In his column last Saturday, Charles Moore began with an almost unbelievably provocative question. "Was the prophet Mohammed a paedophile?" he asked.
The charge of paedophilia refers to Mohammed's marriage with Aisha. Yet a paedophile is one who is primarily aroused by children. For most of his married life, the Prophet (peace be upon him) had one wife, who was a widow with children of her own. After her death, he married others, most of whom were former widows themselves. Why would the Prophet have waited three years after his betrothal to Aisha � his only virgin bride � if not because he was waiting for her to attain puberty?
So the charge of paedophilia is nonsense; and, to be fair, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph acknowledged as much in his next paragraph. "People are perfectly entitled - rude and mistaken though they may be - to say that Mohammed was a paedophile," he wrote. Even so, the conjunction of the Prophet's name and this particular crime will have shocked Muslim readers.
As it happens, poetry in the Muslim world - and, in particular, that of the Urdu poet Allama Iqbal � abounds in complaints and reproaches made to God Almighty. Few poets, however, would dare to cast aspersions upon the name and memory of the blessed Prophet Mohammed. Witness the Persian couplet: Ba khuda deewana basho, Ba Muhammad hoshyar (Take liberty with God if you wish, but be careful with Mohammed).
European writers, though, have a history of taking liberties with the Prophet. As Minou Reeves, a former Iranian diplomat, observes in her book Mohammed in Europe: A Thousand Years of Western Myth-Making: "Over the course of no fewer than 13 centuries, a stubbornly biased and consistently negative outlook had persisted, permeating deep levels of European consciousness. In the works of an overwhelming majority of European writers, Mohammed was portrayed as a man of deep moral faults. Churchmen, historians, orientalists, biographers, philosophers, dramatists, poets and politicians alike had sought to attribute to Islam, and especially to Mohammed, fanatical and disreputable, even demonic characteristics."
It is no easy task to convey to a secular audience the immense love and esteem in which Muslims hold the Prophet. To us, he was the restorer of the worship of the One True God; teacher of an elegant and pristine monotheism; the friend of the orphans and the poor; a wise statesman, brave warrior, loving father, considerate husband; he was also the final of God's Prophets sent to mankind to remind us of the awesome Day of Judgment, when all will be called to account for the deeds we have committed during our lifetimes.
Anyway, back to Mr Moore. We seem to be revisiting the arguments that came to the fore during the Satanic Verses affair. Is freedom of expression without bounds? Muslims are not alone in saying "No" and calling for safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs. Earlier this year, the BBC accepted complaints from Catholics and withdrew its cartoon series Popetown. Why does society not show the same courtesy and sensitivity towards Muslims?
As you may have gathered, Mr Moore disapproves of the Government's proposal to outlaw incitement to religious hatred, seeing it as an "attempt to advance the legal privilege that Muslims claim for Islam". Quite what "privilege" Islam currently enjoys in Britain over and above other faiths, he does not say.
Yet the proposed legislation does not create a new offence as such. Such an offence already exists in relation to the Jewish and Sikh communities, by dint of their being regarded as mono-ethnic communities. It also exists in relation to all faith and belief communities in Northern Ireland. The Home Office proposal simply extends the current provisions to all faith communities in mainland Britain. If the present provisions in relation to Jews, Sikhs and Northern Ireland raise no concerns - and there is no real campaign to remove these provisions - why should they raise concerns if extended to other religions in Britain?
So, the incitement to religious hatred proposal is not a matter of advancing privileges for British Muslims. It's about establishing equality under the law.
The current loophole in our legislation has resulted in far Right groups such as the BNP modifying their racist rhetoric of yesteryear - no doubt out of fear of prosecution - into a more explicitly and aggressively anti-Muslim invective, this time without fear of breaking the law.
Stirring up hatred against people simply because of their religious beliefs or lack of them ought to be regarded as a social evil. The BNP's ongoing Islamophobia can and has led to criminal acts, abuse, discrimination, fear and disorder. At the moment, there are laws against those who are stirred into committing these offences, but not against those that do the stirring. In opposing the incitement to religious hatred provision, Charles Moore, Rowan Atkinson and the National Secular Society are unwittingly strengthening the hand of those, such as the BNP, who peddle religious hatred.
Quite a few red herrings have been floated this past week about free speech and the dangers of censorship. To be sure, proscribing legitimate free speech is not in the interest of any religion. The death of discussion, debate and robust criticism about a religion is the surest way of routing that religion itself. However, we can make a critical distinction between the substance and form of free speech. The law need not infringe on the substance but can assist to moderate the form, so that all people in this country, whatever their religion, may live in dignity, free from hatred and hostility.
As Martin Luther King observed: "The law might not change the hearts, but it can restrain the heartless." Modern Britain, like the rest of Europe, is now home to millions of Muslims. Some may have sought political refuge in our more democratic societies, some migrating for economic reasons.
Whatever their motives, they are now a part of the social fabric that constitutes these societies. Muslims in Britain do not seek to create an enclave or a parallel culture. They want to be respected as British. That is what they are. And the government that sees and treats them as such, by criminalising offences directed specifically at them, is a government that understands its obligations.
Iqbal Sacranie is secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain