The latest in a series of confrontations between the Commons and the Lords begins today, when the Government's hugely controversial Bill to outlaw incitement to religious hatred returns to the upper chamber.
Since it was announced, the legislation has brought together an extraordinary collection of opponents, including the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis; the comedian Rowan Atkinson; the former archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey; the National Secular Society and the Evangelical Alliance. So dreadful is this proposed piece of legislation that people who rarely agree on anything are united in opposition to a law that will curb free speech and embolden religious extremists to launch assaults on members of other faiths and secularists.
I don't think it's going too far to suggest that ministers' stubborn refusal to drop the Bill has already changed the atmosphere of this country, sending a signal that the Government no longer supports one of the cornerstones of democracy. In recent months, Sikh rioters have forced the closure of a play in Birmingham, objecting to the fact that some scenes were set in a Sikh temple; the writers of Jerry Springer: The Opera received torrents of hate mail; and the BBC was targeted by evangelical Christians, who tried to frighten the corporation into cancelling a broadcast of the play on BBC2.
When the BBC refused to back down, the home addresses and phone numbers of 15 executives were posted on a Christian website; some received death threats and the BBC had to hire a security firm to guard their families. I don't recognise this as the tolerant country in which I grew up, where people were free to criticise religion in trenchant terms and believers responded, if they felt so moved, without resorting to threats.
For four years, as chair of the Pen Writers in Prison Committee, I campaigned on behalf of journalists and writers abroad, demanding their governments protect them from intimidation. Now, I'm sorry to say, I see those threats coming home.
Two weeks ago, in a tongue-in-cheek column calling on the British Government to play fair and outlaw misogyny as well as incitement to religious hatred, I made some critical remarks about the Koran. I've said harsher things in book reviews, but The Independent has become the object of an e-mail campaign which is clearly designed to frighten the paper out of giving me space.
I don't want to make too much of this but I can't help thinking it says something very worrying about the state we're in. Extremists have apparently decided that they will not tolerate any criticism of their religion, even in a newspaper renowned for its coverage of racist attacks and opposition to the Iraq war.
By now, a whole series of incidents has exposed the Government's fundamental mistake in ever contemplating a Bill to outlaw incitement to religious hatred: its naïve assumption that people with strong religious convictions are always helpless victims, in need of protection from attack. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that they are as likely to be perpetrators. It isn't just that the Government doesn't know this; it actively doesn't want to know, judging by a little-noticed exchange that took place in the House of Lords just before the July 7 bombings in London.
The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Avebury asked whether the Government would ensure that, in future, the Crown Prosecution Service records the religion of the perpetrator, as well as the victim, in religiously aggravated offences. The answer was that while the issue is under review, the Government has no immediate plans to ensure that such information is recorded.
But limited statistics for the year 2003-2004 have been obtained by the National Secular Society, and they make fascinating reading. While Muslims were the victims in half of the cases of religiously aggravated attacks, they were also the perpetrators in six cases in which the defendants' religion was recorded by the CPS. The next largest group was Christian (4), while in one case the perpetrators were recorded as Satanists.
We are already paying too high a price for ministers' desire to repair the damage done to their relations with Muslim communities by the Iraq war. Politicians who support the Bill to ban incitement to religious hatred have yet to produce any justification for treating all believers as jolly nice people, who want just as much freedom for other faiths and non-believers as they demand for themselves.
The evidence lies in the other direction and if the Government is bone-headed enough to press ahead with the legislation, it runs the risk of creating a climate of ever-greater intolerance and intimidation of writers, producers and comedians.Reuse content