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Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that all Muslim organisations in the United Kingdom, including the Muslim Council of Britain, support the Government's proposals, which also have the support of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Commission for Racial Equality?

Mr. Mahmood: I agree with my hon. Friend and thank him for making that point.

I was trying to make the point that organisations such as FAIR that deal with Islamophobia consider not people's ability to tell jokes about a religion, or criticise it, but the day-to-day effect on Muslim people living in this country. In the light of the recent events that we have all experienced, there is an effect on particular communities. There is also an effect on a small number of people in the Muslim community who actually incite religious hatred against other people, which is also recognised. It is a question of protecting not just the Muslim community, but people of all religions who need to be protected.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Let us say that a Christian preacher pursues explicitly the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ and the necessary implications that has for the claims made by the Prophet Mohammed. He adds to that explosive criticisms of elements of sharia law: death for apostasy, stoning for various crimes, amputation and so on. My understanding is that none of that would result in a prosecution in accordance with the provisions.

Can the hon. Gentleman assure me that there is not a large number of people in the Muslim community who do not precisely expect that that would give rise to prosecutions? That is the point. We are raising—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. That is a very lengthy intervention.

Mr. Mahmood: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not know where the hon. Gentleman's point was going, but, as far as the Muslim community is concerned, if a preacher from the Christian faith, or any other, wants to make valid criticism as they see it, they are entitled to do that. We are talking about inciting hatred and abuse against people. That is the point we are making; it is a serious issue that has to be dealt with. People of other religions, other than the Sikh community and the Jewish community, feel that there is no protection in this area.

Ms Abbott : My hon. Friend says that nobody in the Muslim community denies that people should be able to make valid criticisms of the religion, but I was a Member of Parliament at the time of "The Satanic Verses", and there were thousands and thousands of Muslims who believed emphatically that people were not entitled to criticise their religion.

Mr. Mahmood: I am sorry, but I take issue with that. It was not a question of making a valid criticism of the religion. In the context of Salman Rushdie, the issue was
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the abusive words that he deliberately used, which were written in phonetic Urdu, criticising—[Interruption.] Actual swear words were used within that text.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab): Who decides?

Mr. Mahmood: The decision is taken in the courts, if it comes to that. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said, there will be an opportunity for some of those cases and issues to be tested. In a sense, that is what the judicial system is about and what this democracy is about: giving people that opportunity.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend's argument. Does he agree that in addition to giving the Muslim community a degree of protection, the provisions will help the great majority of moderate Muslims, who want to live in a tolerant society at peace with other religions, to take action against that tiny minority in their midst who may incite hatred against other religions?

Mr. Mahmood: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

Other hon. Members want to contribute, so I shall quickly bring my remarks to a close. I conclude by saying that the Bill is not about the curtailment of freedom of speech, but protection for people from abuse and incitement to it.

Mr. Garnier : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for her intervention on the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood), because his response was consistent with one that he gave in an interview that he and I took part in for a BBC political programme shortly after he became a Member of this House. When we discussed these provisions previously, I was worried that the effect of his words, whether he meant it or not, was that he wanted the suppression of free speech.

Whether one agrees that nasty things should be said about other people's religion is not the point. It is no good pretending that the Government's provisions will do anything other than repress free speech. As a general rule, and I shall no doubt be told if there are exceptions to this, criminal law should be there to inhibit and to punish those who do injury to the person—the body—and to property. It should not be there to inhibit or repress the exchange of views, however disagreeable you, Madam Deputy Speaker, or I may find them.

Mr. Gummer : Did my hon. Friend notice that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood), who put forward his case so moderately and reasonably, was willing to accept that the words of a preacher from some other religion would not be affected in this way, but much less willing to say that it would be unreasonable to use this law against someone of his own religion who spoke in what he felt was too extreme a manner? That is a serious distinction.

Mr. Garnier: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend.
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I pointed out the service that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington did in opening up a line of consistency in the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr, but it puzzled me that later parts of his speech tended to get a little confused. It may well be that a closer study of Hansard tomorrow will enable us to give a more charitable view of what he said.

Mike Gapes : The hon. and learned Gentleman seems to be making the case that there is some kind of absolute free speech. Does he accept that we already have laws in this country that constrain free speech? People can be prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, and there are libel laws, so there is no such thing as total, absolute free speech.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right, and I never said such a thing. I happen to know a little bit about the law of defamation, but I was not going to bore him or other hon. Members with that. However, since he provokes me, the civil law of defamation provides liberal scope for free speech, and for the expression of deeply disagreeable opinions. I am sure that he, just as much as I, would deprecate any attempt to prevent the free expression of opinion. He is right that there are already laws that inhibit free speech, because incitement to racial hatred is a criminal offence.

Mrs. Mahon : Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Garnier: May I just finish this point? I do not want to take too long, because I know that other important subjects need to be discussed.

The short point is that incitement to racial hatred tends to lead to the physical injury of victims of the racial hatred. If the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr and those who support the Government's proposals can demonstrate that incitement to religious hatred would lead to injury to the victims, not just inconvenience through bad behaviour, he might be getting somewhere, but Government amendment No. 106 does not deal with that point.

5.45 pm

Mrs. Mahon: I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman knows that Nick Griffin was arrested in Halifax and is being charged under race relations legislation.

Mr. Garnier: I do not want to comment on that specific case, but if he has done something that offends against current criminal law, I am pleased that he is to be acted against. There is no room for that sort of behaviour; the BNP and those who think like it want to cause physical harm to those from racial minorities. We all deprecate that.

We are conducting a short debate in a crowded timetable and I hope that others can catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, before it is concluded.

Mike Gapes: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

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