The British Inquisition
Published in: Daily Mail
Here we go again. It's the hunting ban in a new guise -- but this time those being relentlessly targeted are not toffs in red coats but people who express prohibited ideas.
For the third time, the government aims to pass a law against incitement to religious hatred. This oppressive measure was previously blocked by objections from a cross-section of horrified parliamentarians, who rightly saw it as an assault on a fundamental democratic tradition.
Peers condemned it as 'an attack on free speech', 'sweepingly broad' and a 'straightjacket on the freedom of expression'. Yet despite its double rejection, the government is now threatening to use the Parliament Act to ram it through. The lethal absurdity of this bill was underlined by the recent case in which a child was systematically attacked by members of an African Christian sect who thought she was a witch. Yet because the religious hatred bill fails to define religion or religious belief, it would give protection to extremist cults and sects - including those which believe in beating children to drive out demons - and anyone who attacked such a cult might be jailed for up to seven years.
The ostensible purpose of this bill is to give religions the same protection afforded to Jews and Sikhs, who are defined as racial groups and so are covered by the law against incitement to racial hatred.
In fact, this offence is rarely used because its curb on free speech is considered to be so draconian. But in any event, the comparison is a false one. Attacking people on account of their race is to attack what they are. Attacking people on account of their religion is to attack what they think. The former is an uncivilised attack on our common humanity. The latter is an integral part of debate in a liberal democracy.
Religions are ideas which routinely arouse hatred by followers of one faith against another - and sometimes against their own co-religionists -or between atheists and believers. If the hatred aroused by religion is criminalised, religious debate will be suppressed.
Home Office minister Paul Goggins has claimed the bill will not stop people poking fun at religion or causing offence. But it criminalises threats, abuse and insult where these may stir up religious hatred - and insulting religion merges seamlessly into causing people to hate that religion. The bill therefore will indeed turn the giving of offence into an offence.
In Australia, a similar law has resulted in the conviction of two Christian pastors, one of whom had previously been forced to flee death threats in Pakistan after he refused to convert to Islam. Their offence was to conduct a seminar in which they quoted critically but correctly from the Koran.
Our government claims that its own bill sets a higher bar than the Australian law for any conviction. But the Australian example could well happen here, since the definition of when insult turns into hatred is wholly subjective and at the whim of whoever is interpreting the law.
Trying to prevent religious hatred from being expressed would effectively criminalise much of literature, including the New Testament and the Koran. The blasphemy law, which protects only Christianity and has largely fallen into disuse, should be repealed, not effectively extended in this back-door way.
The Government claims that the bill is necessary to close a legal loophole exploited by neo-Nazi groups which get away with targeting Muslims because the law does not cover religious groups.
Of course Muslims and others should be protected against violence and intimidation. But there are already laws to deal with incitement to violence. Moreover, the courts interpret the term racial hatred broadly enough to include attacks couched in the name of religion where this is being used to target individuals for attack.
Next, ministers say the bill will only protect believers against attack, not insulate beliefs themselves against criticism. But the government itself muddles the two. Home Office guidance to the bill's previous version said a prosecution might be triggered, for example, 'in response to an extreme racist organisation widely distributing material setting out a range of insulting and highly inflammatory reasons for hating Islam'.
In any event, we already have laws to protect religion. When a BNP organiser put up a poster with a picture of the Twin Towers in flames and the legend 'Islam out of Britain- protect the British people', he was convicted and fined for a threatening, abusive or insulting action motivated by hatred of a racial or religious group.
So why is the government going to these extraordinary lengths? The answer is that it is trying to appease the Muslim community which has been pressing for such a law for years. Ministers are desperate to win back votes by Britain's 1.8 million Muslims which were lost over the Iraq war, and also because they think that if they give the most extremist Muslims whatever they want this will quell Islamist rage against Britain and the west.
That is why, in a grovelling article in Muslim News before the last election, the then energy minister Mike O'Brien boasted of all the measures the government had introduced at Muslim request, including the religious hatred law. That is why, in a pre-election letter to all mosques Home Secretary Charles Clarke apologised for the failure to get this law through Parliament and blamed it on the opposition parties.
If it is now passed, it will shut down legitmate and vital debate about Islam. Months ago I asked the newly knighted Sir Iqbal Sacranie, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, whether he thought that any public statements about Islamic terrorism, or any speculation about the number of Muslims in Britain who might support Islamic terrorism, would constitute incitement to religious hatred. He replied: 'There is no such thing as an Islamic terrorist. This is deeply offensive. Saying Muslims are terrorists would be covered by this provision'.
Ministers have brushed aside this threat to suppress any criticism of Islamist terrorism, saying that since the Attorney-General's consent is required for any such prosecution such a threat is empty. But who can have any confidence that the government would stand firm? Indeed, look at who is now the Attorney's deputy, the Solicitor-General - none other than the same Mike O'Brien who wrote the Muslim News article, and who has now compromised the political independence of the law officers by openly expressing his support for the religious hatred bill at a conference last week.
The disturbing fact is that, had this law been on the statute book when Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, he might well have been prosecuted for incitement to religious hatred rather than being protected by the British police against the fatwa to murder him.
Even without any prosecutions, writers and performers will simply censor themselves through fear - as ministers have admitted is their aim. This law will generate rather then suppress religious hatred and will set group against group in a decibel auction of denunciation. It will, in short, usher in the British Inquisition, and threaten that hard-won freedom for which so many Britons have died.