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UK-Islamic Relations

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 1 May 2007

The United Kingdom has strong relations with Muslim-majority countries and communities, through our governmental, people-to-people, cultural, educational, trade and other links. Based on shared values and interests, we are working together for a safer, more just and more prosperous world for all, addressing the common challenges that face us all, such as development, terrorism and climate change.

Turkey is crucial to our relations with the Islamic world. What specific steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to follow up on the statement of the Prime Minister earlier today on the political crisis in Turkey, and would intervention by the Turkish army in the selection of a new President of that country result in the UK dropping its support for Turkish European Union membership?

Irrespective of our approach to Turkish EU membership, everyone must recognise that it is highly undesirable for armed forces to interfere in a democratic process. We would certainly discourage that, and we have done so very firmly with the Turkish military.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that another very important Islamic country is Bangladesh? In the light of recent developments such as the warrant for the arrest of one of the major political leaders and the house arrest of another, the putting off of elections and the increasing dominance of the military, will she look again at Britain’s support for the interim Government?

We do of course keep a careful eye on the position in Bangladesh and recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend identifies, and I hope that she will recognise that there was great anxiety about the position in Bangladesh before the caretaker Government were appointed. Throughout the state of emergency and in our engagement with that Government, we have emphasised the need to balance concerns about stability and security with respect for individuals’ rights and democratic processes. We have urged them to put in place the circumstances and conditions that will lead to well run, free and fair elections, to recognise that concern exists about the timeline identified for those elections, and to recognise that there is a great deal of work to do before they can be carried out in a way that could meet suitable standards.

May I return to the question of Turkey, which is our most important ally in the Islamic world, and ask the Foreign Secretary, given that the nominee for the presidency of Turkey is her opposite number—the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mr. Gul—whether she has congratulated him on his nomination or counselled him otherwise?

I would never venture to counsel even as good a friend as Abdullah Gul as to how he should judge his political career. This is of course a matter for the people and the democracy of Turkey, and our chief hope and concern is that it should be democratically and peacefully resolved.

Is it not interesting that on Sunday hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Turkey in defence of the republic and of freedom, and against the nightmare of a religious-run state? Should we not congratulate all those who demonstrated and all their supporters on the fact that Turkish freedom and democracy will not be undermined?

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. As I said to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), it is of course right and proper that people make their views known, and in peaceful ways that contribute to the democratic outcome that we all hope to see.

Events since the last Foreign Office questions have underlined that our most difficult relationship in the Islamic world is with Iran. Should we not do everything we can to make it clear that Iran can have a normal relationship with the western world if it suspends nuclear enrichment and some other activities, but that if it does not the United Kingdom will ask other EU countries to join the United States in taking progressively more serious economic and financial action against Iran—on access to the banking system, export credits and investment in oil and gas fields—so that the maximum peaceful pressure can be applied against nuclear proliferation, before it is too late?

I agree with every word that the right hon. Gentleman has just uttered. He is right to say that it is very important not only that we maintain pressure on Iran to realise that there is a price to be paid for continuing on her present route, but that we do so in concert with our partners. He may be aware that at the last meeting of the General Affairs Council it was agreed that the European Union will indeed fully implement, and go slightly further than is demanded by, the previous UN sanctions resolution. We shall continue to urge our colleagues to maintain that firmness.

Given that approach by the European Union, is the Foreign Secretary happy with the recent agreement by the Austrian energy firm OMV to develop Iran’s Pars gas field? Is not the view of the US State Department, which said,

“perhaps this is not the most appropriate time to be making or committing to making large investments in the Iranian oil and gas sector”,

one that should be shared throughout the European Union?

I understand the concern that the right hon. Gentleman raises. Although this is of course a matter for the Government of Austria, we do have some concerns about whether we are all trying to make the right kind of decisions, in the context of the overall background to which he refers. As I say, it is a matter for the Austrian Government, but there will no doubt be others who share the concern that he—and, indeed, the United States Government—have expressed.

There are only three or four fully functioning democracies in the 44 states of the Islamic world. Why should that be the case?

That is a very interesting question—to which, I fear, I do not feel inclined to try to give a full answer in the middle of Question Time.