| Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. (AFP)
London, July 7: Muslim groups were today unsure whether to welcome or oppose legislation they had themselves pressed for — making incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence.
The new offence is likely to be closely modelled on the existing crime of inciting racial hatred which carries a maximum prison term of seven years.
Incitement to racial hatred is already an offence under the Public Order Act 1986, defined as using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent or likelihood to stir up racial hatred. Discrimination on the grounds of race or sex is also illegal.
In Britain, which has about 1.5 million Muslims, Islamic lobbies have long sought new legislation to guard against what they see as “Islamophobia”. But today realisation set in that the very laws which offer them protection could also be used against rabble rousers in mosques who advocate jihad against the western world.
The home secretary David Blunkett said today that making it a crime to incite religious hatred would help to protect minority religions from attack by Right-wing groups. But he made it clear that the law could also be used against fundamentalist Islamists, as well as other extremists, who preach against Christian society.
Blunkett’s announcement coincides with the arrival in Britain on Monday of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a firebrand Muslim cleric and an Egyptian who apparently supports suicide bombings and beatings of women — especially “disobedient” wives by their husbands.
The new law would be a “two-way street”, said Blunkett, adding: “It applies equally to far-Right evangelical Christians as to extremists in the Islamic faith.” The government would introduce the new offence “as soon as possible”, disclosed Blunkett.
Some Muslim spokesmen welcomed the proposed law but among those who expressed reservations was the Islamic Human Rights Commission.
Its chairman, Massoud Shadjareh, predicted: “In the light of the well-recognised institutional Islamophobic society that we have at the moment, this legislation could very well be used against Muslim communities, rather than protecting them.”
The Labour peer, Lord Meghnad Desai, said the legislation would have “a very, very difficult time” in the Lords. “We will get in a real muddle if we take religion as a basis for prosecution rather than race,” he said.
The Tories also opposed the legislation.
Its shadow home secretary, David Davis, called the proposals as “unworkable”.
He said: “It will impinge on civil liberties and only serve to make lawyers rich. Perfectly adequate laws against violence or conspiracies to commit violence already exist and should be enforced vigorously.”
However, Blunkett received support from the Liberal Democrats, whose home affairs spokesperson, Mark Oaten, argued: “This plan closes a loophole that has allowed inflammatory language to go unpunished, and the Liberal Democrats will give these plans their support.”