Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

12.26 pm

Mr. Mike O'Brien (North Warwickshire): When the New York massacre took place, I was on a transatlantic flight. When I flew back to this country, it occurred to me that no one will again get on an airline flight—whether for a family holiday or a business trip—without a chill going down their spine as they recollect the images of the World Trade Centre and the aeroplanes going into it.

This is a time when we need to show full solidarity with the Americans in fighting terrorism. I commend the firm stance taken by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister from the first in helping to put together a coalition to help the Americans to fight terrorism.

I do not want my family to get on a flight in future and wonder whether they will get off it, and I do not want those constituents who work in tower blocks to wonder whether they will be able to go home. We need to ensure that the threat of international terrorism is dealt with.

I wish to make a few comments about several issues. I want to refer to the Muslim community in this country, to the calls made by many people for evidence to be provided about Osama bin Laden's involvement in terrorism and to the concern about the refugees and civilian casualties that may occur in Afghanistan.

I commend the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) about the Muslim community. We must do all we can to explain that this is not a war against Islam or against Muslims any more than fighting the IRA is a war against Catholics or fighting the UDA is a war against Protestants. We face a small group of fanatics who happen to be based in Afghanistan, but all religions have their fanatics.

I welcome the efforts made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to bring Iran into the alliance. It is important that we receive support from our allies in other Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, as well as from countries with which we have had less cordial relations in the recent past. It is also important that we send a clear message to Britain's Muslims that we are proud of them and their contribution to our country.

4 Oct 2001 : Column 716

I was the Minister with responsibility for race equality for four years, and almost weekly I met members of various Muslim groups. I know them and their leaders well. I was delighted by the meeting that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister held in Downing street with many Muslim leaders and the clear messages that were given to them. They were also able to state their condemnation of the atrocities that took place in the United States.

I strongly welcome the announcement of new laws against religious violence and harassment and new laws to deal with incitement to religious hatred. I also welcome moves to sort out some of the problems in our extradition and asylum systems. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will consider extending the Race Relations Act 1976 to protect Muslims from religious discrimination. That was being considered in the Home Office and I hope that there will be an announcement in due course.

I welcome the Prime Minister's decision to publish some evidence today. That is important. I also welcome the endorsement of the background to that by the leaders of the Opposition parties who have been briefed on the details. The Taliban would have us believe that they will hand over Osama bin Laden if America can prove that he was involved in the New York massacre. I suspect that no matter how much evidence were to be offered, it would not be enough. It beggars belief that the Taliban, who oppress women, persecute homosexuals, feed their finances from the sale of drugs, behead adulterers and massacre their opponents, should pose as civil liberties lawyers when it comes to defending a mass murderer such as bin Laden.

What also worries me is the attitude of some commentators in this country who have demanded the publication of all the evidence, including intelligence information. I am worried by those who question the validity of a western response without proof, as though they expect telephone transcripts, video tapes, documents and witnesses who can be cross-examined. The British and American Governments are justified in maintaining some secrecy in protecting intelligence sources. Sharing background information with Opposition leaders was useful and important, but it is not necessary to share it more widely.

Based on available information, there is a need to act soon. The Government must know that they have the support of Parliament and the British people for that action. The Taliban's demand to examine the evidence should be seen for what it is—a cynical prevarication. We know that the Taliban are sheltering bin Laden. We know that bin Laden is a major terrorist and the prime suspect for financing the mass murder in New York. The Taliban must accept the consequences of helping terrorism and the British Government should support all reasonable action by the Americans to deal with it and to bring bin Laden to justice.

What struck me when reading some recent articles in our media is the fact that some people in this country are anti-American. It worries me that anti-Americanism has sometimes been the anti-semitism of the left, sometimes unreasonably, unjustifiably and based merely on prejudice. It is time to recognise that we must give some meaning to the deaths in New York, and that meaning must be to tackle and end the threat of international terrorism.

4 Oct 2001 : Column 717

It occurred to me this morning as I realised that it was poetry day that the words of the American poet, Archibald MacLeish, are right for us to recall as we think of those who died. He said:

We have a responsibility in some measure to redeem the lives of those who died in New York. Ending the fear of international organised terrorism would give those deaths some meaning.

