Let Us Pray This Religious Hate Bill Fails; REVIEW

Article excerpt

Byline: WILLIAM REES-MOGG

Early one evening last week, my wife and I were walking through St James's Square, which is one of the poshest squares in London. A dustcart was drawn up by the kerb.

One of the two dustmen was standing by the front of the vehicle. The other had laid out his fluorescent coat in the street and was kneeling behind the truck, saying his prayers.

I have seen a similar scene in Cairo, but I have never seen it in London.

He was, of course, a Muslim.

As we walked along, we passed a rather distinguished gentleman, probably a City type, wearing a tailormade suit that could hardly have cost him less than [pounds sterling]2,000. He was talking into his mobile phone. I do not imagine he was praying.

I have spent most of my life in touch with the City; I know the people, many of them are my friends.

Nevertheless, I was struck by the force of the parable, in which the poor dustman was breaking into his day to talk to his God, while the rich man, still obsessed with business, was talking to his broker.

If the scene had been described in the Gospels, one would not need to ask who of the two would be the hero of the story. In the matter of prayer, Islam is an example to us all.

I have been reading the Government's Racial And Religious Hatred Bill, which was published last week. I was opposed to the Bill, and I still am, but I feel that I ought to be able to justify that opposition to the dustman.

He, I am sure, has been told by his religious leaders that the Bill will be in the interest of Islam. But I think the Bill is wrong, in terms of the British tradition of civil liberties. I also feel it would be bad for the Islamic community and, indeed, for religion in general.

There is another community whose anxieties need to be taken into account.

Last week, the Jewish cemetery in Prestwich, Greater Manchester was desecrated. Gravestones were smashed and hurled on top of one another. The damage is put at [pounds sterling]150,000.

Last January, there was a similar attack on a Jewish cemetery in Aldershot, Hampshire. In 2004, there were more than 500 anti-Semitic incidents recorded by the Community Security Trust. Religious and racial hatreds are equally vile; one can scarcely imagine who would carry out this sort of vandalism.

Why then, should one oppose a Bill that would criminalise incitement to religious hatred in the way that incitement to racial hatred has already been criminalised?

In the case of Sikhs and Jews, the law assumes there is a racial element in attacks because both the religious and ethnic groups are the same. This does not apply to Islam, a religion that covers almost all ethnic groups, as indeed does the Roman Catholic Church.

When one reads the Bill, one can see what is wrong with it.

The first difficulty, and surely a decisive one, is that the Bill does not provide a definition of 'religion' or of 'religious hatred'.

All the Bill tells us is that 'religious hatred' means 'hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief'. The explanatory notes, which have no statutory force and will not be put before Parliament, only add to the confusion.

They provide a list of religions, which includes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Rastafarianism, Baha'ism, Zoroastrianism and Jainism, but this is not exclusive. Oddly enough, the list does not include Mormonism, though there are probably more Mormons in England and Wales than there are Baha'ists. …