Persuading Britain’s Muslims will be no easy task

My heart sank as I read that ministers would fan out across the UK to try to persuade leaders of the Muslim communities (not "community" in the singular, please) of the justness of the government's foreign policy.

I've been there, done it, and got the P45, because almost anyone in politics who opens their mouth on this issue and tries to speak the truth will end up on the wrong side of raw ideological emotion that makes the concepts of compromise, consensus and common sense fly out of the window.

When I became an MP in 1994, I found in the almost entirely Kashmiri Muslim community of my South Yorkshire constituency a raging anger over foreign-policy issues and an ever-growing sense of religious identity trumping any other. The fury was over the appeasement policies of the Tories toward the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Sir Malcolm Rifkind - then the Tory foreign secretary - refused to lift a finger over the genocidal massacre of European Muslims at Srebrenica. Britain's foreign policy upset and hurt British Muslims. Another source of anger was the brutal behaviour of the Indian army in occupied Kashmir and Tory Britain's failure to express concern.

The horror of the 11 September 2001 attacks was a shock. But a few weeks later I found myself, now a minister, talking to hundreds of Yorkshire Muslim leaders about the campaign to dislodge the Taliban in Afghanistan. I listened in disbelief as men I knew and respected, hospital doctors or accountants, told me that no Jew reported for work in the twin towers on 9/11, or that Mossad, the Israeli secret service, had organised the attacks to discredit Muslims.

At the end of the meeting, I asked those who opposed the bombing to raise their hands. Two hundred went up in the air. Next, I asked those who opposed the bombing of Belgrade in order to stop the killing of Muslims in Kosovo - without UN authority - to raise their hands. No one moved.

I realised then that Britain was at the start of a very long and difficult but utterly worthwhile process of political discussion, education and leadership to remove the causes of such alienation and denial.

At the Foreign Office I wrote memos urging that diplomats who spoke the relevant languages should go away, discuss, and report back to ministers. I wanted to see real, joined-up government and to use the British Council and BBC World Television to open up debate. The prevailing culture, however, was to deal with religious leaders and see the problem as one of finding friendly theologians from Cairo or Muslim ideologues from Geneva - rather than allow real political space for British citizens of the Muslim faith, women as much as men.

In 2003 I made a banal speech after a young man from South Yorkshire went off to become a suicide bomber in Israel. I urged people to denounce and renounce the ideology - not religion - that had led to this tragedy. I was assailed on all sides. Shahid Malik, now Labour MP for Dewsbury, attacked me on the BBC. I was not allowed to defend myself. General Sir Mike Jackson and Chris Patten told me I was being brave for speaking what is now - post 7/7 - a commonplace but I was on my own.

Today, we are little further forward. There is mutual denial. Foreign policy, in the sense of what happens in the Middle East or Kashmir, affects many of my constituents directly and personally. To say it doesn't is silly. Equally, until British citizens who go to mosques rather than churches or synagogues see the problem as one of politics, not faith, and face up to what Joschka Fischer rightly called the "new totalitarianism" of jihadi fundamentalism, we shall make no progress. I wish my minister friends well, but Britain is still at the beginning of a long and difficult process. A new generation of political leaders, including many more from our Muslim communities, will have to find ways of ensuring its success.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and was a PPS and minister at the Foreign Office (1997-2005)

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