Is It Only Mr Bean Who Resists This New Religious Intolerance?

By Charles Moore

Was the prophet Mohammed a paedophile? The question is sometimes asked because one of his wives, Aisha, was a child when he married her. As Barnaby Rogerson gingerly puts it in his highly sympathetic recent biography (The Prophet Muhammad, Little, Brown): "" ¦the age disparity was considerable: she was only nine while Muhammad was 53". Aisha was taken from her seesaw on the morning of her marriage to be dressed in her wedding garment. After sharing a bowl of milk with the prophet, she went to bed with him.

To me, it seems anachronistic to describe Mohammed as a child-molester. The marriage rules of his age and society were much more tribal and dynastic than our own, and women were treated more as property and less as autonomous beings. Aisha was the daughter of Mohammed's right-hand man, and eventual successor (caliph), Abu Bakr. No doubt he and his family were very proud of the match. I raise the question, though, because it seems to me that people are perfectly entitled - rude and mistaken though they may be - to say that Mohammed was a paedophile, but if David Blunkett gets his way, they may not be able to.

As I write, I am looking at a Christmas brochure for Channel 4. It contains an interview with Paul Abbott, author of the "current hit show, Shameless". Clever Paul swears a lot, and proudly tells a story about how, when his brothers held him upside down to help him steal a Christmas tree from his Yugoslav next door neighbour, he was so frightened that he started urinating. Ha ha.

There follows a two-page pictorial spread of Paul's characters, the Gallaghers, having their Christmas lunch. The tableau is presented (sub-Bu ƒ ±uel) as a parody of the Last Supper. (Do Paul Abbott and Channel 4 believe, perhaps, that this took place at Christmas?) The first page shows a line of yobs - mimicking the Apostles - beginning their meal in reasonably good order. The second depicts them towards its end, violent and drunk. The "Jesus" figure is lurching forward, halo awry, beer can in one hand and cigarette in the other.

The natural inclination of Christians in the face of such affronts is anger. But would it really be a better society in which silly, urinating Mr Abbott could go to prison for such a thing, and perhaps the bosses of Channel 4 with him? Before lots of respectable readers shriek "Yes!", think what it means.

Why is it that so many people resent religion and turn against it? Surely it is because of its coercive force, its tendency to mistake the worldly power of its priests and mullahs for justified zeal for the truth. It is not God who turns people away, but what people do in the name of God. If a law against religious hatred is passed, even when blessed by St David Blunkett, the natural consequence will be a rise in the hatred of religion.

Particularly hatred of Islam. The BNP website describes Islam in the hands of some of its adherents as "less a religion and more a magnet for psychopaths and a machine for conquest". If a law says they can't say that, the BNP will, in the minds of many, be proved right. On Tuesday, Mr Blunkett said that it would be illegal to claim that "Muslims are a threat to Britain". People already censor themselves through fear of Muslim reaction to mockery - I don't suppose even brave, incontinent, foul-mouthed Paul Abbott would write a comedy for the start of Ramadan showing Mohammed downloading dubious images from the internet. If the law criminalises such activity, the scope for resentment is huge.

Iqbal Sacranie, of the mainstream Muslim Council of Britain, wants the new law because any "defamation of the character of the prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him)" is a "direct insult and abuse of the Muslim community". In effect, he is asking for the law of libel to be extended beyond the grave, giving religious belief a protection extended to no other creed or version of history.

Where does all this come from? Not, I fear, from the right, if misapplied, desire for different faiths to live at peace. Incitement to violence, after all, is already an offence, and so it should be. No, the pressure is chiefly from Muslims. If we want to understand its context, we should look at what happens in Muslim societies.

According to Muslim law, believers who reject or insult Islam have no rights. Apostasy is punishable by death. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, death is the penalty for those who convert from Islam to Christianity. In Pakistan, the blasphemy law prescribes death for anyone who, even accidentally, defiles the name of Mohammed. In a religion which, unlike Christianity, has no idea of a God who himself suffers humiliation, all insult must be avenged if the honour of God is to be upheld.

Under Islam, Christians and Jews, born into their religion, have slightly more rights than apostates. They are dhimmis, second-class citizens who must pay the jiyza, a sort of poll tax, because of their beliefs. Their life is hard. In Saudi, they cannot worship in public at all, or be ministered to by clergy even in private. In Egypt, no Christian university is permitted. In Iran, Christians cannot say their liturgy in the national language. In almost all Muslim countries, they are there on sufferance and, increasingly, because of radical Islamism, not even on that.

The ancient plurality of the region is vanishing. Tens of thousands are fleeing the Muslim world, and in some countries - Sudan, Indonesia, Ivory Coast - large numbers die, on both sides. In Iraq, the intimidation of Christians is enormous. Five churches have suffered bomb attacks this year. Christians in Mosul have received letters saying that one member of each family will be killed to punish women who do not wear the headscarf. According to Dr Patrick Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund, a charity working for persecuted Christians, "Christians in Iraq are isolated and vulnerable this Christmas, and feel that they have been let down, even betrayed, by their fellow Christians in the West, especially the Church leadership".

The push for a religious hatred law here is an attempt to advance the legal privilege that Muslims claim for Islam. True, Muslim leaders are happy that the same protection should be extended to other religions in this country. But to a modern liberal society which claims the freedom to attack all beliefs, this should be no comfort. It says a good deal about the quality of churchmen and politicians in Britain that the most prominent opponent of the Bill is Mr Bean. The Archbishop of Canterbury is more or less invisible. The Government is on the side of repression.

Because it is usually called Boxing Day, people forget that December 26 is the feast of St Stephen, the first martyr. Somewhere in the Muslim world on that day, there will be more Christians martyred, as there are every day of the year. Muslims are not martyred in Britain. For once, the mote is in our own eye, and the beam in somebody else's - or will it soon be illegal to say that?