There has been a mixed response inside and outside Muslim circles in Britain to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s call for educationists and the media to recognise the ‘true face’ of Islam, and for Muslims themselves to speak out against extremism.
Mr Blair, as part of his ‘farewell tour’, was on the programme alongside senior academic and faith leaders at a conference organised by the University of Cambridge (and held at Lancaster House, London) on the global role of Islam.
The gathering opened with a video message from the Prince of Wales, and included a reception hosted by Gordon Brown. Tory leader David Cameron also spoke, having been asked to do so by Mr Blair, and so did the Anglican Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres.
Also involved were Shaykh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, and Mufti Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, along with Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Glasgow, and Communities minister (and prominent Roman Catholic laywoman) Ruth Kelly.
Mr Blair said he wanted the "voice of moderation" among Muslims to be heard. His practical proposals were for a further £1 million funding to strengthen Islamic studies in UK universities – the aim being to deepen awareness and understanding among those from all backgrounds, non-religious and religious, who will move into public life over the next decade or more.
There was also an implicit backing of training to support more home-grown imams in UK mosques, recognising that the importation of overseas recruits from narrow backgrounds, or with little English, has been a longstanding problem.
The PM also called for closer links between Islamic schools and mainstream state schools. He said that the media gave undue emphasis to extreme groups, including those who justified the use of terrorism in the name of religion, and not enough coverage to “mainstream” Islam.
Mr Blair said that Christians needed to acknowledge their own history of violence, too. His message was that faith and ideology could be used for malign purpose – but that it was extremely important to publicly recognise that religious belief was compatible with reason, neighbourly concern, openness, tolerance and democracy.
The soon-to-be-ex PM acknowledged that as he met young Muslims, in particular, “the usual foreign policy issues” such as Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror and civil liberties came up. But he continued to downplay the role of these in identifying the problem of religious extremism among some (a minority, he said) of British Muslims.
Observers and commentators welcomed elements of Mr Blair’s message, but said that he was unlikely ever to be in a positive position to be heard unless he changed tack on Iraq.
Critics said that mainstream Muslims who are directly critical of the government were excluded from the Cambridge conference, and that the dialogue needs to be wider than the government is willing to countenance.
Some secular voices who wish to see religion wither in public life are also unlikely to welcome more funding for Islamic studies or a role for Muslim schools, interpreting any attempts at education and understanding as “propaganda”.
And the Muslim Council of Britain is said to be annoyed that its own representatives were also sidelined, following growing criticism of the MCB – originally an umbrella groups supported by the Home Office.
"Those willing to come on television and articulate extreme and violent views make so much more impact than those who use the still, small voice of reason and moderation," Mr Blair told the Cambridge audience.
"Some of the most distinguished scholars and religious leaders the world over are gathered here. And I ask people in the country and wider to listen to them. They are the authentic voices of Islam," he said.
"The voices of extremism are no more representative of Islam than the use in times gone by of torture to force conversion to Christianity represented the teachings of Christ."
But Labour peer Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, a critic of the government's foreign policy, told the BBC the conference was "fronted" by Cambridge University, but had been organised by the government which had "deliberately chosen to exclude those Muslims who disagree with government policy."
Catriona Laing, of Cambridge University's Interfaith Programme, denied there had been any political interference and said the conference had been planned for a long time.
Meanwhile university vice chancellors said Islamic Studies had been carefully developed and it was important all academic disciplines followed the same procedures to "ensure critical intellectual rigour and openness".
Professor Drummond Bone, president of Universities UK, said: "It will be for the relevant academic community to debate any future changes to the teaching of Islamic studies."
The University and College Union has recently voted to urge lecturers not to meet government demands to inform on pupils suspected of extremism.
Cambridge Professor of Theology Dr David Ford said: "There is an urgent need for Islam and traditionally Christian cultures to understand one another, specifically from a religious perspective. This conference will focus on the relationship between Islam and the non-Muslim world."