Benedict Rogers: Hunt’s review of British policy on the persecution of Christians is crucial and courageous

The Foreign Secretary had already impressed me with his focus on human rights. Now he has created new hope for Christians around the world.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a former parliamentary candidate and a Senior Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute. He is the author of six books, including “The Very Stones Cry Out: The Persecuted Church – Pain, Passion and Praise” (co-authored with Baroness Cox).

I have always been passionate about defending freedom of religion or belief as a human right for everyone, of all religions and none. I have worked for many years with and for the Rohingyas and other Muslims in Burma, the Ahmadiyya and Shi’a in Indonesia, the Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners in China and twice visited and campaigned for an atheist in jail in Indonesia. My colleagues in CSW have similarly championed the cause of the Baha’is, the Yazidis, Hindus in Pakistan and others. Our motto is “everyone free to believe”.

However, for some time there has been a sense that the persecution of Christians has not been receiving the attention it deserves in certain quarters of our foreign policy establishment. Regardless of your views of Christianity, in simple statistical terms Christians around the world are persecuted in the most countries, from the widest range of sources – from radical Islamism, extremist Hinduism, Buddhist nationalism, from Communist authoritarianism, militant secularism or non-State actors such as paramilitaries and drug cartels in parts of Latin America. The International Society for Human Rights estimates that Christians are victims of 80 per cent of all acts of religious intolerance, even though they only represent 30 per cent of the global population. The Pew Research Center’s most recent report on global restrictions on religion states that the number of countries where various religious groups were harassed either by governments or social groups increased in 2016, and the most widely targeted groups were Christians, who face harassment in 144 countries, closely followed by Muslims, in 142 countries.

That is why Jeremy Hunt’s announcement on Boxing Day, to conduct a review of the Foreign Office’s response to the persecution of Christians worldwide, is so significant. In the five months since he became Foreign Secretary, I have already been impressed by the way Hunt has prioritised human rights, and shown personal leadership on many issues. As I have written on this site previously, his Policy Exchange speech was one of the most important speeches I have read by any Foreign Secretary. His focus on media freedom, his handling of Yemen, his decision to meet the wives of human rights lawyers jailed in China, his visit to Burma, his statements on the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, handling of the case of Matthew Hedges jailed in the United Arab Emirates, and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in prison in Iran, are just a few examples of how he has increased attention on human rights. This latest announcement is another, and is potentially the most courageous.

I had the privilege of participating in a meeting a week ago, hosted by the Foreign Secretary, alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, other senior church leaders and NGOs, and survivors of persecution from Iraq, Pakistan and Eritrea. I had the opportunity to highlight the situation in China, Indonesia, Burma and North Korea. The persecution of Christians in the Middle East is of course the most egregious, but it is not the only part of the world where Christians are in danger. I told Hunt that just three days before our meeting, I had received an email report about a Christian community in Burma holding a pre-Christmas celebration and being attacked and stoned by a mob of fifty militant Buddhist nationalists. China is facing the most severe crackdown on Christianity since the Cultural Revolution, involving the closure of many churches, the imprisonment of pastors and the destruction of crosses. In Indonesia, I visited three churches in Surabaya earlier this year which had been attacked by a family of suicide bombers. Across Asia, Africa, Latin America as well as the Middle East, Christians increasingly live in fear.

So a review of the Foreign Office’s policy specifically on the persecution of Christians worldwide is extremely welcome. We will see what comes out of the review when the Bishop of Truro, appointed to lead it, reports next Easter. I hope that at a minimum it will lead to the British government being more consistently outspoken, using its diplomatic networks to better defend persecuted Christians, ensuring our aid policy genuinely does not discriminate on religious grounds, for or against any religion, but recognises that faith-based aid groups can be part of the solution, and co-ordinates better with like-minded governments – particularly the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the EU’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief and the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief – to ensure that the crisis facing Christians worldwide is no longer ignored.

As the Foreign Secretary says, “Britain has long championed international religious freedom. So often, the persecution of Christians is a telling early warning sign of the persecution of every minority… We must never allow a misguided political correctness to inhibit our response to the persecution of any religious minority.”

The test will be in the outcomes of the review and in the implementation of what recommendations may come, but in taking this initiative Hunt has already symbolically shifted the Foreign Office in a better direction, and for that he deserves our appreciation.

Exclusive. “In a timely manner”. The best part of six months on, the Party’s inquiry clears Johnson over his burka column.

Launched amidst the inevitable blaze of publicity, the decision has been smuggled out like the fabled thief in the night.

“When we receive a formal complaint, we will investigate it in a timely and confidential manner,” Part Two of the Conservative Party’s Code of Conduct declares.  Our readers must decide for themselves whether or not whether an inquiry that reports after the best part of six months is timely.

For that is how long it has taken the Party probe into Boris Johnson’s Daily Telegraph column about the burka, originally reported on August 9, to conclude.

ConservativeHome is told that the former Foreign Secretary was tipped off during the past week that it has cleared him of breaching the code – indeed, his friends say that the report found him “respectful and tolerant” of wearing the burka.  The decision appears to have been communicated last Wednesday – the very day that Tory MPs voted in a ballot of confidence in Theresa May’s leadership.

Launched amidst the inevitable blaze of publicity, after Brandon Lewis originally called on Johnson to apologise, the inquiry’s decision has been smuggled out like the fabled thief in the night.

Downing Street and CCHQ realised last summer that the strike from the top on the former Foreign Secretary had caused more trouble to them than it was worth, and was at one point poised to announce that he had been cleared.  But it was decided to wait for a better moment, until all the fuss had died down.  This is it (more or less).

What of the column itself? In our view, some of its extravagances and orotundities were over the top.  Then again, that’s what Johnson gets paid £275,000 a year for by the paper, and you will never see this site knock a journalist’s earning power.

The common sense response from CCHQ would have been to say that the column, though not its terms, had a point – after all, its own integration adviser had made much the same argument – but add that most Muslim women in Britain don’t wear the burka or the niqab.  So the former Foreign Secretary’s point really didn’t stretch all that far, at least as far as this country is concerned.

The long and short of it is that the Party hierarchy’s handling of the incident gave Johnson’s column additional readership, made him into a free speech martyr, failed to satisfy his Muslim and other critics (who will now slam the inquiry’s decision)…

…gave anti-Muslim bigots an additional opportunity to call for a burka ban, let down Muslim activists who campaign against face veils, and risked claims of being motivated by bad blood over Brexit.  That last consideration was scarcely minimised by the fact that – as we pointed out at the time – his ultimate judges would be Lewis and possibly Theresa May herself.

The very next day, the Party Chairman recused himself from elements of the inquiry. The code empowers him to appoint the investigating panel of any inquiry and sometimes to rule on its findings – a classic illustration in this case of the law of unexpected consequences.

In the wake of the terror attack on London Bridge, the Prime Minister said that “enough is enough”, and went on to range more widely, saying that dealing with extremism would require some “difficult and often embarrassing conversations”.  “We need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities but as one truly United Kingdom,” she added.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of the Johnson burka controversy is that the Government’s enthusiasm for participating in such conversations appears to be extremely limited.

Andy Street: In the West Midlands, inclusion is more than a buzzword. It’s turning our diversity into a strength.

It is a sad and all-too-obvious fact that most of the decision makers I meet in my role as Mayor are people who look like me.

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Diversity defines modern Britain. I have often written about Urban Conservatism and the new brand of politics we are pioneering in the West Midlands. This new approach is about inclusivity and opportunity for a young and diverse population, and I have tried to be a Mayor who represents everyone – all places, faiths, ethnicities, genders, sexualities and (dis)abilities.

But if the message of Urban Conservatism is to resonate, we have to ensure that inclusivity not only means reaching out to the communities that make up modern Britain, but that they are represented in all walks of life and at all levels.

It is a sad and all-too-obvious fact that most of the decision makers I meet in my role as Mayor are people who look like me. I could not and still can’t fully understand why the demographics of this incredibly diverse region are not reflected in its leadership. Like elsewhere, the region is made up of 50 per cent women and 20 per cent people with disabilities (or with a long-term illness).

But it’s the ethnic diversity which makes it special. We say this is a place where you can see the whole world in seven boroughs. Birmingham’s population is 58 per cent white, with 27 per cent of our residents being of Asian descent and nine per cent Black. In neighbouring Coventry, two thirds identify as White British, a statistic that is broadly reflected across the rest of the conurbation. Birmingham is soon going to be a ‘majority-minority’ city – but this is not obvious when you look at the make-up of decision-makers in the City region.

