational connection between these two things." [Extract]
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4787119.stm

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    Khalid Mahmood, MP - 15th August

    "But one Muslim MP, Khalid Mahmood, who represents Birmingham Perry Barr, and who refused to sign the letter, said yesterday that his colleagues had engaged in a 'PR stunt'. He will call tomorrow for renewed government action to tackle extreme deprivation in all communities, Muslim and non-Muslim, to tackle the problems".
    Reported in The Guardian
    http://politics.guardian.co.uk/terrorism/story/0,,1844780,00.html

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    Sadiq Khan, MP - 16th August

    I am sorry Roy Hattersley (Comment, August 14) believes that our letter to the prime minister "is a matter for regret". Reading his article, I was aware of more similarity in opinion than disagreement. My co-signatories and I would agree that foreign policy should be constructed according to ethical principles and executed in a manner that is even-handed - that was one of the key points of the letter. Where I differ from Hattersley is that I don't believe we should ignore the domestic impact foreign policy is having. Unless we face up to some of the drivers of extremism, we will not be able to challenge it effectively. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. The fact that such attempts at honest and serious analysis "will be interpreted by the mendacious and malicious" as proof of Muslim support for terrorists must not stop us from attempting such sober analysis. Commentators would do better to expose such distortions rather than repeat them, only then will we be able to have a grown-up debate about foreign policy on its merits.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,,1850830,00.html

    Click here for Roy Hattersley's piece

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    Menzies Campbell, MP - 19th August

    "....Who would dare say that the Middle East is now a safer, more stable place than it was before the fighting began?

    A ceasefire was not just the right thing to do - it was the only sensible thing to do. A ceasefire was rooted in principle and pragmatism. The government's failure to understand this was a major misjudgment, but we should not be surprised. It reflects, albeit in a lower key, the misjudgment of military action against Iraq. It springs from the Prime Minister's evangelical view of foreign policy.

    Foreign affairs is a world of relative values; it is no place for evangelism, which elevates belief over knowledge, conviction over judgment and instinct over understanding. In the Middle East, knowledge, judgment and understanding are more useful allies than belief, conviction and instinct, particularly when all three are wrong.

    The real argument over the Iraq adventure is not about its impact on the opinions of the Muslims living in Britain, but that it was wrong in conception and execution. The same evangelical impulse lumps together different situations that present different problems and require different solutions".[Extract]
    http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1854244,00.html

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    Phil Woolas MP, 29th August

    "The Government reacts tetchily to suggestions that British foreign policy has anything to do with the rise in radicalism among young Muslims.

    When Muslim leaders wrote an open letter a fortnight ago suggesting just that, Foreign Office minister Kim Howells and Home Secretary John Reid fell over one another to condemn the comments as 'irrational' and 'facile'.

    The Communities minister, Phil Woolas, has taken up the baton at Bolton Wanderers Football Club, dismissing a young Muslim woman's views as 'a load of crap'.

    Woolas, launching the Government's "tackling extremism" roadshow, got into a heated 10-minute discussion with Komal Adris, 27, there on behalf of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee.

    'I told him that foreign policy was a real concern of mine,' explains Adris. 'He suggested I had an extremist view and my concerns were illegitimate. I accused him of patronising me.'

    Civil servants tried to usher Woolas away - to no avail. The minister snapped: 'That's a load of crap,' before walking off". [Extract]
    http://news.independent.co.uk/people/pandora/article1222382.ece

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    Other Comments

    Dr Abdul Bari
    Michael Wolf
    Roy Hattersley
    Polly Toynbee
    Harris Rafique
    Madeleine Bunting
    David Clark
    Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

    Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, 28th August

    "In the week when alleged Islamicist airline bombers were arrested, I wrote dejectedly about ordinary British Muslims who find themselves punished for the crimes of others and once again fall under generic suspicion of being the enemy within, especially if they question the powerful. How viciously this government turned on Muslim MPs and peers who raised legitimate concerns about New Labour policies. We must, it seems, surrender our democratic right to oppose political decisions, otherwise we are fair game.