12.34 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I am pleased to take part in this debate and to make three points. First, I should like to place on record my strong support for the action being taken by our Government and our Prime Minister and by the American Government. It is right to take every conceivable step to bear down on the individuals responsible for this terrible atrocity. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan are despicable. They clearly harbour terrorists and sponsor acts of terrorism and are a legitimate target for our military response. I strongly support the leadership of President Bush and our Prime Minister at this time and commend them for many of the things that they have said and done.

It is worth reminding ourselves that, in politics, actions speak louder than words. We have lived through a time in international politics when charisma, soundbites and rhetoric have become all important. President Bush was criticised for his response in the first 48 hours when he was clearly a man in shock. Who would not be in shock as the leader of a nation in which such atrocities had happened? He had received a poor press over here before 11 September and many people had spoken poorly of him. We now need to reappraise our opinion of him. His leadership has been exemplary. He has surrounded himself with the best people possible and is determined to do what is right. That is a refreshing change from leaders and politicians who fill our screens with their rhetoric. I am not in any way impugning the excellent speech made by our Prime Minister at the Labour party conference this week and I am not having a sly dig en passant. I am simply saying that I would rather have a president in the White House whose actions are determined to solve the problem than a president whose rhetoric is intended to make us feel better for a while. I support the steps taken by President Bush and our own Prime Minister.

I also support the steps taken by the Secretary of State for International Development to make sure that humanitarian relief for the people of Afghanistan is handled properly. It is heartbreaking to see the women and children of that country suffer. Stories of military conflict throughout history talk about the soldiers and the leaders who send them into battle and about the consequences of success and defeat. We read very little about the women and children who are often the innocent victims of every conflict there has ever been. That applies now to the women and children of Afghanistan, and it is

4 Oct 2001 : Column 718

right that we should do all we can to provide aid and to offer as much comfort as possible. That is important and I support the Government's actions.

My second point is that, like several other hon. Members, I represent a constituency in which many service men and women live and work. Many of my constituents are marines or work for the Royal Navy and Plymouth has many fine defence facilities. Many of my constituents are already in the middle east preparing for some sort of military response or are on their way there and will be involved in conflict.

Like many of my colleagues, I spend a lot of time with military personnel as they make up a large part of my constituency and I never cease to be impressed by their courage and professionalism. Those men and women know the horrors of war, but they also know their duty. I have spoken to people in my constituency in the past three weeks who know that their lives and bodies might be on the line over the next few weeks and are ready to step forward to do their duty on behalf of us all. I want to pay tribute to them and say that we in this place will think of them every day. We know that they will make us proud; they always do. Thank heavens for our excellent and professional armed personnel.

As young men and women prepare to go and fight, it occurred to me that too many of us, especially in our younger generation, have taken for granted our essential freedoms and our democracy. We seem to live in a world where we do not think that we have to pay for anything. As young men and women go to the middle east, this is a reminder that there is a price tag for our democracy and precious freedoms. It is remarkable that there are young men and women who are prepared, possibly, to pay that price.

I now come to my third and most important point. I represent a constituency with an ethnic minority population of 0.01 per cent., but I have spent a lot of time in the past few years, and in the past few weeks, meeting members of our Asian community and our Muslim community in this country. I want to say loudly and clearly from the Conservative Benches that this is not a war against Islam; this is not a war against Muslims; this is a war against a few despicable people who will go to any length to cause terror and destruction here in the west.

I have heard nothing but condemnation of the terrible atrocity from the Muslims with whom I have discussed the issue in the past few weeks, so I want to align myself with those who say that we stand shoulder to shoulder not just with our American friends but with the Muslim community in this country. This is one of those moments when we can make a difference to the future. Many young British Muslims are internalising what is going on at the moment and asking themselves where their allegiances lie. By our actions and our language in the House, we can send them a very positive signal. They are as much a part of this country as any hon. Member. They are in their home. This is their country. We are committed to building a multi-racial, multicultural Britain in the 21st century, and it is right that Opposition Members make it clear that that is our commitment to those friends, brothers and sisters in this nation.

We live in serious times, and it is important that the House rises to the challenge. We are fighting for democracy, and I applaud the Government for the steps that they have taken so far. We think of and pray for our

4 Oct 2001 : Column 719

young men and women who are on their way to that troubled region, or those who are already there. Above all, through our actions and our words, it is vital that we use this terrible atrocity to build stronger community relations in this country, so that we can all look forward to a better Britain.

Next Section

IndexHome Page