So in September last year I launched the Leadership Commission, made up of independent commissioners and chaired by Anita Bhalla, which aimed to understand why the wider leadership of our region is not more representative of the people it serves. Its report, compiled by researchers at the University of Birmingham and other seats of learning across the region, reinforced our understanding of many longstanding issues and made clear recommendations for action.

It found that women are better represented in leadership roles in the public sector than in the private sector, where they are significantly under-represented, and that people from black and ethnic minority groups are under-represented in senior leadership positions both in education and the private sector. The evidence also highlighted how disabled employees are under-represented in professional roles in the public sector, but not the private sector in the West Midlands.

Responding to the recommendations to deal with the clear imbalances that have been highlighted we now have a clear implementation plan which starts with the business community.

Many businesses recognise the need to connect with communities on a broad level, not only because there is a business case for inclusivity, but because it is the right thing to do. Slowly but surely, I sense that the dials are changing, and the “Inclusive Leaders’ Forum” has come together. It is committed to improving the diversity of leadership in their organisations through better recruitment, retention and promotion. Members include local councils, the NHS, big employers like PwC, KPMG, universities and major retailers like Selfridges along with SMEs and microbusinesses. In January we will be launching an ambitious drive to recruit a thousand more organisations in the West Midlands to the forum.

The Government is also playing its part in promoting inclusivity. Work to better understand the Gender Pay Gap – with 10,000 of the UK’s larger companies providing details of their employees’ pay – is a major step forward in enabling senior decision makers to do things differently. I have no doubt the Race Pay Gap will highlight the same kinds of inequalities in our workplaces, and be equally impactful in driving action.

Similarly the Government is committed to greater diversity in Public Appointments. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of welcoming the Minister for Implementation, Oliver Dowden, to Birmingham, for the first roadshow aimed at encouraging a more diverse pool of applicants for public roles. We will now work with the Cabinet Office on those practical skills needed for the application and interview process, and providing guidance for public appointees. It is only by providing transparency in our processes that we will see people who are less likely to take part in civic activities take that first step and engage. Crucially, we also have to drum up confidence about taking that step into public roles.

A key asset in addressing all these issues in the West Midlands is the strength of faith organisations and faith-related activity in the region. Therefore one of my first commitments after becoming Mayor was to convene a group of faith leaders and ask them to design the Mayor and Faith Conference. The conference took place in November last year, and brought together 400 different faith organisations at the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham. It was a day of optimism and exploring how faith groups could work together on homelessness, leadership, hate crime and economic growth. The conclusion was obvious – the faith communities are a powerful part of our collective leadership. We have since created an Action Plan, and are working through all the good ideas that came out of the conference.

As Mayor of this diverse region, I am committed to visiting places of worship and understanding more about the rich fabric of faith which is so important to the residents of the West Midlands. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, which is most important pilgrimage site of Sikhism. This visit allowed me to build on all I have learnt from the gurdwaras into which I have been welcomed across the region. Iftars are already in the diary for next Ramadan, and this festive season I have been meeting the Jewish community for Hannukah and visiting various churches in their preparations for Christmas. Diwali is also a big deal for my office, with Birmingham’s Victoria Square annually being transformed into an Indian celebration of the festival of light.

The lesson of all this involvement is clear – that each faith deserves to be respected in its own right. Each gives morality and purpose to its own community. But each faith also teaches respect and tolerance for every other community. It is through understanding such common values that our society as a whole can thrive – and in a sense the West Midlands is the exemplar of that.

Urban Conservatism’s message of hope, opportunity and progress resonates with all communities – and we now need to show that we are serious about truly representing the people in them. Although there is so much still to do, we are starting to change the way our Party is viewed in traditional Labour areas. Labour do not and should not have a monopoly on votes from certain communities.

In the West Midlands, we are ensuring that inclusion is more than a ‘buzzword’ – it’s an approach that is turning our diversity into a strength.

A cry of rage against the BBC

Robin Aitken, who worked for the Corporation for 25 years, accuses it of propagating liberalism and suppressing conservatism behind a pretend impartiality.