    quoted some of the racist e-mails I have received to illustrate my points. A cascade of unexpectedly supportive e-mails descended, almost all from white Britons, many from Middle England, including retired army men, chaplains and a farmer or two. (Thank you all. You drove away my dark pessimism.) They said they agreed with the Muslim parliamentarians and were highly suspicious of government propaganda and authoritarian policies...". [Extract]
    The Independent, 28th August 2006

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    David Clark, 25th August 2006

    "We know it. They know it. We know that they know it. So why do they continue to deny it? I am, of course, talking about the very obvious connection between British foreign policy and the rising terrorist threat, and the government's refusal to come to terms with it. Politicians rarely admit to their mistakes, but this mental block is more than just routine political obduracy; it is a serious issue of national security.

    We have come to expect little better of Tony Blair, whose personal reputation now depends on such a falsified version of reality that he increasingly appears to inhabit a land of make-believe. But what was truly depressing about the response to the recent open letter from prominent Muslims warning that British policy is providing "ammunition to extremists" was the number of ministers - several of whom clearly know better - who lined up to parrot the mantra that it was "dangerous" to suggest a link.

    Those same ministers must have been galled by this week's Guardian/ICM poll suggesting that 72% of the British people agree that our foreign policy has made us less secure, while only 1% accept the government's assurance that it has made us safer. That's as close to zero as it's possible to get in an opinion poll. There are probably more people in Britain who believe in Santa Claus or yogic flying.

    The one thing that could always be said of New Labour was that it knew how to read and adapt to public opinion. Its detachment from the popular mood on national security encourages those who believe that its time in office is drawing to a close. It is the ministers, not their critics, who have lost the plot". [Extract]
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1857775,00.html

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    Madeleine Bunting, 16th August 2006

    "...I've seen government ministers do "engagement": Paul Murphy, when he had the community-cohesion brief, listened carefully, answered questions patiently and got precisely nowhere. His young, angry Muslim audience heard him out but were profoundly cynical; their views didn't change a jot.

    Events of the last few days will have immeasurably increased that cynicism: Muslim MPs and peers have been roundly ticked off by a succession of government ministers as if they were imperial vassals who should know their place. Yet they were simply stating the obvious - that British foreign policy is incubating (we can argue whether it's the root cause another time) Muslim extremism. Given that kind of opening salvo from her colleagues, perhaps Kelly should save herself the trouble and return to the beach for some more sandcastles and rock pools...".[Extract]
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1851017,00.html

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    Michael Wolf, 13th August

    British Muslim groups have, in response to recent events, written to the prime minister to ask for urgent changes in UK foreign policy. They argue, in particular, that the "debacle in Iraq" and the failure to do more to secure an immediate end to hostilities in the Middle East provides "ammunition to extremists who threaten us all". The government must abandon its foreign policy because it enrages a minority of a minority and so "risks putting civilians at increased risk both in the UK and abroad". Three members of parliament, three peers and 38 groups signed a letter advancing these views. How should the overwhelming majority of British citizens who are not Muslims respond? My answer is that they should reject these positions because they are undemocratic, false and dangerous. "

    [Extract]
    Why Britain's Muslim Leaders should think again
    For a response from the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain Click here

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    Roy Hattersley, 14th August

    I have been an opponent of the American occupation of Iraq ever since I realised that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction only existed in Tony Blair's imagination. And I am equally opposed both to Israel's disproportionate response to Hizbullah's rocket attacks and to the prime minister's support for the assault upon Lebanon. What is more, I have no doubt that tacit acceptance of the slaughter in Beirut and Baghdad makes this country a target for al-Qaida terrorists and provides the friendly hinterland of sympathisers in which all urban guerrillas need to take refuge.

