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U.K.: Government Proposes New Law To Ban Incitement Of Religious Hatred

The British government wants a new law that would make it a crime to incite religious hatred. The government proposals were announced yesterday, and British Muslim organizations have largely welcomed them. Others, however, fear the law could stifle religious freedom and debate.

London, 8 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It is already against the law in Britain to incite violence. Also illegal is religious discrimination, as well as inciting hatred against other races, which is punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Now, Britain's Home Secretary David Blunkett wants a new law that would similarly punish incitement to religious hatred. Those in favor of the new law say it would target far-right xenophobic groups, such as the British National Party, whose verbal attacks against Muslims are not now punishable, as well as religious fanatics from all religions.

Blunkett announced the proposal yesterday, pointing out that the law would be specifically aimed at closing an existing gap in legislation.

"We need to fill gaps where gaps exist in terms of the challenges so that people are not -- and I don't just mean physically attacked -- but abused and undermined and denigrated because of their religion any more than because of their racial origin and their ethnicity," Blunkett said.

Blunkett said the law would apply equally to Islamic extremists and those who target Muslims, to far-right evangelical Christians as well as extremists in the Islamic faith.

British Muslim organizations have largely welcomed the proposals, saying they would go a long way toward allaying their grievances.

"The Muslim Council of Britain welcomes the home secretary's proposals as a good first step," said Inayat Bunglawala, the spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain. "There has been a longstanding loophole in our law here in the U.K., which has seen racial hatred outlawed, but in fact religious hatred is not outlawed -- a loophole which elements like the far right and others have been ruthlessly exploiting."

He continues: "For example, the far right have adapted their racist rhetoric of yesteryear into a more explicitly anti-Muslim invective today, and that is not against the law at the moment. So that anomaly needs to be corrected."

Observers note that the existing racial hatred law covers those practicing "mono-racial religions," such as Sikhs and Jews, but does not provide the same protection for believers in "multiracial" religions, such as Muslims or Christians.

The new law would also impact Muslim clerics who preach hatred toward non-Muslims and urge their follower to violence.

A prime example is London cleric Abu Hamza, who faces charges including hostage taking and assisting Al-Qaeda. He is to face a formal hearing to extradite him to the United States later this month. Under the proposed law, Hamza's hate sermons could constitute a criminal offense.

The law would also enable the authorities to expel other controversial figures, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the banned Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood organization. Al-Qaradawi's current visit to Britain is causing a political storm because of his pronouncements on suicide bombings against Israel, which he told the BBC are justified. He also reportedly has links to Al-Qaeda's funding network.

Some believe the proposed law could never be specific enough to prevent opposing interpretations. They say this is why the House of Lords rejected the first such proposal back in 2001.

Barry Hugel is spokesman for Britain's National Council for Civil Liberties: "We have serious reservations about it, and our views verge on the skeptical. The last time there was an attempt to introduce it a couple of years ago, we certainly were opposed to it then, and I think it will be the case that we'll be opposed to it again. We think it will be almost impossible to actually get a clear interpretation of what it would mean, and we feel it could well lead to suppression if one disagreed with those views."

Hugel added that there is a very important consideration justifying his doubts: "The fact that in a democratic society there is a need to be able to criticize religions within the framework of a democratic battle of ideas, or freely ridicule some of the ways of aberrant religious leaders, and even for comedians to tell anecdotes, and not to be afraid of inadvertently breaking the law."

He noted that some religious leaders have objected to films that others see as comic and innocent fun.

Yet, Hugel agreed there is a fine line between a joke and what some might regard as an insult. He said the issue "merits serious attention and some kind of unequivocal legal codification.”

"On the other hand, one is very, very conscious this is an important issue for many people, and we are certainly against incitement to hatred. Possibly the best method would be a broader interpretation of the existing Race Relations Act," Hugel said.

Hugel said it remains to be seen how the details of the proposed new law will address the concerns of the council.