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United Kingdom
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Press Conference with Muslim Community Leaders
September 27, 2001
@2:30 P.M. GMT

PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR: First, I would like to welcome leaders of the Muslim communities in Britain to Downing Street. We have just had a very good meeting, and today Britons of all communities are united in their response to the tragedy in America. And I'd like to start by making one thing absolutely clear: what happened in America was not the work of Islamic terrorists. It was not the work of Muslim terrorists. It was the work of terrorists, pure and simple. We must not honour them with any misguided religious justification.

Those were people who have no compassion for their fellow human beings. People prepared to kill innocent men, women and children. People prepared to kill indiscriminately, including killing many Muslims. The perpetrators of those attacks in America contravened all the tenets of Islam. It is, as people here much more qualified than myself can say, explicitly contrary to Islamic law to kill innocent civilians, to murder women and children and non-combatants.

And also, let me underline also very forcibly to you: our fight is not with Islam or indeed with the people of Afghanistan. Our fight is with those who planned these terrible atrocities and those who harbour them. Islam is a peace-loving, tolerant, religion. Many of the world's religions, indeed including Christianity, draw from the same spiritual heritage. We share the same values, and the same respect for the sanctity of human life.

That is why people of all faiths have come together to condemn the atrocities in America. That is why the Islamic states have voted with the rest of the world in the United Nations to do the same. These people, and indeed the people here today, not the terrorist networks, are the true voice of the world's Muslims.

That is also why I condemn unreservedly, and urge everyone to do likewise, the despicable attacks on people in this country simply because of their religions or the colour of their skin. We should not overstate this. The vast majority of Britons have responded with dignity to the attacks in America, proud like I am of our diverse and multicultural society. But there is a minority who are only too happy to use recent events as a convenient cover for racism. We have already seen a father left paralysed, a mother attacked, Sikhs and Muslims abused. I say, and I believe I speak for the vast bulk of the people in this country, such acts and such attitudes have no proper place in our country.

At our meeting today, we also discussed our next steps. I do not want, and indeed cannot comment on the military situation except to say that the deliberation of our preparations underlines one thing, our determination to bring those responsible for the attacks in America to justice.

But we are also drawing up those plans mindful of the humanitarian crisis in the region, and it's that what I want to concentrate upon today. The desperate plight of the people of Afghanistan is a consequence of some 20 years of war, three years of drought, seven years of Taliban misrule. Over four and a half million refugees had already fled Afghanistan before 11 September.

The same lawlessness and ceaseless conflict that has bred terrorism in that country has for decades also destroyed the lives of millions. What we are seeing now, tragically, is the latest influx in the long tide of refugees forced to flee that country.

Britain has pledged money, a further £25 million on top of the £35 million we gave Afghanistan last year, more I may say than any other European country, and why we are encouraging others to do the same. And if this aid, some £15 million has already been distributed to UN agencies and the Red Cross. Most of this has gone on food aid, which is still getting in to Afghanistan across the northern and western borders.

But I don't think anybody is in any doubt that we need to do more. So what would I say to you today is that just as we have built a political and military coalition following the events in America, now we have also to build a humanitarian coalition to deal with the humanitarian crisis in that region.

I have already spoken to Kofi Anan, earlier today I spoke to Ruud Lubbers, the head of the UN High Commission for Refugees. We agreed to work together to put together a concerted aid programme to cope with the short, medium and long-term implications of the humanitarian crisis. Later today I will be speaking to Chris Patten to discuss how Europe can play its role, and also to Prime Minister Koizumi, tomorrow I will be speaking to him, who has also pledged additional aid to Pakistan to cope with the latest refugee influx. And I will be stressing throughout the importance of a massive assistance programme going hand in hand with the diplomatic and military options.

Perhaps I can just say one final thing: Of course these are difficult times. We are engaged in a fight against terrorism on all fronts, diplomatic, political and military, and people in this country ask what should they do at a time like this. The answer is that people should go about your daily lives. To work, to live, to travel and to shop, to do the things that people did in the same way as they did it before the 11th of September. We will be vigilant. But we must not let these events shake our confidence in ourselves, in our country and in our way of life. Thank-you.

