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Blair in moderate Muslims appeal

4 June 07 15:40 GMT

Tony Blair says he wants the "voice of moderation" among Muslims to be heard, as £1m funding was announced to boost Islamic studies at UK universities.

Ministers hope the money, announced as a report criticised teaching quality, will help train more imams in the UK.

At a conference on Islam, Mr Blair also called for closer links between Islamic schools and mainstream state schools.

Critics said the London conference had excluded Muslim groups opposed to government policies.

In a speech at the conference, hosted by Cambridge University, Mr Blair said British politicians must listen harder to the "calm voice of moderation and reason" of the majority of the country's Muslims.

'Small voice'

"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," he said.

He said the conference had been organised to "let the authentic voices of Islam, in their various schools and manifestations, speak for themselves".

"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."

Islamic studies

The extra £1m was to go to British universities which teach Islamic studies courses - which were important to challenge extremism.

It came as a government-commissioned report by leading scholar Dr Ataullah Siddiqui said teaching of Islam in English universities was based on "out-of-date and irrelevant issues".

Higher education minister Bill Rammell announced that Islamic Studies would be designated a strategically important subject, which the government hopes will help prevent extremism and improve community relations.

'Welcoming' language

Mr Blair also mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan, saying the invasions had been opposed by many Christians and should not be seen as being driven by religion.

Muslim News editor Ahmed Versi was among those at the conference, he told BBC News that overall, the language used by Mr Blair was "quite welcoming".

But he said he did not properly address the most important issue to Muslims - what he called the "double standards" of foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

"These are the issues which are radicalising young people and he did not talk about that," he said.

Among those attending the two-day conference are clerics including the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Gomaa, and the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric.

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."

'Divide and rule'

He accused Mr Blair of using "divide and rule" tactics and said the university was being used "to see off a last speech" before Mr Blair steps down on 27 June.

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."

Last week the University and College Union voted to urge lecturers not to meet government demands to inform on pupils suspected of extremism.

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