The Noble Liar: How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda by Robin Aitken

Do we need a book to tell us the BBC is biassed in favour of every progressive nostrum? One of my many weaknesses as a conservative is that I cannot bring myself, except on rare occasions, to get really angry about the Corporation’s coverage of current affairs.

It seems to me that it is not so difficult to detect and discount the preconceptions which inform its coverage, and to appreciate the work of the many excellent journalists who are employed there.

Robin Aitken, who worked for the BBC for 25 years, is made of sterner stuff. He is in a state of bubbling indignation with the bias he finds:

“The BBC has wholeheartedly thrown its lot in with the liberal reformers; there has been no ‘impartiality’ on any of the big moral issues of the past half-century. In every instance, the socially conservative argument has been depicted as callous, reactionary and dogmatic. Any counterargument to the prevailing liberal consensus is now ignored altogether; social conservative voices are conspicuous by their absence on mainstream current affairs programmes.”

Aitken accuses the Corporation of maintaining “an elaborately constructed pretence” of neutrality, while acting as

“a strident cheerleader for globalisation, immigration and ‘diversity’ (a quality which, in BBC usage, is always to be applauded, even though academic studies have shown that too much diversity lessens community cohesion).”

He suggests that in “BBC-world we are all liberals now”, and posits the existence of

“a nexus of media interests which is militantly liberal in outlook, and which has systematically destroyed the foundational beliefs and practices which informed the lives of previous generations. This process started in the post-war years, gathered strength in the 1960s and, since then, has enjoyed virtually uninterrupted success in the furtherance of its goals (the EU referendum is the exception and, at the time of writing, it is not clear whether the wishes of the voters will actually result in Britain leaving the EU, such is the ferocity of the fightback against Brexit).”

He illustrates his thesis with many striking observations. It is true, as he says, that BBC people quite often go on nowadays to be heads of Oxbridge colleges – by his count there are now six of these. And it is also true that our universities and schools contain a far smaller proportion of teachers who think of themselves as conservative than was the case only a generation or two ago. There has been a long march by self-righteous liberals through many of our institutions.

Divorce, feminism, mental health, abortion, euthanasia, Christianity, Islam: on all these questions, the BBC tends to promote  whatever the latest progressive orthodoxy may be, and to ignore the huge volume of evidence which contradicts that orthodoxy. Aitken examines these issues in turn, and points to the inconvenient facts.

In Aitken’s view, the BBC propagates “a series of noble lies in pursuit of a political agenda”, but “sooner or later people will realise they have been duped”, which will be “a moment of great peril for the established order”.

One of the errors he makes here is to exaggerate the credulity of the public. Go into any pub in the land and one has always been able to find people who do not believe a word either politicians or journalists (even BBC journalists) tell them.

A second error is to exaggerate the influence of the BBC. Towards the end of the book, he glances across the Atlantic:

“When President Trump was merely ‘Candidate Trump’ on the campaign trail, he hammered home one message in particular; he turned on the mainstream US media and accused it of peddling ‘fake news’. As anyone who has had any experience of US journalists will know, they do not, as a group, lack self-esteem; on the contrary, American media folk are monumentally self-important. Trump’s assault on their profession was bitterly resented and dismissed as the words of an inveterate liar who lacked the righteous virtues they see themselves possessing.”

But as Aitken points out, proving the facts in a story are correct – something over which The New York Times and other liberal American newspapers take inordinate pains – does not in itself exonerate the media from the charge of printing fake news:

“Trump wasn’t saying that the press and the TV networks were getting the facts wrong, rather, they were telling the wrong stories. And Trump had a good point: it’s a question of fairness, not facts. A report can be accurate and yet deeply unfair whether by selection or omission. ‘Fake news’ is not so much about factual inaccuracy as about ideological bias…”

Aitken often implies there can be such a thing as journalism written without bias. That strikes me as a very dubious assumption. Whether one is a historian or a journalist, one can to some extent be aware of one’s own assumptions, and can try to admit these to the reader. But one cannot write without preconceptions, or bias as it will be called by one’s critics.

He also tends to underestimate the extent to which egregious errors, though they may persist for a long time, do eventually tend to be noticed and perhaps even corrected. So immigration, which for a long time was a suppressed subject, is now quite openly debated. And the oddity of Western feminists standing up for Islamic dress codes is more and more noted, even though the discrepancy has not been resolved.

