The British government wants a new law that would make it a crime to stir up religious hatred, a proposal aimed primarily at protecting the country's Muslims.

The British home secretary, David Blunkett, says the law would target extremists who make provocative statements that could lead to attacks on members of a religious community.

British laws against incitement of racial hatred already protect Jews and Sikhs. But Muslim leaders say a new law is needed for their community. Shabana Khan is a spokeswoman for the Muslim Council of Britain.

"The Muslim community is a very diverse community," said Shabana Khan. "The current legislation only protects racial groups. Muslims can be Asian, Arab, European, African. They can come from any part of the world or any racial background, so the current legislation doesn't protect them."

In presenting his proposal, Mr. Blunkett stressed that the law would bar inflammatory speeches by radical Muslim clerics as well as Christian zealots.

"If someone is preaching hatred against Christianity, and is calling for a jihad [holy war] because of people's faith, then they would be caught just as someone who is preaching hate because someone is of the Islamic faith," he said.

But there are critics of the proposed legislation, which was already defeated once in the upper house of parliament (House of Lords), out of fear the law would curb freedom of speech.

An Indian-born senior lawmaker, Meghnad Desai, told British television much of the hateful rhetoric heard in Britain is aimed more at ethnicity than religion.

"It's not a matter of Islam," said Meghnad Desai. "It's a matter of ethnicity, of Arabs, or Indians or Pakistanis. And we need to get that very clear, and it's very difficult if you use religion as a label."

British Muslims have complained of being stigmatized since the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States. Adding to the tension are several high-profile cases against British Muslims suspected of involvement in international terrorism.

These include a suicide bombing in Israel, the detention of several British Muslims on the battlefields of Afghanistan, and suspected plots involving bomb-making materials and ricin poison.