    That being said, I still regret that the letter sent on Friday to the prime minister by leaders of the Islamic community implied that the increased threat that Britain's foreign policy guarantees is in itself a reason for changing the government's position. The reason policy should be changed is the simple fact that the policy is wrong. To demand a shift because it will reduce the risk of suicide bombing is to diminish the case for altering course from a matter of principle to a question of self interest. [Extract]
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1844010,00.html

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    Polly Toynbee, 15th August 2006

    The grand assemblage of Muslim MPs, peers and leaders of 38 key groups who signed an open letter to the prime minister last weekend are almost certainly right. British foreign policy has helped foment murderous extremism among British Muslims.

    The London bombings a year ago might not have happened had Labour taken the French stand. If Tony Blair and his cabinet had never hitched Britain to George Bush's war chariot, it is unlikely that al-Qaida-inspired terror cells would plan mass murder from British airports. Before, Islamist terror was focused on faraway countries - Indonesia, the Philippines, Algeria, Somalia, Russia - and the twin towers. If we had only kept our heads down, terror's hot breath might have passed over us.

    Every minister hotly denying this obvious truth sounds absurd - but makes the wrong point altogether. The point is that a democratically elected government's foreign policy can't be moulded by threats from murdering religious maniacs. There are 1,001 good reasons why we should never have supported, let alone joined, the war in Iraq. But the one truly bad reason would have been fear of terrorism.

    Those signing the letter steer perilously close to suggesting the government had it coming. [Extract]
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1844724,00.html


    For a response from the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain - see below

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    Dr Abdul Bari, Muslim Council of Britain, 17th August 2006

    "Polly Toynbee was right in stating that "British foreign policy has helped foment murderous extremism" (We can't let God-blinded killers set our foreign policy, August 15). She was also right in claiming that "there are 1,001 good reasons why we should never have supported, let alone joined, the war in Iraq. The one truly bad reason would have been fear of terrorism.

    The open letter to the prime minister - which I signed alongside more than 40 Muslim groups, MPs and peers - has been subject to deliberate misinterpretation, suggesting a willingness among Muslim leaders to excuse violence and promote a simplified view of how extremism takes root. Toynbee's accusation - that the letter sails "perilously close to suggesting the government had it coming" - may be an unintentional misrepresentation but it is a grave one.

    The letter articulated the need to base foreign policy on principle. It condemned attacks on civilians wherever they take place. It also sought acknowledgement that, though the causes and motivations are complex, British foreign policy contributes to the radicalisation of Muslims here and elsewhere. The welcome debate that followed the letter illustrates that this has been widely accepted. I believe there was merit in laying this fact on the table so that a consensus could emerge.

    As early as May 2004, Michael Jay, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, acknowledged in a letter to the cabinet secretary that the perception of foreign policy was a "key driver behind recruitment by extremist organisations". In this context, as Toynbee asserts, government denials of this reality are absurd.

    But pushing for this recognition is not an argument that a priority of foreign policy should be "sparing us from threats by God-blinded killers". I do not advocate a policy of appeasement, tailoring UK foreign policy to win global popularity and insulate ourselves from threat. I yearn for a foreign policy that engenders a feeling of pride among this and future generations, and attracts respect from others. When difficult decisions are made, we must be ready to tackle the consequences that ensue. But these decisions must be principled and be seen to be so. Successive British governments' foreign policies, demonstrated recently by the refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon, have left many Muslims and others feeling aggrieved and powerless.

    As Muslim representatives, our letter sought to engage constructively in this debate and give voice to many Muslims who feel alienated. Toynbee is right that we are not alone, nor unique in this respect yet it is important that this widespread sentiment was aired.

    The Muslim community is not homogeneous. Our response to the encroachment of extremism must address the diversity within the community as much as the complexity of root causes. But Muslim leaders, parents and communities will be better positioned to defuse the potency of extremists' arguments once the impact of foreign policy has been acknowledged. Without a willingness to have an honest and open debate, the government is in danger of wishing to hear only echoes of its own voice".
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1851621,00.html

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    Harris Rafique (Sufi Muslim Council), 12th August 2006

    We are seeing a huge politicisation of faith rather than (economic) circumstances. An ideology is taking hold of our youngsters. [Extract]
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/frontpage/story/0,,1843177,00.html

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