Clause 124 - Incitement to Religious Hatred - of the Labour Government's Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill
Extracts from selected Second Reading Speeches in the House of Lords, March 14, 2005
Lord Baker of Dorking:
...as regards the argument that racial hatred and religious hatred are different sides of the same coin—they are not. Incitement to racial hatred is rightly a crime because race depends on habits and customs, and, perhaps, colour, habits of dress and eating. If you are born into a race, you cannot abandon it and change it: you have it for life.
That is not the case with religion, which is a set of ideas that, in some cases, are reinforced by faith. Like any set of ideas, it can be challenged, criticised, vilified, satirised and mocked. It is capable of being changed—there is a choice...
...the Bill will encourage extremists because they will believe that they now have what they want. Perhaps I may say something about the way in which Christianity has treated this issue over the centuries. I am a mild, middle-of-the road Anglican—not too enthusiastic, but there on the important days. Over the centuries, Christ has been described as a paedophile and a homosexual. In The Da Vinci Code, the very basic concept of Christianity—that Christ did rise from the dead—is denied. In fact, it suggests that he kept on living and married a harlot.
Last year, there was an exhibition at the Tate where there was a picture of the Crucifixion made out of discarded Marlboro Lights cigarettes. Perhaps I may remind noble Lords what Nietzsche said:
"I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great innermost corruption, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means is poisonous, stealthy, subterranean, small enough—I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind".
I shall not ask the Minister whether Nietzsche would be arraigned before the court, because she may say, "Of course, no. He is just attacking a faith. Of course, he would not be. No, no, no".
But if the word "Islam", instead of the word "Christianity", was inserted today, would the Minister be quite so sure? I do not think so. I regret to say that this is an erosion of the free speech of our country. We should be free to say things that cause offence and that many people find distasteful. That has been the tradition over the past 300 years in our country. More than three centuries ago we stopped torturing and burning people for their heresies against the Christian faith. We have moved on. Voltaire came to live in this country in the 18th century to escape persecution for scepticism in France. We have a very long tradition. This law will create a straitjacket on the freedom of expression. It will make people very anxious about saying what they intend to say. Will they be arraigned before a court?
...I am well aware that there is a feeling that the Muslims are at the receiving end of a lot of unfortunate treatment, but we also have to find the best way of making them part of this society rather than creating yet another offence of religious hatred and separating them from ourselves.
I am sure that your Lordships are well aware that of all the groups that have come to this country, the one that has remained more separate than the others is the Muslims. We have heard about race in terms of Sikhs. I cannot understand why they are supposed to be a different racial group. Every Sikh was a Hindu like me and was converted to Sikhism: there is no difference. In fact, all Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims were also Hindus and were converted to Islam...
... We have only to look around us to see how much the mainstream British culture has changed and how much the influence of people who have come to this country has made it more vibrant, interesting and fun. Long may that continue. I do not want to see separate groups developing separately in this country.
I have chosen to live here and I would like to think that every other person who has come from another country has chosen this country. No one forced us to come here; no one is forcing us to live here. If there is such a big problem in this country, could I just—this might be incitement—say to people, this is not a prison. There are many other countries that we can all go to. If we do not like it, we can all leave. ..
... by putting religion in the Act, we will do two things. First, quite a few faith communities will get uppity about their being insulted. If that is done, I guarantee that the complications of the south Asian subcontinent—the tension between Hindus and Muslims—will be revisited with much greater violence. I am telling noble Lords that.
Secondly—the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, referred to this point—I do not intend to cause offence, but someone may take offence. That has happened to me. About four years ago, just after the Act of 2001 had removed the religious hatred clause, I was invited to a festival of comedy. There was one serious session about comedy and religious hatred, or something like that. Unfortunately, the comedians did not turn up and those that turned up were very serious. So I thought that I could say something mildly amusing. I said, "I know lots of jokes about Christians, a number of jokes about Jesus Christ, and quite a lot of rabbi and priest jokes. I do not know a single joke about Islam. There must be something funny in the Koran, after all. Why has nobody found it?"
