In its efforts to prevent acts of religious hatred since the September 11 terror attacks, the British government is planning to introduce a law "of which the Taliban might be proud,"according to civil libertarian and lawyer John Mortimer.

Mortimer, who created the television character Rumpole of the Bailey, an exasperating but shrewd and lovable defence barrister, complained that the proposed law against incitement to religious hatred was "a disastrous attack on the freedom to debate one of the most important subjects of the world: religion."

To protect the Muslim community in the aftermath of the September attacks, the British home secretary, David Blunkett, announced that he planned to extend the law on incitement to include religious as well as racial hatred.

The maximum penalty for the offence, part of a package of emergency measures due to be introduced into Parliament before Christmas, will be seven years.

Blunkett said he was determined that "attention seekers and extremists" should not be able to use religion "to divide and fragment communities in our country in this difficult time."

His plans were welcomed by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the chief representative body for Muslims in the country.

MCB secretary general, Yousuf Bhailok, said that the changes were "steps in the right direction" and an "important development." He praised Blunkett's comment that "the biggest freedom of all is the freedom from hate."

Elsewhere, however, critics ranging from civil libertarians to professional comedians were fearful that jokes about religion would become criminalized.

Rowan Atkinson, famous for his hapless Mr. Bean character and his portrayal of an inept novice vicar in the hit film Four Weddings and a Funeral, said he was "aghast" at the proposed law. Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, also issued a warning about the proposed law, saying that it might restrict the Christian mission to spread the gospel.

In a letter to The Times of London, he commented: "It would be ironic in the extreme if a well intentioned piece of legislation aimed at protecting religious freedom were to have the opposite effect."

In an interview, Edwards said: "Any law which is fast-tracked in the interests of one group contains the seeds of disaster."

He expressed concern that "in an emotive environment things that could otherwise be negotiated produce a much harder response."

Edwards pointed to an official warning, announced on October 24, to a prominent Christian radio station that it had breached broadcasting rules about criticizing other religions.

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The Radio Authority, which has regulatory powers, followed up complaints and found that Premier Christian Radio had aired offensive material about the Qur'an as well as Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.

This illustrated, Edwards said, the challenge of advancing the unique claims of Christ while minimizing statements that were offensive to other faiths.

The Evangelical Alliance would stand firm against the victimization of members of other faiths, but he appealed to the British government not to confuse religious pluralism with syncretism—"to pretend that faiths are all the same, or where there are differences they don't matter".

He indicated that religious leaders needed to accept some blame: "Religion is in denial. It may be suggested that there is no such thing as bad religion, yet around the world bad political ideologies are being sustained by a framework of bad religions."

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today'sWeblog has more on Rowan Atkinson's objections to the proposed law and The Radio Authority's warnings to the Christian radio station.

Related media coverage includes:

Incitement law no laughing matter says upset comicThe New Zealand Herald (Oct. 20, 2001)
Comedians reassured on new lawsThe Guardian, London (Oct. 18, 2001)
Threat to free speech cited in Britain — Associated Press (Oct. 18, 2001)
Would Life of Brian fall foul of hatred law?The Telegraph, London (Oct. 18, 2001)
Comic alarmed by religious jokes limitThe Guardian, London (Oct. 17, 2001)
Downing Street reassures comics — BBC (Oct. 17, 2001)
British government proposal to make inciting religious hatred a crime draws mixed reaction — Associated Press (Oct. 16, 2001)
Britain to rush anti-terror laws — CNN (Oct. 15, 2001)
Blunkett brings in tougher anti-terror measuresThe Guardian, London (Oct. 4, 2001)
New law to block religious hatredThis is London (Oct. 3, 2001)
UK unveils anti-terror curbs — CNN (Oct. 3, 2001)
Asylum and hate law to be overhauled — BBC (Oct. 3, 2001)