London : Prime Minister Gordon Brown has rigorously defended the extent of the government’s counter-terrorism laws and insisted that its Prevent violent extremism program does “not spy” on Muslims.
Brown was also adamant that Israel remained a “close ally and friend” but accepted that there were lessons on international cooperation learned from the Iraq war.
“The counter terrorist work we and others have done since the events of 09/11 has saved many lives, including the lives of Muslims,” he said when asked in an interview with The Muslim News whether the ‘war on terror’ had done more harm than good.
The prime minister believed that military action in Afghanistan was making Britain safer and insisted lessons had been learned from the Iraq war and its questionable legality.
“From our experiences in Iraq, we have learnt that international cooperation in this type of conflict is essential and that where there will be interventions in the future, international cooperation, particularly between Europe and the US has got to be far greater than it was,” he said.
On the Middle East, Brown denied that his government treated Israel differently and more favourably in its foreign policy than others.
“It is inaccurate to describe our policy towards Israel as of ‘uncritical support’,” he said.
Planned changes to restrict the arrest of alleged war criminal were “not to provide immunity for anyone – from Israel or anywhere else,” he also argued.
The government “strongly supports” the principle of Universal Jurisdiction, the prime minister insisted.
“We want to stop it from being used as a political tool,” he said in reference to arrest warrants being sought for visiting Israeli leaders.
But he had no reservations about Israel being a strategic partner in the Middle East.
“Israel is a close friend and ally. I make no apology for this. We have shared interests over a number of issues, such as security, trade and education.”
Despite Muslims being disproportionately affected by anti-terrorism legislation, Brown also said he was satisfied that the laws are “both necessary and proportionate.”
Referring to the controversial Prevent program, he denied that the government’s work in this area has not been widely discredited.
“Prevent is not being used to spy on anyone” or to collect intelligence on the Muslim community, he insisted.
In interviews with Muslim News ahead of the UK’s elections, both Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg vowed to review Prevent.
“I’m not saying that we will change Prevent in the way everyone would like, but we will review it on the basis of evidence,” Cameron said.
“If you really want to re-establish trust in communities you’ve got start from the bottom up,” Clegg also said in agreeing the strategy needed to be changed.
Unlike Brown, Clegg also accepted there are many excesses in the country’s anti-terrorism laws, accusing the government of using powers in a way which “diminish all of our freedoms and has a disproportionately worrying effect on those Muslim communities.”
Differing from Labour, Cameron insisted he would not follow the government in restoring formal relations with the Muslim Council of Britain unless it went further in clarifying its stance, but said the Tories “should have a very positive relationship” with Muslims and their representatives.
In his interview, Brown said that his government was “determined to tackle Islamophobia and stamp out extremism and racism wherever it occurs.”
Events involving Muslims should not be exploited by anyone as an “excuse to start blaming, persecuting, or preaching inflammatory messages about any particular group,” he said.
But the prime minister played down the threat from the English Defence League, which has been targeted mosques, saying it had only a “very small membership” and that “its mere presence is not evidence” of a prevalent anti-Muslim atmosphere.
“There is no right to incite racial or religious hatred whether in the context of a demonstration or otherwise, and we have already provided the police with the necessary powers to stop incitement when it happens,” he said.
All three leaders had visions of Britain in the next 25 years as a multi-ethnic society, with barriers removed and contributions from different backgrounds.
“I hope we can do better at fostering a sense of togetherness and being part of one nation. We should celebrate our differences and our different cultures and our different religions,” Cameron said.
Clegg said he hoped for a Britain “more diverse, more comfortable with itself” and where many tensions were resolved and a more representative House of Commons.
“Faith groups occupy a valuable position through their access to active citizens from many ethnic backgrounds, and their roles within a wide range of local communities. It is through these links that they are able to shape and influence the everyday lives of so many people throughout all of our society, not just those from their own faith or ethnic group,” Brown said.