June 10, 2005

Thou shalt not bear false witness, for it is the law.

United Kingdom: New laws against incitement to religious hatred have received strong criticism, some of it hypocritical. The Racial and Religious Hated Bill would create make incitement to religious hatred an offence, but the definition includes words and behaviour which is likely to stir up religious hatred too.

Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris is concerned that the plans will stifle freedom of expression, and that it is too broad a measure for dealing with what is essentially race hatred. He has put forward an amendment to the Bill with narrows its remit to specifically to outlaw reference to a religion or religious belief or to a person's membership or presumed membership of a religious group as a pretext for stirring up racial hatred against a racial group. The amendment as written makes no provision for dealing with sectarianism - which is analogous to racism as it is really hatred of somone on the basis of the perceived religious beliefs of their parents.

The Conservatives are expected to support this amendment, although their reasons for opposing the legislation are different - it would prevent fundies from lying about minority faiths! Conservative shadow Home Secretary David Davis started off well enough when he pointed out that law would seriously undermine freedom of speech and be massively counter-productive. But he then noted:

Whilst this new law would technically prevent what many people may regard as reasonable criticism of devil worshippers and religious cults.

And presumably prevent reasonable criticism of barking mad fundies who use their religion as an excuse to spread hatred about minority faiths, pooves etc.

Home Office Minister Paul Goggins insisted that the Bill was to protect believers, not belief, but as The Guardian observes: what identifies such a group is its beliefs, so the distinction is in practice opaque.

Comedians are also worried about the Bill.

Actor Stephen Fry said the plans were a sop to the Muslim community, whose problems really centred around race, not religion.

Religion, surely if it is worth anything, doesn't need protection against anything I can say, he said.

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee also has harsh words about the Bill.

The government claims that Muslims of all races need equal protection with Jews and Sikhs, who are already covered by race laws. But if Labour were advocating equality between all religions, they would repeal the blasphemy laws that only cover Christians, remove the bishops from the Lords and abolish religious state schools: 30% of state schools are religious, almost all Christian controlled. These privileges for Christianity cause great resentment among the other faiths: many think this is their blasphemy law.

This bill is not closing a loophole as Labour claims, but marches right into dangerous new terrain. Here is an example: it is now illegal to describe an ethnic group as feeble-minded. But under this law I couldn't call Christian believers similarly intellectually challenged without risk of prosecution. This crystallises the difference between racial and religious abuse. Race is something people cannot choose and it defines nothing about them as people. But beliefs are what people choose to identify with: in the rough and tumble of argument to call people stupid for their beliefs is legitimate (if perhaps unwise), but to brand them stupid on account of their race is a mortal insult. The two cannot be blurred into one - which is why the word Islamophobia is a nonsense. And now the Vatican wants the UN to include Christianophobia in its monitoring of discriminations

Already this proposed law has cast a long shadow. Christians expect it to stop something like Jerry Springer - The Opera ever being screened. Sikhs who drove the play Behzti off the stage expect this law to prevent any future insult to their faith. When a Telegraph writer accused the Prophet of paedophilia for marrying a nine-year-old girl, Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council said this was the kind of insult against their faith that made Muslims want safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs...

...This law springs from a cult of phoney racial/religious respect that makes it harder than it ever was to dare to criticise, let alone mock. There is a new caution about causing offence. What kind of offence? Not to people's race but to ideas in their head. If I want to write that I find the hijab a gesture of obeisance to the nasty notion that women are obscene and should be modestly covered up, I may offend a lot of Muslim women. I am not for banning it or tearing it off them, nor am I being racist. But that is becoming an argument that growing numbers of feminist women no longer dare articulate. Unless the Commons comes to its senses, there will be those who regard this view as religious hatred and will expect the law to stop it. (This crime attracts a seven-year sentence.)

Keith Porteus of the National Secular Society argued that similar laws elsewhere had only exacerbated tensions between religious groups.

A similar law that was introduced recently in Victoria, Australia, has resulted in much religious tension and both Christians and Muslims — who were enthusiastic about the law when it was introduced — are now begging the Australian government to repeal it after a court case found evangelical Christians guilty of insulting Islam. A similar law in Italy has seen well known author Oriano Fellaci charged with insulting Islam.

My right to offend a fool, The Guardian, 10th June 2005; New hate law 'could have stopped riots', The Guardian, 10th June 2005; New effort to ban religious hate, BBC News, 9th June 2005; FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION UNDER THREAT FROM GOVERNMENT ATTEMPT TO RE-INTRODUCE INCITEMENT TO RELIGIOUS HATRED LEGISLATION - National Secular Society news release, 9th June 2005.

1 comment

The only people actually complaining about the law in Victoria are the barking mad fundies who finally got in trouble over their anti-Islam hate-mongering. They thought it was a wonderful law until someone used it against the silly bastards.

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This page contains a single entry by Feòrag published on June 10, 2005 11:34 AM.

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