LONDON // A law specifically intended to stop Muslims from protesting when British soldiers return from Iraq or Afghanistan is being proposed by a senior Conservative MP. The move follows an outpouring of public outrage in reaction to a protest staged last Tuesday by a small group of hardline Muslims when a regiment returning from Iraq paraded through Luton, about 40km north of London.
Although the 20 or so demonstrators, protected by the police, chanted "burn in hell" and held aloft placards branding members of the Royal Anglian Regiment "the butchers of Basra", the only people arrested were two locals who shouted abuse back at the group. The incident has heightened ethnic tensions across the country, despite the fact leading Muslims disowned the protesters, saying they did not represent the views of the vast majority of the United Kingdom's two million Muslims.
One leader of the 20,000-strong Islamic community in Luton, the majority originally from Pakistan with family ties to Kashmir, branded the demonstrators as "the Muslim equivalent of what the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity". Now David Davis, who was narrowly beaten by David Cameron three years ago for leadership of the Conservative Party, has put forward an amendment to the policing bill currently going through parliament, that would outlaw demonstrations against the military.
He has based his proposal on the law banning incitement to religious hatred, a measure introduced three years ago specifically to protect Muslims and other minority religions from being subjected to abuse. The Luton protesters, including members of a radical group called Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah, insist that they were merely exercising their rights to free speech. In a debate on BBC radio yesterday with Abu Omar, one of the protesters, Mr Davis said: "We don't have an absolute right to free speech.
"The religious hatred act would stop somebody from standing outside [Mr Omar's] mosque with a placard saying that your religion is backward, primitive and you have homophobic beliefs and that your religion has caused the deaths of thousands of people. "I wouldn't say that, but many people would. But they wouldn't be allowed to say that outside a mosque. The religious hatred act assures Mr Omar protection from that sort of insulting behaviour.
"What I'm saying is that British soldiers, who are our finest young men and women, the cream of society, should also be protected from the sort of gratuitous abuse they experienced last week." Mr Davis, who sits on the House of Commons' home affairs select committee, said he merely wanted to extend equal rights to soldiers by substituting the term "uniformed military personnel on official duties" in the wording of an amendment that otherwise was identical to the religious hatred law.
Mr Omar, 30, insisted that his group has a right to protest. "In this country we have freedom of expression," he said. "People who don't like us protesting should get out of this country. As soon as Muslims like us say something which conflicts with people's views, freedom of expression goes out of the window. We are told to shut up and keep quiet." The protesters' actions have found little sympathy among fellow British Muslims. Inayat Bunglawala, who lives in Luton and is a leading member of the Muslim Council of Britain, said the demonstrators were "viewed with contempt".
He added: "The best example of that is the fact that they handed out flyers across the town to try and get support for this march, yet only the same hard-core 20 people turned up. There were more Muslims in the crowd cheering the soldiers than in the protest jeering them. "They look for opportunities to create tension between Muslims and non-Muslims and they saw this as an easy target. They bring disgrace on the reputation of Luton and on other British Muslims, but they seem to revel in it.
"I understand that they are against the war in Iraq and so are the overwhelming majority of Muslims, but we realise that the group to protest against is the government, not the army. The soldiers just go where they are told. It was not them who started the war." Mr Davis, 60, seems an unlikely candidate to lead an assault on free speech. Last year, he resigned as an MP and as the Conservatives' main home affairs spokesman, to fight a by-election in his own parliamentary seat to highlight his opposition to the government's plan to introduce 42-day detention without trial for terrorist suspects.
He has also been a leading advocate of a formal inquiry into the detention of Binyam Mohamed, a 30-year-old Ethiopian living in Britain, who was released from Guantanamo Bay recently and claims that the UK's intelligence services colluded with his torture. Mr Davis has long-held reservations about the UK's decision to join the invasion of Iraq, but he said yesterday that the British military must now be supported as it goes about the task of trying to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan.
"To have these idiots protesting against them is disgraceful," he said. "Equal rights for all." email@example.com