(CNSNews.com) - British Muslims, already unhappy with the Labor government over the Iraq war, have accused it of betrayal for scrapping plans to outlaw incitement to religious hatred.
Community representatives warned that the country's 1.1 million Muslim voters would remember the affront when they cast their ballots in a general election on May 5.
Labor leaders in the House of Commons and House of Lords announced this week that the government had decided to drop the religious hatred proposal, which had run into strong opposition from opposition parties in the House of Lords.
The controversial measure formed part of a wide-ranging crime bill, and rather than lose the entire bill when parliament is dissolved on Monday, the government chose to sacrifice the problematic section.
Senior Labor lawmaker Peter Hain told the House of Commons Tuesday that the official opposition Conservative Party bore "full responsibility" for blocking a measure "that would have given particular comfort to the Muslim community."
"I am sure that Muslim communities throughout Britain will take careful note of that," he said. He added that Muslims would also remember that the third largest Liberal Democrats party also opposed the measure.
But statements from Muslim representatives suggest that Hain may have been wrong in his assessment.
"Labor has within its power to ensure the law is passed," Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said shortly before the government climbdown was announced. "It is not a sufficient excuse if they try to blame the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats."
Bunglawala and other Islamic representatives noted that the government, just before Easter, had managed to overcome resistance from opposition parties and push through an anti-terrorism bill, which Muslims says targets members of their community disproportionately.
\ldblquote"Many Muslims find it inexplicable that the government can quite easily pass laws that have a negative impact on the Muslim community but drop a vital piece of legislation," he told The Muslim News.
Nervous about the loss of the traditionally Labor-backing Muslim vote over the Iraq war, Blair's party has been stressing its commitment to outlawing religious hatred.
An earlier attempt to do so, as part of another piece of legislation, failed in 2001 when it ran into Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition, and Muslims have been pressing for its passage this time.
Just two weeks ago, The Muslim News carried an interview with Blair in which the prime minister, asked specifically whether the government would again drop the proposal, said no.
"British Muslims would be excused for feeling utterly betrayed all over again," another Islamic group, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), said in a statement.
"Whilst the government fought doggedly over many rounds to push through the anti-terrorism act despite overwhelming opposition from both houses, it seemed disinclined to fight so hard for the anti-religious hatred law which it promised the Muslim community," MAB said.
"Those who trusted the government have been let down badly once again," MAB spokesman Anas al-Tikriti said.
"This is another thing that Muslims will undoubtedly be considering when the elections come round."
In its efforts to win Muslim support, Labor has used the religious incitement proposal to distinguish itself from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
Senior Labor lawmaker Mike O'Brien wrote an editorial in another Muslim newspaper earlier this year laying out his reasons why Muslims should vote Labor despite being "understandably ...very angry about the war."
Among ways in which Labor had "delivered" for Muslims, he said, was the government campaign to outlaw incitement to religious hatred.
"Ask yourself what will [Conservative Party leader] Michael Howard do for British Muslims," O'Brien wrote. "Will his foreign policy aim to help Palestine? Will he promote legislation to protect you from religious hatred and discrimination?"
British Muslims have traditionally supported Labor and those who opposed the Iraq war are thought unlikely to move their allegiance to the Conservatives, which also supported the war.
The Liberal Democrats opposed the war, and a new, leftwing Labor breakaway party called Respect, which grew out of the anti-war protest movement, has also been trying to woo Muslim voters.
At the last election, 75-78 percent of "ethnic minority" Britons - of whom Muslims are traditionally the group with the highest turnout - supported Labor, according to various polling firms.
But recent polls suggest that Muslim support for Labor has slipped significantly - from 75 percent in 2001 to 38 percent in an ICM Research poll for The Guardian newspaper last month.
Since the Iraq war, local-level elections in areas with a large Muslim population have seen voters switch from Labor to the Liberal Democrats.
'Thin end of wedge'
The religious incitement proposal drew the opposition of a coalition of lawyers, lawmakers, human rights campaigners, religious groups, journalists and secularists, and members of parliament were lobbied.
Support for the measure came from Muslim groups, the Law Society and a senior police body.
The move also divided Christians in Britain, with some Anglican and Catholic bishops and the Methodist Church among those supporting it while others like the Evangelical Alliance, an umbrella group representing more than one million evangelical Christians, opposed it.
Dr. Elizabeth Harris of the Methodist Church said earlier the legislation "is not about debating truth claims, nor about whether all religions are the same. But it is about all individuals and communities having the right to live and work without the fear of violence arising from religious hatred."
Explaining the Evangelical Alliance's position, the group's head of public affairs, Don Horrocks, said that while well-intentioned, the proposal "could prove to be the thin end of a wedge employed by those intent on preventing others speaking or writing freely, including the free proclamation of the gospel."
Opposition to the bill was coordinated by the Barnabas Fund, a human rights group supporting Christian minorities in Islamic societies.
"We are very pleased that the government has been forced to withdraw these laws for now," said the group's international director, Patrick Sookhdeo.
"We hope the government will recognize that there is enormous public concern about the effect religious hate laws could have on legitimate free speech and think twice before attempting to re-introduce them," he said.
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