Part of Aitken’s horror is at the “trashy, tawdry and shallow” culture which we inhabit, and which he believes to be “in large measure the creation of our media”. But he does admit, on page 128, that the “collapse in the prestige, influence and centrality of Christianity in Britain” has its roots a long way before the BBC. Arnold wrote Dover Beach, about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith, in 1867.

The French Revolution, for which the men of letters of the Enlightenment had created the intellectual climate, was a more savage onslaught on the Church than anything perpetrated by the errant successors of Lord Reith. To this day, one can establish someone’s political outlook by asking whether they are for or against the Revolution.

Burke wrote a great counterblast to the Revolution. Who in recent years has written a great counterblast to liberalism, or a great defence of conservatism? It is no good blaming everything on the liberals. When the conservative case is not made, it is likely to go by default.

Michael Wharton, who worked at the BBC for ten years before Colin Welch recruited him in 1957 to write the Peter Simple column for The Daily Telegraph, made wonderful, despondent jokes about the whole “left-wing package deal”, personified in a range of ludicrous characters. There are virtually no jokes in Aitken’s book, but it maps a world of self-obsessed and irresistibly comic liberals against whom the pendulum may already have begun to swing.

Theresa May under fire for alleged Brexit cover-up

Also making headlines: Macron’s energy plan fails to win hearts and minds and German politicians head to Islam conference.

United Kingdom

— The news that the full legal advice about Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal will not be published has sparked fears of a cover-up, the Telegraph reported.

— The BBC featured coverage of May’s trip to Scotland, where the PM is attempting to sell her Brexit deal.

The Times reported that Downing Street is trying to exclude other political leaders — such as First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon — from a TV debate planned with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

France

France24 featured an overview of President Emmanuel Macron’s new energy policy, which he announced Tuesday.

— “He hears, he listens, he understands. But he stays on course,” Le Figaro wrote, referring to the fact that Macron had refused to bow to the demands of the Yellow Jacket protesters.

Le Monde reported that a spokesman for the protesters called for the demonstrations to continue this weekend, adding that “the French were not convinced at all” by Macron’s announcements.

Italy

— After Rome yesterday announced it would amend its controversial budget plan in a bid to defuse its spat with Brussels, La Repubblica analyzed what’s likely to change.

Corriere della Sera covered Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio’s fight with his father after reports emerged that his construction company employed staff off the books.

Germany

— Ahead of a conference on Islam chaired by the Christian Democrats’ Horst Seehofer in Germany today, parliamentary faction leader of the Greens Katrin Göring-Eckardt said she feared much of the time allotted to the debate would be wasted as a result of the “atmospheric disturbance” caused by Seehofer’s presence, Der Spiegel reported.

— Amidst renewed tensions in Ukraine, U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to cancel a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, FAZ reported.

Hath not a Muslim eyes?

The Government should adopt a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred. But it must be based on objective criteria, overseen by people we elect.

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”  This is a proposed definition urged on the Government by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims.  Let’s ponder it for a few moments.

Some people who hate Islam or Muslims or both are undoubtedly racists.  But are all of them?  We don’t believe so, for two main reasons.  First, some are members of the same race – if that is quite the right term here – as very many Muslims themselves.  It would not be easy to postulate a racial difference between, say, a Hindu and a Muslim originating from the Punjab.  Second, others clearly detest Islam or Muslims for religious reasons, not racial ones.

We believe that hating Muslims is always wrong and hating Islam completely unreasonable.  Then again, much hangs what one means by Islam.  Like Judaism and Christianity, its fellow Abrahamic religions, Islam is a vast, multi-faceted, complex faith.  This site has always maintained that a distinction can and should be drawn between Islam and Islamism.  The first is a great religion, the majority manifestation of which, throughout its history, has been the traditional, classical variety.  The second is a politicised variant – a kind of bastard child of Salafist practice and western technology.  ISIS are at one of its scale and the Muslim Brotherhood at another.  On our view, one should be phobic about it.

