UK Muslims Call for Changes in Law and Media Guidelines

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - A Christian leader in Britain has voiced alarm over calls by Muslims to change the law and media industry guidelines to prevent the future publication of images of the Muslim prophet, Mohammed.

British Muslims may be using the cartoon controversy as a pretext to push for a law that would grant them protections they have long demanded -- and were recently denied, said Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity.

Less than two weeks ago, Muslims were dismayed when lawmakers defanged the British government's religious hatred legislation by removing its most contentious elements.

Among these was an attempt to outlaw "threatening, abusive or insulting" statements or behavior relating to religion.

The watered-down version passed by the House of Commons limited the definition of religious hatred to only "threatening" statements or behavior.

Critics of the bill had worried that the original legislation would have made any criticism or ridicule of religion an offense.

Had that passed into law, Muslims probably would have brought complaints against any British newspaper that published the cartoons at the center of the current global row.

In the event, the legislation was considerably toned down, but Sookhdeo wondered whether Muslims were now using the cartoon issue to reopen the debate.

"This seems to me an attempt to get themselves the privileged legal position the government had promised them [in the religious hatred legislation] by another method," he said. "It is nothing to do with the cartoons."

Sookhdeo commented after 300 Muslim leaders in Britain held an emergency meeting this week to discuss the row over the publication in European newspapers of cartoons satirizing Mohammed.

The leaders, who formed an ad-hoc body called the Muslim Action Committee (MAC), called for Britain's Race Relations Act to be amended, to give Muslims the same protection enjoyed by Sikhs and Jews.

This refers to a longstanding grievance voiced by British Muslims. The Race Relations Act prohibits discrimination on "racial grounds," and any Briton claiming mistreatment on the basis of ethnicity can seek protection under it.

But Muslims say that, as Sikhs and Jews are defined as racial as well as religious communities, they benefit from the law on both counts. Muslims can't claim the same protection, however, because Muslims are a group defined by religion, not ethnicity.

Although the same applies to Christians, Muslim organizations are determined to have what they see as an unfair situation rectified, claiming they have suffered discrimination on the basis of religion since the 9/11 terror attacks.

Supporting the Muslim community in that push, the Labor government tried several times since 2002 to pass religious hatred law. Two earlier attempts failed before the third eventually succeeded late last month, but in a diluted form.

Sookhdeo disputes the Muslim argument about the Race Relations Act being unfair to Muslims. He says the law protects Sikhs and Jews against any discrimination against them on ethnic grounds, but does nothing to protect them from any criticism of Sikhism or Judaism as religions.

'Protect Mohammed'

At the meeting, the MAC also called for the code of conduct of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) to be tightened to prevent publishing of any images of Mohammed.

The commission is an independent body which deals with complaints from the public about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines. It administers a self-regulatory code of conduct, aimed at giving the industry a set of guiding principles.

The meeting chairman, Sheikh Faiz Saddiqi, said the PCC code was meant to ensure that the media treated people with respect. Respect should be shown to Muslims, who find depictions of Mohammed offensive, he said.

"Insulting the prophet of Islam is worse than insulting your wife, children or sister."

Sookhdeo also expressed concern about the PCC demand.

"Why should there be different rules for Muslims compared with followers of other faiths?" he asked.

If the code of conduct was changed specifically to protect Mohammad, "I fear it could prove to be the thin end of the wedge.

"From self-imposed censorship we could soon move to more serious situations," he added, noting that "defiling the name" of Mohammed was a criminal offense in Pakistan, carrying a mandatory death sentence.

Sookhdeo also pointed out that the PCC code of conduct already contained guidelines about avoiding the use of "prejudicial or pejorative reference" in news reports to an individual's religion.

In an article posted on his website this week, Middle East scholar and Foundation for the Defense of Democracies fellow Dr. Walid Phares said Muslims living in the West were under heavy pressure from fundamentalists to bring about changes in those societies.

Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, considered a leading Islamic scholar, is a regular guest on a popular weekly program on al-Jazeera television called Sharia wal Hayat (The Law and Life), on which he answers viewers' questions on the Islamic faith.

Phares said Qaradawi had declared on the program: "Muslims living outside Islamic lands must either return to their homelands when their journey, job, or mission is accomplished or strive to remain as citizens and spread religion."

"Muslims in the West and in other areas must strife [sic] to spread religion and insert it in the national legal, political and economic space," he quoted Qaradawi as saying.

See also:
Islamic Scholars' Views on Portraying Mohammed Not Identical (Feb. 07, 2006)
Weakened Religious Hatred Law a Victory for UK Christians (Feb. 02, 2006)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow