UK plans to outlaw religious bias

Britain has unveiled plans to stamp out religious discrimination.

    Muslims have long complained about rampant Islamophobia

    The announcement came during the Queen's Speech on Tuesday when the British monarch outlined the government's forthcoming legislative programme.

    "My government will continue to provide protection from discrimination and exploitation," Queen Elizabeth told parliament in London.

    "Legislation will be introduced to combat discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of religion, as well as race, sex and disability. A single commission for equality and human rights will be established."

    The proposed new law is intended to

    end an anomaly whereby British law

    offers protection to Jews

    and Sikhs under race legislation but not to Christians, Muslims,

    Buddhists or followers of other religions.

    However, it will have to be approved by parliamentary vote before it is put on the statute books.

    The government has already acknowledged that Muslims suffer from "a consistently higher level of unfair treatment than ... most other religious groups".

    Massoud Shadjareh of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission welcomed the move.

    "Outlawing discrimination on the basis of faith is something long overdue. Legislation on racial discrimination has itself been discriminatory against Muslims by protecting Jews and Sikhs but denying the same protection to Muslims," said Shadjareh.

    "Addressing this injustice is something that should be welcomed by everybody, it is essential for a multi-faith and multi-cultural society."

    Islamophobia

    At present, British law protects people on the basis of

    their colour, race or ethnic origin but not their religion.

    "Discrimination, in whatever form, is wholly unacceptable

    and the government is determined to tackle it," the Home Office

    said of the plans, outlined in parliament.

    The proposals will be welcomed by Britain's religious

    communities - particularly its 1.8 million Muslims who say they

    have been subjected to a surge in abuse since the attacks of

    September 11 2001, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    "Discrimination, in whatever form, is wholly unacceptable

    and the government is determined to tackle it"

    British Home Office statement

    Muslims have long argued that

    discrimination - which can take the form of insults or intimidation or being refused a job or a place at school - is rife.

    Earlier this year, a major report on British Muslims found that persistent and untackled Islamophobia could lead to "time-bombs" in the form of backlashes and bitterness.

    The Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia said the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has made life more difficult for Muslims in the UK.

    It criticised public bodies for failing to address "institutional Islamophobia" and warned that exclusion from public life perpetuated a feeling among some Muslims, particularly the young, that they do not belong in the country

    Pandora's box

    However, critics have warned that

    the proposed new laws could open a Pandora's box, pitting the

    rights of one minority against those of another.

    Non-religious campaigners said the proposals could

    create more problems than they solve.

    Atheists said they fear they will be turned into

    second-class citizens while gay rights activists said they have

    been persecuted by Christians for years and have never been

    offered protection in law.

    Muslims oppose Tony Blair's
    support for the 'war on terror'

    The government has tried before to introduce laws banning

    religious discrimination - in 2001, when it drafted sweeping

    new anti-terrorism legislation in the wake of the US attacks.

    But the House of Lords, Britain's upper parliamentary

    chamber, blocked the proposals, objecting to their status as an

    add-on to the anti-terror bill.

    Politicians have warned that the latest proposals face a

    similarly tough ride through parliament due to civil liberties

    concerns and overlaps with other laws.

    Tensions between Britain's Muslim and non-Muslim communities

    have been exacerbated by the "war on terror", in which Britain has

    played a lead role alongside the United States.

    The government says the new laws would apply equally to "radical"

    Muslim preachers, who urge their followers to pursue violence

    , as well as those who abuse Muslims.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera + Agencies


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