It is to the credit of the all-party group that it in no way seeks to silence opinions of this kind. “Criticism of religion is a fundamental right in an open society and is enshrined in our commitment to freedom of speech,” it says in its report, Islamophobia Defined, which proposes the definition.  But if people are to be free to be phobic about Islam – or Judaism, or Christianity, or atheism, or any other form of belief – would it really make sense for public policy to target something called Islamophobia, any more than it might target, say, Judaeophobia, Christianopobia or Atheismopobia?  Wouldn’t government do better to take aim at anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice?

Our sense is that the report recognises the problem.  “Rooted in” appears to betray a certain nervousness about the claim of racism, almost as though the report’s authors had thought through the weaknesses in it that we outline above.  The end of its proposed definition is much nearer the mark than the beginning.  It is incontestible that Muslims are sometimes singled out for violence and hatred because of expressions of their religion: wearing a headscarf, say, or attending a mosque.  “Muslimness” may be a jargony word, but it describes a real thing.  Indeed, the report itself is the result of “an inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred”, as it confirms.  The yoked mention of the second may reveal a residual nervousness about whether the first is of any real use.

We apologise if our analysis of this definition seems a bit abstracted – offered as though the terms concerned were debating points for an evening at the Oxford Union, rather than having implications for people and their lives.  Which they do.  After all, words have consequences, and the Group wants the Government to adopt, promote and further its own definition of Islamophobia, in much the same way that successive governments have long taken up the Working Definition of Antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.  (Yes, that’s the one to which Jeremy Corbyn and his claque have been so resistant, with consequences to the Labour Party’s name and electoral performance.)

The Government presently uses no definition at all.  We suspect that the driving reason is that it recognises the deep problems that the term “Islamophobia” presents for public policy.  It wouldn’t do for Ministers to seem to be giving Islam special protection from criticism.  But we believe that it would be right for them to work towards a working definition of anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice that government would adopt in much the same way that it does the working definition of antisemitism.  One does not have to agree with the report’s claim that Islamophobia is “Britain’s bigotry blind spot” to believe that anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred is an evil – and a problem.  Criticising religious beliefs is one thing (though we prefer it to be done with temperance).  Abusing its practioners, even when the bar is set below the level at which the law bites, is another.  The report has plenty of examples of the last to offer.

It is worth adding that for government to adopt a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice, to sit alongside the anti-semitism one, would reopen a question whose implications for the way we live stretch wider than both.

It is, in a nutshell: who decides?  A racist or religious hate incident is defined as being so “if the victim or anyone else thinks it was carried out because of hostility or prejudice based on race or religion”.  In one way, this makes sense.  A Jew or a Muslim is likely to be more alert to prejudice aimed at either than a third party will be.  In another, and we believe more profoundly, it doesn’t.  There must surely be some objective basis to determining a claim, let alone a crime.  Feeling should walk in step with fact.  On its own, it isn’t enough, or shouldn’t be.

This line of thought can be applied to the five tests which the report sets out “to determine whether what we are dealing with is reasonable criticism of Islam or Muslims or Islamophobia”.  The fifth is “insincere criticism for ulterior motives”.  The last is everywhere and so is the first.  But who is to decide who else has a motive that may be malign, or whose criticism is insincere?  The question can’t be ducked if any new definition is to have real teeth.  And there would be no point in having a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred without them, even if it aims to work without further use of the law and the courts.

The Government should be very wary of tests that are essentially subjective, or giving anyone special status to judge motives and sincerity.  This is part of the reason that this site is reflexively hostile to seeking to define extremism in law.  So: let government adopt a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred.  That’s the central, correct thrust of the all-party group’s report.  But it must be based on objective criteria, overseen by people we elect, and who can therefore be held accountable.  Meanwhile, “Islamophobia” should be dropped altogether.  The report reads to us as though its authors know that the word, first popularised by the Runnymede Trust over 20 years ago, has outlived its time and is lingering on life support.  But they cannot quite bring themselves to turn off the machine.

Asia Bibi should be offered asylum in Britain

Hers is a test case for Ministers, for Muslim organisations in Britain, for free speech – for what sort of country we want to be.

The most intractable conversation I had with Kashmiri and Pakistani-origin constituents, during my nine years as MP for Wycombe, wasn’t about the Iraq war, Israel’s two military campaigns against Gaza, its incursion into Lebanon against Hezbollah, or the Afghanistan war.  Discussion about all these was often difficult, but it was always straightforward – debate about what Britain’s foreign and security policy ought to be.