{ends}

The Prime Minister then answered a series of questions from journalists

QUESTION: Prime Minister earlier in the week you spoke very forcibly about the Taliban, there is some confusion at the moment as to whether the Taliban government is itself a target for Western response to the events of the eleventh of September?

TB: The Taliban regime has a very simple choice, either it ceases to harbour and protect those that were responsible for these attacks in America or inevitably they become part of those that we pursue. So that is their choice, it is very, very clear indeed, they have known that, it was repeated by President Bush in the speech he gave to Congress. That is the choice that they have to make and they must make it. John.

QUESTION: Prime Minister you have mentioned this question of confidence in the economy, how much do you think it reflects real concern or how much do you think people are affected by the general mood of uncertainty in the international crisis?

TB: Well I think that is a very good question. I mean the, the truth is that no one could be quite sure what the impact of the attacks are going to be. I mean there are obviously certain industrial sectors that have been affected by it, the airline industry for example. But in general terms the most important thing is that we carry on with confidence in the basic strength of the economy and in our basic way of life because the actual objective fundamentals of the economy have not altered. And I think that provided we approach this in the right way and have the right co-ordination of policy then we will get through this. And as I say in the end this is a matter of confidence as anything else and there really is no reason why we cannot carry on being confident in the basic strength of our economy and in the things that we normally do. And I would echo the sentiments made by industrial leaders just the other day that this is something where it is important that if we have the confidence in ourselves that will communicate itself to others too. Yes, yes, sir.

QUESTION: Prime Minister are you concerned that statements about the superiority of west, Western or Christian value would inevitably offend Muslims around the world? And consequently hinder attempts to build up an effective coalition against terrorism?

TB: Well I haven't actually studied the, the remarks that I have just heard about but what I would say to you is that I think one of the strengths of the support that we have got is that it has come from people of all democratic political persuasions. From nations right round the world in every continent and from people of all faiths. And in particular as I said just a moment or two ago I think some times we, we forget that there is a common heritage too in many of our faiths. And I think if we concentrate on that we would see how much we have to gain by working together and by stressing the shared values of, of our faiths. Because I believe those are very strong indeed. Yes, Adam.

QUESTION: This is a point made by the Taliban and by dissenting voices in the Islamic world and indeed in your own Labour Party. Why are you so sure that Osama bin Laden and Al-Quaida are responsible for the attacks on America? And indeed sure enough to order British forces in to action?

TB: Because there is the clearest evidence that we have. And I don't think anybody who has studied it can doubt it, that the originators and perpetrators of these attacks were indeed bin Laden and the network of terrorism there. And I think it is extremely important as I said right at the very outset that we proceed according to the evidence, that the evidence is clear. And I think that one thing that is worth stressing as well is that if you look back over the last few years there have been a whole series of terrorist acts organised by the same people. And that is something that following the events of the eleventh of September we simply cannot tolerate. Yes, sir.

QUESTION: (UNCLEAR)'condemn what has happened on the eleventh of September, there are a lot of people, many people in the Arab world who still believe (UNCLEAR) contribute what happened to the mishandling of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Have you ever spoken to President Bush about it? Have you, Britain has a lot more experience in the Middle East dealing with the Arab Muslim communities, have you tried to draw their, their attention to the double standard policy?

TB: I think first of all I, I have to say to that I don't think there should ever be though any moral ambiguity about this. I mean what happened in the United States of America can never be justified, no cause could ever justify it, no set of circumstances could ever justify it. Of course we want to make sure, both ourselves and our, our allies that we approach all the issues in the world in the right way. One of the reasons why right at the very outset I think in one of my first statements on the whole crisis I said that it was important that we reinvigorated the Middle East peace process rather than let it wither and decline. It is precisely because we recognise the importance of moving forward on, on all fronts and that is what we want to do. But I think it is, it would be a very serious mistake if we ever thought that there was anything that could justify what happened. And I am sure you, I know you don't, you don't believe that but it is important that that message goes out loud and clear right round the world. And from people from every faith too. (UNCLEAR).

