NEW PLANS have been unveiled in the UK to make incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence. Supporters of the new bill, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years, say it restores equal protection to all faiths, given that Jews and Sikhs are already covered by race hate laws.
The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill would create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred and would apply to comments made in public or in the media, as well as through written material. Home Office Minister Paul Goggins said: “It is about protecting the believer, not the belief.” Goggins said he did not expect many prosecutions under the new laws, but said it was important for Parliament to send out a clear message. “This will be a line in the sand. People of all backgrounds and faiths have a right to live free from hatred, racism and extremism. People will say offensive things, or put on offensive plays and there may be literature that causes offence. But the test is: Does this incite hatred in another person?” said the MP. Goggins said the attorney general would also be able to veto any prosecutions.
Conservative shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, said the proposed law would “seriously undermine freedom of speech” and would be “massively counter-productive”. “Religion, unlike race, is a matter of personal choice and, therefore, appropriate for open debate,” he argued, saying that aggravated crimes against religious groups were already protected through existing legislation. “This new law would technically prevent what many people may regard as reasonable criticism of devil worshippers and religious cults,” he said.
Is it sensible?
The government concedes that the legislation is partially a response to the anxieties of Muslims, concerned by what they see as an increasing ‘Islamophobia’ sweeping Britain since 9/11. Many people are likely to agree with actor Stephen Fry, who described it as “a sop to the Muslim community”.
In practice, the definition of what constitutes religious hatred is so ambiguous that the law is unworkable. The government may seek to deny it but, taken to its logical conclusion, transgressors would have included several high profile celebrities if this legislation were applied retrospectively. The late comedian Dave Allen, who made regular barstool swipes at the Catholic Church, would have been in trouble. So, too, would pop star Sinead O’Connor who publicly tore up a photograph of the Pope on television in protest at alleged child abuse in the Church. Another offender would have been former TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk for his attacks on Muslims. In the Express, in 1995, Kilroy-Silk wrote: “Muslims everywhere behave with equal savagery. They behead criminals, stone to death female adulterers, throw acid in the faces of women who refuse to wear the chador, mutilate the genitals of young girls and ritually abuse animals.” That would have been a clear jail sentence!
Many commentators feel the law is designed to check the rise of the British National Party, whose leader Nick Griffin has made repeated inflammatory remarks about Islam. The new law will shut down a perceived legal loophole that allows the BNP to campaign intensely against Islam. The far-right party, which previously talked of Jewish conspiracies, has clearly decided to change gear and whip up public anxiety against Muslims.
The vast majority of enlightened liberal opinion has no time for the BNP, aware of its opportunistic nature and fascist origins. But this new law has many unsettling implications. What happens if we expose what we perceive to be the destructive aspects of a particular faith? If we criticise practitioners of particular religions, are we likely to find ourselves before the courts?
Every religion has its fanatical zealots whose activities need to be scrutinised. A few years ago, a regular pundit on BBC2’s Late Review, the poet Tom Paulin, was heavily censured after referring to US-born Jewish settlers in the occupied territories as ‘Nazis’. No doubt, some would say that likening Jews to their most reviled enemy is an act of incitement and liable to prosecution under racial or religious legislation. The reality is that, when this new legislation comes into practice, a whole range of unorthodox views could face the guillotine.
Respect MP George Galloway has repeatedly criticised the neo-conservative Zionist (or did he really mean to say ‘Jewish’?) lobby in America, most recently before a Senate hearing in Washington. And was it really a coincidence that he challenged Oona King, a Jewish Labour MP in Bethnal Green? And what about former Labour MP Tam Dayell who suggested, on the eve of the Iraq war, that Tony Blair was unduly influenced by a “Jewish cabal” (note the use of the word “cabal” which reinforces the old stereotypes of Jews as demonic plotters).
I do not, of course, believe the aforementioned individuals to be worthy of prosecution of any kind. I am not necessarily defending their views, merely supporting their rights to dissent from the established orthodoxy. It would be utterly ludicrous (and counter-productive) to prosecute any of them for expressing opinions. The proposed new law will do little to quell deep-rooted prejudices and will only further stifle freedom of speech in Britain.
If we criticise the Mafia, is this an attack on Italians? If we criticise the IRA, is this a subtle way of inciting hatred against the Irish? Was singer Damon Albarn’s description of the Live 8 line-up as “hideously white” a way of inciting hatred against whites? This new law is oppressive and unenforceable and opens up the proverbial can of worms.
By Gabriel Hershman