No, it was about the so-called Danish cartoons – the twelve illustrations published in Jyllands-Posten, a newspaper in Denmark, which depicted Mohammed.  I met with a delegation of these constituents for a discussion about them – though, on second thoughts, I withdraw the word “discussion”, which implies a common basis for talking about a subject, however swiftly or strongly disagreements about it then emerge.

There was no such shared ground.  Instead, the group and I talked past each other for the best part of half-an-hour.  Their starting-point, though seldom directly stated, was that cartoons of Mohammed should not be published.  It wasn’t clear whether they believed that the state should ban any such illustrations, or whether artists should simply self-censor: this seemed to shift back and forth.  But what quickly became evident was that two conflicting worldviews were present in the room that spoke different languages.  They were like the lines in Marvell’s poem that “though infinite can never meet”.

One was mine: that free speech about religion is integral to liberal democracy.  The other was theirs: that blasphemy must be barred.  One was modern, the other pre-modern (though it is worth bearing in mind that common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel weren’t abolished until as recently as 2008, though they had recently been honoured in the breach rather than the observance).

This may be a useful background against which to consider the Asia Bibi case.  She is a Christian who faced the death sentence under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.  Originally framed to prohibit blasphemy against any recognised religion, they have increasingly targeted non-Muslims.  Since 1990, those who make remarks considered derogatory of Mohammed can be punished by death. A Muslim judge must preside at the trial.  Bibi was arrested after an altercation with fellow villagers in the Punjab.  It is claimed that her family had previously been involved in a dispute about property with another family in the village.  They are reportedly the only Christians in the village.

Bibi was tried and convicted.  The High Court then upheld the sentence on appeal.  Last month, the Supreme Court quashed it – citing “material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses”.  Whatever may or may not have been said, the manipulation of the blasphemy laws as a means of paying back grudges happens in Pakistan.  It may be worth noting that the woman whose quarrel with Bibi led to the arrest – she said that the latter should not have drunk from a cup used by Muslims – is reported to have been a member of the family involved in the property row.

Though found not guilty by the court, Bibi is still locked up in prison.  In short, Imran Khan’s government has done a deal with the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik political party, which bars her from leaving the country.  She must wait until “the Supreme Court makes a final review of its verdict”.  Such proceedings can take years.

Some of Bibi’s supporters here claim that the Government is too frightened of a hostile reaction from British Muslims to offer Bibi asylum.  The claim is unproven – and, after all, she is not presently in a position to travel anywhere.  Government sources suggest that Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid are not closed to an asylum offer.  Like William Hague last week, they indicate that more may be going on than meets the eye.  However, it would not be surprising were Ministers to be lobbying for Bibi to be freed from Pakistan to find refuge elsewhere in the West, in concert with other governments.  (By the way: there’s not been a peep on her case from Labour.)

At any rate, hers is a test case for freedom.  It should not be assumed that opinion in Pakistan is universally supportive of the original verdict.  The country has a liberal middle class.  But theirs is a minority view.  Pakistan has travelled a very long way from the vision expressed by Jinnah, the founder of the state: “Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State to be ruled by priests with a divine mission”.  Horrifying videos show crowds chanting for Bibi’s death.

Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of the Punjab, who spoke up for Bibi and against the laws, was assassinated by a member of his own bodyguard.  The only Christian member of the country’s Cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, who took the same position, was shot dead by gunmen in a car ambush.  Returning to Britain, we understand why Ministers are reluctant to spell out their plans in public.  But we believe that they should be making an asylum offer for Bibi private.  We hope that she comes to Britain.

Finally, hers is not only a test case for the Government, but also for Muslim organisations in Britain – or at least those who claim to speak for British Muslims.  Some are effectively blackballed by Ministers for reasons connected with extremism.  There is debate back and forth about how extremism can be defined.  We are very doubtful whether it can or should be be in law.

But one can surely say of extremism, as an American judge once said of pornography, that one knows it when one sees it.  Support for murdering someone who expresses a view about religion is extreme, by any reasonable standard.  If groups shunned by Ministers want to to meet with them, they can start by condemning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, loud and clear.  And add that Bibi would be welcome here.