One of the most vibrant debates was over Respect’s position on the proposed Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.
Three proposed amendments to motions on civil liberties asked conference to take a position against the bill. Around 12 people spoke in the civil liberties discussion, with most focusing on the bill.
Helen Salmon from Birmingham argued against opposing the bill. She said, “Since 9/11 it is clear that Muslims suffer much worse from racism than other religious groups. But Muslims are not protected under the Race Relations Act.
“This new bill is not perfect, but it will close that loophole.
“Speakers have talked about the bill being a cynical Labour ploy — and that’s true — but we can’t base a decision on whether we back a bill on the reasons why the government proposed it. We must decide on the basis of what the outcome of a bill will be.
“I don’t want Respect to be lining up with the bill’s right-wing opponents.”
One of the motions attacking the bill was proposed by Jane Kelly from Southwark. The amendment said, “We are also opposed to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which will not protect Muslims but will threaten free speech and divide religious communities.”
Speaking in favour of the amendment, she said, “Islamophobia is a problem caused by this Labour government — from it’s involvement in the war in Iraq, through to the way it has treated the Muslim communities.
“But, we cannot support a bill that can be used to attack people’s freedom of speech — and that is why I am asking people to vote for this amendment.”
Ifhat Shaheen from Hackney, east London, spoke against the amendment. She said, “As a Muslim woman I face racial abuse every day — but I can’t even call it racial abuse, because as a Muslim I’m not covered by the Race Relations Act.
“Sikhs and Jewish people are already covered — if they suffer abuse because of their religion, they are protected under the law. So why, when a bill is put forward that will give Muslims the same protection, does it suddenly become an issue of limiting people’s free speech?”
She explained that she had studied film and art at college and was in favour of free artistic expression. But she added, “What about my right to walk down the street without harassment?”
Other speakers drew parallels with the race relations acts, which no one at the conference was in favour of repealing and which are in effect extended to cover Muslims in the new bill.
There was applause when speakers pointed out that the people who would cheer the bill’s defeat most loudly were the fascist BNP. Last year the West Yorkshire police said they would not take action over BNP material inciting hatred against Muslims because racial hatred law does not cover Muslims.
The whole conference agreed that New Labour was cynically trying to recover support among Muslims by proposing the bill.
But the vast majority of delegates agreed that the best way to expose that cynicism was to be on the side of those genuinely pushing for the law and to point out New Labour’s hypocrisy.
After a thorough debate delegates overwhelmingly rejected calls to be in the camp of those opposing the bill, with just 20 delegates out of 350 supporting the no position.