The Daily Telegraph columnist Charles Moore was criticised by Muslim organisations yesterday for an article which began by asking if the prophet Muhammad was a paedophile.
He went on to argue that people were entitled to pose the question, because of the story that Muhammad married one of his wives, Aisha, when she was nine.
He said such a right would be lost under plans to introduce laws banning incitement to religious hatred.
The Muslim Association of Britain called for his sacking and said the paper should have known better, in the light of the Salman Rushdie affair.
Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said Mr Moore’s opening line was “breathtakingly provocative”. It was “shocking to see the name of the prophet appearing in conjunction with the world paedophile”.
The Islamic Human Rights Commission called for the Telegraph to be boycotted.
Mr Moore, a former editor of the paper, was unrepentant last night, saying the strong reaction showed that a law banning incitement to racial hatred would contribute to the “suppression of free speech”.
He said the MAB’s reaction was a “form of threat”.
Writing in the Telegraph on Saturday, Mr Moore said it seemed “anachronistic” to describe the prophet as a child-molester as “the marriage rules of his age and society were much more tribal and dynastic than our own”.
But he posed the question “because it seems to me that people are perfectly entitled—rude and mistaken though they may be—to say that Mohammed was a paedophile, but if David Blunkett gets his way, they may not be able to”.
He went on to say that the “push for a religious hatred law here is an attempt to advance the legal privilege that Muslims claim for Islam”.
The MAB said the article was full of “skewed interpretations and poisonous lies” and interpreted it as a “clear incitement to religious hatred and division”.
Speaking on its behalf, Anas Altikriti said: “Almost 15 years on from the infamous Salman Rushdie affair, one would have thought that the likes of the Daily Telegraph and its editors would have known better than to allow such filth and drivel to adorn their pages.”
The Islamic Human Rights Commission said in a statement: “It is time to realise the demonisation of Muslims, including vile attacks on their beliefs and the personalities they hold dear, does not conform to an ideal of free speech but actually exhibits the operation of discrimination in the public sphere that we have seen before and vowed never to allow to happen again.”
The Telegraph’s letters page was dominated yesterday by reaction to Mr Moore’s article. One said it was not universally accepted that Aisha was married at nine: numerous sources made her 19.