QUESTION: You have been saying for several days now that Taliban have a choice. As yet no retaliation has been launched, is that because you want to give them more time and is there a limit on how much time there is? Or is it that we don't haven't identified where he is or indeed got enough evidence yet, that you want still more evidence that you can publish before launching a response?

TB: Well I do believe that the Taliban know perfectly well what is expected of them. It has been made clear on many, many occasions. Of course all the way through we have wanted to say to people our purpose is to bring those responsible to justice. Our purpose is not to fight people in Afghanistan, to fight the, the ordinary civilian population of Afghanistan and the Taliban themselves have a choice right from the very outset as to whether they co-operate and help as they should do. Indeed as the United Nations called upon them to do sometime ago. I mean this is, this is something that has been in front of the United Nations where a resolution was passed I think going back maybe a year or a couple of years. Where it was made quite clear that the bin Laden network and other terrorist networks inside Afghanistan were unacceptable. Because whatever the position in relation to these particular attacks as I was just saying a moment or two ago, the history of these networks and what they have done is very clear to everybody. Yes.

QUESTION: Have, can I just clarify? Have there been plans to attack Afghanistan prior to September eleventh? Because there are Pakistani officials claiming that the US did speak to Pakistani officials about invading Afghanistan and secondly are there any plans to share this evidence with the Taliban which they have been asking from day one? And also since we are democracy are you going to share the evidence with the people?

TB: In respect of the first part I mean I have simply no knowledge of that at all. In respect to the second part yes, I think it is important that we try to state to people very clearly in so far as we can because some of the, some of the evidence that we have is obviously very sensitive. But as so far as we can we, we will make it clear to people why it is we say that bin Laden is responsible.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, just to follow up on a question from our friend from the Asian Newsletter, Mr Burlesconi made his remarks yesterday in Berlin, he very specifically spoke in a most contrary term to that which you deployed at the beginning of your news conference. He has talked about the supremacy and superiority of European Christian based civilisation over Islam. He, he has not retracted any of those words and if our own officials have not briefed you on it, should you not actually take him to task on this?

TB: Well Jon, you know each leader must make their remarks in their own way. But I think what I have said to you today is very clear. I believe that people of all faiths condemn this as is represented by the people here today and I think what we should do following the terrible events of the eleventh, eleventh of September is build greater support and understanding between the faiths rather than cause divisions between them. After all that is what those people who committed the terrorist acts of the eleventh of September want to do, they, they want to, they want to pull people apart. I think it is important that we are brought together and that we recognise too which is correct as I say that there are, there are people here today that are scholars in the Islamic faith and therefore infinitely more qualified to talk to you about this than I am. But anybody who even reads part of the message of, of the, of the Koran will realise that Islam is a peaceful religion and that the values that underpin it are the values that we as Christians would recognise very easily indeed. Sorry, actually I will take from this gentleman here in the (UNCLEAR).

QUESTION: Prime Minister, just to take up the same point. It is not only the Prime Minister of Italy who has said this, we have also President Bush using words like crusade, saying that this attack is against our values, Western values, Western civilisation as if the rest of the world, the Muslim world has got different values to the rest of civilisation. So we see, it seems that you know, we are taking all the comments like him going to the Mosque and saying something nice about Muslims, we are taking that with a pinch of salt. Because on the one hand you are talking about civilisations and therefore the right to attack the other civilisation. And by, by saying those nice things, you know, it doesn't make any sense.

