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Friday, June 10, 2005

 

Speak now or forever hold your peace

So, the government's religious hatred bill has been brought back from the dead. This is a cynical ploy by New Labour to win back the Muslim vote. And it is also a nod to various noisy religious bigots, such as those responsible for last December's Sikh theatre protest and January's manufactured anger about the BBC's screening of Jerry Springer - The Opera.

Liberals, whatever their religious beliefs, should be unanimous in their opposition to this bill. We believe in democracy and pluralism. Everyone has the right to express their point of view but the price one must pay for this freedom is being exposed to other people's opinions that one may not like.

Feelings of hurt or offence are not a legitimate reason for censorship. Every expression of opinion offends somebody somewhere. If we were to accept 'offence' or 'feelings' as a criterion for restricting free expression, we would end up with complete censorship.

We must distinguish between believers and their beliefs. People have no choice regarding their racial origins, but religion is what people choose to believe. If I assault someone or deny them employment because of their race, then that is wrong. But if I wish to criticise their beliefs, no matter how cherished, I should have every right to do so.

People should be free to practice their beliefs and should be free from persecution or discrimination. But we should never place anyone's beliefs beyond ordinary debate or criticism. The concept of 'blasphemy' is inherently illiberal. Indeed, it is vital that all ideologies - religion included - are held up to close scrutiny and critical examination. And they should remain open to satire and mockery.

We need to speak out more forcibly about these threats to our liberty. If we don't, the religious bigots will succeed in eroding them. So it is good to see Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris in the vanguard of the opposition and we should give him our full backing.

Today's National Secular Society
Newsline presents this good round-up (including a statement by Evan Harris):

The government has launched the fourth attempt to get a law banning incitement to religious hatred on to the statute book. The development was immediately condemned by the National Secular Society as "an invitation to religious extremists to use the courts to silence critics of their activities".

The NSS says that the Government's proposals will pose a severe risk to free expression in Britain. Those who denounce religion or a particular religion as untrue and dangerous will be at risk of being jailed.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, said: "The House of Lords Religious Offences Committee pondered over the reintroduction of this legislation for over a year, but it decided against recommending it. The Committee had examined the matter from all angles but could not see a way round the many problems such a law would create, the most worrying of which relate to restriction of freedom of expression.

"The UK law already offers protection to everyone from incitement to violence and against harassment, so this proposed legislation is unnecessary. The inevitable consequence of it would be also to protect religious dogmas and beliefs from insult and mockery, and that would be dangerous. When the election was called and Parliament was about to be prorogued, the Government pulled the incitement provisions from some flagship legislation, as otherwise they would have lost that too. When they did so, they promised to listen to the critics of the incitement provisions. Yet they have done the complete opposite; they have re-presented the same provisions, ignoring all the opposition and even threatened to use the Parliament Act to force the Bill through the Lords. The law will be draconian; the maximum penalty will be 7 years in jail and the prosecution thresholds are absurdly low. The law will be a gift to religious extremists to silence their more moderate brethren, as well as political commentators and secular campaigners."

Mr Porteous Wood said that "while race is immutable and a genetic characteristic, religion is an ideology that could be embraced or rejected at will. With religion come ideologies with their proscriptions and prescriptions, and sometimes political ambitions. We must be able to vigorously call religion to account. Does the Government really want to give extremists more power to control our reactions to their activities?.

"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."

NSS honorary associate and Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris told politics.co.uk: "The Government's measure would stifle religious debate and feed an increasing climate of censorship. Freedom of expression is a precious liberty that once lost may never be reclaimed." However, while he raised concerns about the Bill, Dr Harris proposed an alternative change in the law to deal with the problem of Islamophobia. "Liberal Democrats recognise the problems caused by extremist groups and Islamophobia. Our proposals, which have cross-party support, would ban the use of religious words as a way of inciting racial hatred, closing the existing loophole and putting all religions on an equal footing."

The Bill has been widely condemned already in editorials in the
Times, Independent, Telegraph and even the Daily Mail. Polly Toynbee has written a swingeing article attacking the plans in her Guardian column [Friday 10 June].
Salman Rushdie and Iqbal Sacranie debated the bill on this morning's BBC Radio 4's Today programme. You can listen again here.

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