(CNSNews.com) - In a victory for British Muslim campaigners, the House of Commons Monday passed a bill aimed at curbing religious hatred, despite critics' warnings that it could worsen relations between religious communities.
The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill passed its third reading by a 301-229 vote, just hours after Prime Minister Tony Blair's press secretary declined to rule out using the measure, if it becomes law, against Muslim figures who may incite violence against Christians and Jews.
Spokesman Tom Kelly told a Downing Street press conference he would not get into hypothetical speculation about individuals, but the law would be there and it would be applied correctly.
Last Thursday's terrorist bombings in London have focused renewed attention on controversial Muslim figures based in the capital who have long advocated jihad against the West.
Islamic organizations have lobbied hardest for the legislation, saying their community needed protection, given an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11.
They argued that while Jews and Sikhs were already protected by race-hate laws - because they are seen as ethnic groups as well as religious ones - Muslims were not covered in this way, hence the need for a specific religious hatred law.
Two previous attempts by the Labor government to get the law passed since 2002 failed, the first running into strong opposition in the upper House of Lords, and the second running out of time earlier this year when parliament was dissolved ahead of elections.
After Monday's Commons vote, the bill now goes to the House of Lords where it is again expected to face tough objections.
If passed, the legislation will create a new offence, applying to written material and public verbal comments "that are threatening, abusive or insulting [and] likely to stir up racial or religious hatred." Anyone convicted under the law could be jailed for up to seven years.
Opposition parties - and some Labor MPs - oppose the bill for various reasons, including concerns that it could stifle free speech or infringe the right of the adherents of one faith to question the claims of another.
Opposition lawmakers proposed an amendment that would outlaw religious hatred in specific cases where it is used as a pretext for stirring up hatred against an ethnic group. But the proposal was defeated Monday by 291 votes to 233.
Senior Conservative lawmaker Dominic Grieve said in the Commons that the bill was "catastrophically flawed" and would not improve race relations.
"If the government really wants to tackle this issue, it is going to have to get away from the promises made to various people of some equal playing field, accept that religion
and race are different, start to look at the real nature of the problem and try to come up with some constructive solutions," he said.b
What about the Koran?
In an earlier Commons debate, a Conservative MP raised the possibility that the law, if passed, could outlaw the reading of passages of the Koran that called for harsh treatment against Christians and Jews.
Following those assertions, a delegation of prominent Muslims held talks last week with the government minister responsible for the bill, Paul Goggins, to check whether the legislation could affect reading and quoting from the Koran and other Islamic texts such as the Hadith -- the traditional sayings of Mohammed and other early Muslim figures.
There were concerns in the Muslim community "that dawah [proselytizing] and propagatory practices may be curtailed under the new legislation," the Muslim Weekly reported.
The delegation suggested that it may be preferable to "totally exempt" Islamic texts from the bill.
"The minister assured the Muslim community that there was nothing in the bill that would prevent scholars from delivering their sermons or from reciting from the Koran," the Muslim publication said.
Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) Secretary-General Iqbal Sacranie, who headed the delegation, said afterwards he was glad the confusion had been cleared.
"Muslim scholars may proceed uninhibited in the performance of their duties," he said.
The MCB has led the lobbying to get the law passed.
The Barnabas Fund, a British charity working among Christian minorities in Islamic countries, has played a key role in Christian opposition to the bill.
Commenting on the Muslim Council's attempt to get the Koran exempted from the law, the Barnabas Fund said Muslim leaders in Britain had done their best to have themselves protected by the proposed law.
"Now faced with the anti-Christian and anti-Semitic parts of their holy books it appears some are realizing that unless they claim exemption they also will be vulnerable to prosecution," it said.
"This shows the desperate need for Islam to reform itself. Muslim leaders must have the courage to reform their faith and reinterpret the war passages of the Koran and Hadith in a spiritual and peaceable way."
The Barnabas Fund said the bill could cause disharmony among different faiths in Britain.
"It also has the potential to silence those who speak out on behalf of millions of people who suffer as a result of particular religious teachings, such as Muslims who convert to another faith (who should be executed according to Islamic law) or Dalits (treated as 'untouchables' in the traditional Hindu caste system)."
Other opponents of the bill include lawyers, civil libertarians, and actors such as comedian Rowan Atkinson who worry it would outlaw religious jokes.
On Monday leaders of evangelical African and Caribbean churches in Britain rallied against the bill, saying it could affect their ability to share the Christian gospel with non-Christians.
A petition signed by hundreds of British churches and handed to the government Monday warned about the effects on freedom of speech, saying that "the mere quoting of texts from both the Koran and the Bible could be captured and criminalized by this law."
Also lobbying in parliament was Australian evangelical pastor Danny Nalliah, who together with a colleague has been found guilty of vilifying Islam under a similar law in the Australian state of Victoria. The two pastors face the possibility of going to prison if they defy -- as they intend to do -- a judge's order to apologize publicly.
Some critics have accused the British government of pushing the bill as a sop to Muslims who traditionally support Labor but were angered by the government's policies on Iraq.
"In essence Labor aims to reward the MCB with a piece of legislation in return for the Muslim vote during the election," says Sunny Hundal, editor of Asians in Media, a media industry magazine.
In an article published last week, Hundal criticized the bill, saying that while "Islamophobia is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with" the legislation would likely affect voices within the Asian community that go against "politically correct stances."
Quoting Koran Could Be Illegal Under Proposed UK Bill, Lawmaker Says (Jun. 22, 2005)
Pastors Who 'Vilified' Islam Would Choose Jail Over Apology Jun. 22, 2005)
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