The leader of Britain's Labour Party, Ed Miliband, has vowed, if he becomes the next prime minister in general elections on May 7, to outlaw "Islamophobia."
The move — which one observer has called "utterly frightening" because of its implications for free speech in Britain — is part of an effort by Miliband to pander to Muslim voters in a race that he has described as "the tightest general election for a generation."
With the ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labour running neck and neck in the polls just days before voters cast their ballots, British Muslims — who voted overwhelmingly for Labour in the 2010 general election — could indeed determine who will be the next prime minister.
In an interview with The Muslim News, Miliband said:
"We are going to make it [Islamophobia] an aggravated crime. We are going to make sure it is marked on people's records with the police to make sure they root out Islamophobia as a hate crime.
"We are going to change the law on this so we make it absolutely clear of our abhorrence of hate crime and Islamophobia. It will be the first time that the police will record Islamophobic attacks right across the country."
Miliband appears to be trying to reopen a long-running debate in Britain over so-called religious hatred. Between 2001 and 2005, the then-Labour government, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, made two attempts (here and here) to amend Part 3 of the Public Order Act 1986, to extend existing provisions on incitement to racial hatred to cover incitement to religious hatred.
Those efforts ran into opposition from critics who said the measures were too far-reaching and threatened the freedom of speech. At the time, critics argued that the scope of the Labour government's definition of "religious hatred" was so draconian that it would have made any criticism of Islam a crime.
In January 2006, the House of Lords approved the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, after amending the text so that the law would be limited to banning only "threatening" words and not those that are merely abusive or insulting. Lawmakers also said that the offense would require the intention — not just the possibility — of stirring up religious hatred. They added that proselytizing, discussion, criticism, abuse and ridicule of religion, belief or religious practice would not be an offense.
Miliband's renewed promise to make "Islamophobia" (a term he has not defined) an "aggravated crime" may signal an attempt to turn the 2006 Act — which already stipulates a maximum penalty of seven years in prison for stirring up religious hatred — into a full-blown Muslim blasphemy law.
According to British commentator Leo McKinstry, "Miliband's proposal goes against the entire tradition of Western democracy, which holds that people should be punished only for their deeds, not their opinions." In an opinion article, he added:
"In Miliband's Britain, it will become impossible to criticise any aspect of Islamic culture, whether it be the spread of the burka or the establishment of Sharia courts or the construction of colossal new mosques. We already live in a society where Mohammed is now the most popular boy's name and where a child born in Birmingham is more likely to be a Muslim than a Christian. If he wins, Miliband will ensure that the accelerating Islamification of our country will go unchallenged."
McKinstry says Miliband is currying favor with Britain's three million-strong Muslim community to "prop up Labour's urban vote."
Muslims are emerging as a key voting bloc in British politics and are already poised to determine the outcome of local elections in many parts of the country, according to a report by the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group.
The report shows that Britain's Muslim population is overwhelmingly young and will exert increasing political influence as time goes on. The median age of the Muslim population in Britain is 25 years, compared to the overall population's median age of 40 years.
An extrapolation of the available data indicates that one million British Muslims aged 18 and above will be eligible to vote in this year's election. According to one study, Muslims could determine the outcome of up to 25% of the 573 Parliamentary seats in England and Wales.
Others say that although Britain's Muslim community is growing, it is also ethnically diverse and unlikely to vote as a single group. One analyst has argued that the potential for Muslim influence in this year's election "will remain unrealized because the Muslim vote is not organized in any meaningful way on a national level."
A study produced by Theos, a London-based religious think tank, found that although Muslims consistently vote Labour, they do so based on class and economic considerations, not out of religious motives.
Indeed, a poll conducted by the BBC on April 17 found that nearly one-quarter of "Asian" voters still do not know which party they will support at the general election. Some of those interviewed by the BBC said that economic issues would determine whom they vote for.
In any event, Muslim influence in the 2015 vote will be largely determined by Muslim voter turnout, which has been notoriously low in past elections: Only 47% of British Muslims were estimated to have voted in 2010.
Since then, several grassroots campaigns have been established to encourage British Muslims to go to the polls in 2015, including Get Out & Vote, Muslim Vote and Operation Black Vote. Another group, YouElect, states:
"A staggering 53% of British Muslims did not vote in the 2010 General Election, such a high figure of Muslim non-voters indicates that many Muslims feel ignored by politicians and disillusioned by the political process.
"With the rise of Islamophobic rhetoric in politics and an ever increasing amount of anti-terror legislation which specifically targets Muslims, it is now more important than ever that Muslims use the vote to send a message to politicians that their attitudes and policies must change.
"YouElect wants to get the message across that there is something you can do about the issues you care about. We have launched a new campaign using the hashtag #SortItOut, which calls on Muslims to use the political process to address the issues that concern them most.
"With 100,000 new young Muslims eligible to vote this year and 26 parliamentary constituencies with a Muslim population of over 20%, the Muslim community has a very real opportunity to make an impact on British politics."
Not all Muslims agree. The British-born Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary is actively discouraging Muslims from voting. In a stream of Twitter messages using the #StayMuslimDontVote hashtag, Choudary has argued that voting is a "sin" against Islam because Allah is "the only legislator." He has also said that Muslims who vote or run for public office are "apostates."
Despite several grassroots campaigns to encourage British Muslims to vote in greater numbers, some prominent Islamists in the UK claim that voting is a "sin."
Other British Islamists are following Choudary's lead. Bright yellow posters claiming that democracy "violates the right of Allah" have been spotted in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, and Leicester, as part of a grassroots campaign called #DontVote4ManMadeLaw.
One such poster stated:
"Democracy is a system whereby man violates the right of Allah and decides what is permissible or impermissible for mankind, based solely on their whims and desires.
"Islam is the only real, working solution for the UK. It is a comprehensive system of governance where the laws of Allah are implemented and justice is observed."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.