TB: Well you know, I was present when as, as you know, when President Bush made his speech to Congress and he went out of his way then to describe Islam in the same terms that I have just used. And I think it is important to realise, I mean as I say every person has to speak for themselves in this. But I have spoken to not just our Muslim colleagues in this country but also to Muslims in different parts of the world and their support and solidarity for America against these attacks has been just as great as anyone else's. And also there, there are many Muslim victims of these attacks, there will be many Muslims that will have died on the eleventh of September and there are acts of terrorism committed around the world in respect of, of which Muslims suffer. So I think that you know there, there will, I mean I haven't studied the particular remarks made. And if you know, if you will forgive me I have learnt enough in my time in politics to, not to comment in detail on remarks that are reported until I have read the actual remarks themselves. But I think you can tell from what I am saying exactly where I stand on this. And I think it is important to stand there because if, if there is any, you know I suppose what, what everyone searches for in a, in a situation that is as serious and as tragic as this is well, what hope can be brought out of it? And I think you can see as I was saying to, to, to people the other day, you can see certain things changing round the world. There are signs of potential hope for the future, new alliances being formed, countries that we weren't talking to that we are talking to, countries coming together in a different way. One other part of this should be as we were just discussing a far greater understanding of what the faith of Islam is about. And you know, you wouldn't want, I say this to colleagues here of, of the Christian faith, we wouldn't want those people who commit acts of terrorism some of whom have disfigured the politics of Northern Ireland and associate themselves with particular parts of the Christian religion, we wouldn't want them to be representative of the Christian religion. Well in exactly the same way neither do, do the people of the true Islamic faith want the representation of that faith to be with the terrorists. Now I just think there are a whole, whole series of things that if we are intelligent about it and we get the space and time frankly within the media to explain, then people can see, see again of course the common heritage that there is between the various faiths. I mean this is something that I think people would find of interest and also find of help in this situation. I will take a couple, Trevor.

QUESTION: Prime Minister you have mentioned several times the outside chance of the risk of weapons of mass destruction. What can you say and more importantly what can the government do to reassure those people who have been made very nervous by pictures of atom, atomic blasts and people running round in chemical and biological warfare suits?

TB: Well I think that again is a very good question Trevor. That we must be vigilant, we must be extremely careful, there is no doubt at all that these terrorists who committed this attack will stop at nothing. However, we know of no specific threat in relation to this country and it is important that we are not alarmist about it. And I mean frankly some of the reports have been alarmist. So I think that it is important that we go about our business, our normal life in the way that we have done. We are doing everything we can to guard against any potentiality. But I do stress to you that we have no evidence of any specific threat and it is important at the same time as we are vigilant that we aren't alarmist. Right I will take one more I think if can and then, yes.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, when we go to war what will be the process with the draft? Will Muslims be excused from the conscription? Will they be excused?

TB: Well we, we have got no plans for a conscription I can assure you of that and I think that probably goes in also the category of some what alarming things. OK, is there anything else you would like to add?

Muslim Community Leader: I think yeah, just to the point there. There is certainly no contradiction being Muslim and being a British citizen, so I must emphasise this. That Muslims in this country are just as equal, just as British as every single one of us here. The, the other problem which the Italian President, Prime Minister the crush of civilisations, I think what it should be now is it should be a new world order based on justice and indeed with the UN taking a lead in this particular matter.

TB: Thank you very much indeed. OK, thank you, thanks.

YOUSUF BHAILOK, SECRETARY GENERAL, MUSLIM COUNCIL OF BRITAIN: Thank-you Prime Minister. First let me thank the Prime Minister for listening to the concerns of the Muslim community. The Prime Minister has been most reassuring in quite clearly distinguishing between Islam and terrorists, and I think the media and all press also need to be more forceful in getting this message across. We are united in the campaign against terrorism and, indeed, we have made this quite clear universally. In this country, community relations between the communities should not be affected. We have had a lot of support from the inter-faith groups and, indeed, from many parts of the community, but still more can be done to ensure that there are good community relations. The point we made to the Prime Minister, that we are a civilised nation and we need to apply the due process of law. The Prime Minister mentioned also the diplomatic measures. We still need to look at all the options. He mentioned the humanitarian coalition. We welcome that wholeheartedly. The Prime Minister and nobody here has any grievance against the Afghan people and the civilians, so we welcome that whole - totally wholeheartedly. Thank-you Prime Minister.

END


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