Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1958

Will religious hatred laws deal with bigotry?

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Labour’s proposed new law banning religious hatred has stirred controversy. Two leading Muslim activists give their differing views
Issue 1958
illustration by Tim Sanders
illustration by Tim Sanders

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, writes in opposition to the bill

The government’s proposed law outlawing incitement to religious hatred will not protect Muslims.

In Australia, Muslims campaigned for similar legislation.

But they became its main opponents once it had become law.

It became apparent that the law was a dangerous double edged sword, with evangelical Christians queuing up to litigate Muslims.

British Muslim groups appear not to have learnt this lesson.

The Muslim concern for protection, equality and social inclusion is real and genuine.

However this piece of legislation is driven by political motives to stem the haemorrhaging of Labour support among the Muslim community.

The home office has already indicated that the burden of proof would be set so high that few prosecutions are expected.

This law will be cosmetic and fail to prevent abuses hurled at Muslims.

Legal safeguards already exist to cover threats or insults liable to cause disorder or distress to religious groups.

A 2001 amendment to the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act extended the offence of causing alarm or distress to in clude cases that are racially or religiously aggravated.

Mark Norwood, a fascist BNP activist in Shropshire, was convicted under this act for displaying a poster with the words “Islam out of Britain” alongside a photograph of the World Trade Centre in flames.

The European court of human rights upheld this conviction.

The way forward is not to proceed with the government’s proposal.

Instead, it is to call for support for the Liberal Democrats’ amendment.

This would change the law on incitement to racial hatred to explicitly include reference to religion as a pretext for stirring up racial hatred against a racial group.

Muslims must build alliances with civil society to promote a fairer and more tolerant society in which everyone’s views are respected, rather than be seen to be undermining freedom of speech.

And the time has come to consider the abolition of the current blasphemy law.

This law only protects the established church at the moment.

The implementation of these policies would send a clear message that freedom of speech, thought and creativity are far more conducive to creating a progressive and tolerant society than imposed self censorship.

Inayat Bunglawala, media secretary for the Muslim Council of Britain, argues in favour of the bill

In January figures from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) showed that 44 religiously aggravated offences were committed between April 2003 and March 2004.

In half of these cases the religion or the perceived religion of the victim was Islam.

The statistics paint a telling picture when one considers that Muslims make up barely 3 percent of the British population.

Last month’s announcement that the government intends to fulfil its manifesto pledge to make incitement to religious hatred a crime is therefore welcome.

It will help to establish equal protection for all believers and will be an important weapon in the war against bigotry.

The 1986 Incitement to Racial Hatred law helped create a climate in our society in which most Britons now clearly believe that incitement to race hate is a social evil.

However, under those race hate laws, Jews and Sikhs — because they are regarded as “mono-ethnic” groups — are protected against religious hatred, but not followers from other “multi-ethnic” faiths.

This is plainly unfair. Incitement to hatred of others purely because of their religion should also be regarded as a social evil whatever their religious background.

Yet the incitement to religious hatred proposal has been portrayed by its critics — ranging from the comedian Rowan Atkinson and the conservative commentator Charles Moore to the National Secular Society — as, in the words of Melanie Phillips, “criminalising legitimate and necessary criticism of religion”.

Their objections are preposterous. The new law will not prohibit anyone from offending, criticising or ridiculing faiths. The attorney-general Lord Goldsmith has clearly said it is “about protecting people from hatred, not faiths from criticism”.

Some critics claim that a similar law has failed in Australia — but the law in Australia prohibited the expressing of “contempt” or “ridicule” of persons on the ground of their religious belief. That is a far wider concept than inciting hatred, which is what the British government is proposing.

Indeed, any prosecution under the new proposals would have to pass the public interest test of the CPS and have the consent of the attorney-general.

In the past three years, of the more than 80 race hate cases passed to the CPS, only four have been approved for prosecution.

There is no reason to suppose that the CPS and the attorney-general will be any less strict in their interpretation of the new law.

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