I was accused of having said that the Koran is a funny book. There was a lot of agitation in Muslim newspapers in this country. My noble friend Lord Ahmed told me that I would have to apologise for saying what I said. I said, "I will not apologise. I will cite exactly what I said. There ought to be something funny in the Koran". The fact that there is not is my loss. But if that was that serious then, now, I could be taken to be inciting religious hatred.
My first concern relates to responsible free speech. The Government say that this legislation will not affect legitimate criticism, missionary activity or jokes about religion. But nothing is written in the Bill to guarantee that. Such exemptions should be written into the Bill, otherwise, when it becomes law, conscientious believers are likely to interpret legitimate criticism, missionary activity or jokes about their religion as incitement to hatred against them. As a member of the Press Complaints Commission, over the past three years I have seen an increasing number of complaints concerning criticism of, and jokes about, religion.
The importance of ensuring responsible free speech in this legislation was clearly brought into focus in a letter that I received last week. It came from a minister of religion at a multicultural church in Rochdale. One in four of the congregation there is from a minority ethnic background. I quote from the letter:
"Our church is involved in distributing Christian literature to local households. Muslims in the area also send out Muslim literature. Although our literature is sensitively written for those from a Muslim background, two young policemen attempted to tell us it was a 'serious racial offence' to distribute it. They mentioned that the offence carried a seven year jail term.
One Muslim (not the direct recipient of the literature) had complained to the police. It was clear that the officers felt under pressure to find a way of stopping us. Only after making an official complaint via my solicitors did the police back down and admit the matter was handled insensitively by the junior officers. If we had stopped distributing the literature, as the police seemed to want, our freedom of religious expression would have been taken away.
If that can happen now, under the existing race laws, imagine what a new law on religion could do. Any law which specifically requires the police to consider the legitimacy of religious speech will cause trouble, and will set religious groups against one another".
One letter of this nature provides some proof that the worries of numerous people who have written to noble Lords about Schedule 10 are not theoretical. While the rights of religious groups excluded from the existing laws should be safeguarded, it appears to me that Schedule 10 may be open to misinterpretation.
I, like so many other Members of your Lordships' House, strongly oppose those aspects relating to incitement to religious hatred. My primary concern is the threat to one of our most cherished freedoms, freedom of speech. There is a real danger that this legislation will inhibit criticism of religion, affirmation of religious belief and satirical or comic discussions, despite the Government's assurances to the opposite effect...
... Complaints have already been made to the police, instigated by members of the Muslim community, which illustrate problems which could escalate if this law is passed. These complaints reflect certain aspects of Islamic beliefs held passionately by many Muslims: for them, a Christian statement of belief in the divinity of Christ is seen as blasphemous and offensive. In traditional Islamic law, blasphemy is deemed such a serious offence that it may incur the death penalty, as do statements which may be deemed to be critical of Islam and the Prophet.
A number of serious commentators and academics have already been stigmatised as "Islamophobic" by inclusion in a list called the Islamophobes Awards of the Year. They include Polly Toynbee and my noble and right reverend friend Lord Carey of Clifton. Neither of those wrote or spoke irresponsibly or inaccurately, but both have been subjected to this hurtful labelling, with its potentially damaging and intimidating effects. ..
... once a complaint is made, the police need to decide whether and how to act. The police cannot be experts on religion and they will find themselves in difficult situations, often subject to pressure to take action. If they feel obliged to respond, they may require entry into the offending person's home and/or office. They may remove papers, files and computers and subject that person to an array of highly traumatic procedures which harm their work and their reputation. The very thought of being subjected to such initial stages of police investigation is likely to inhibit freedom of expression..
... one of the most insidious dangers inherent in this legislation is self-censorship. Academics, journalists, writers, religious leaders and others who wish to speak about religion may be inhibited and intimidated to such an extent that legitimate, critical discussion and debate may be stifled for fear that, however reasonable and important, it might give offence. As the proposed legislation stands, truth is no defence against a charge, nor is lack of intent to cause hatred.
One of the most salutary lessons to be learnt from a similar law in Australia is found in the widely cited Daniel Scot case. I have no time to go into the details, but I conclude by mentioning some of the possibly counterproductive effects of such legislation, highlighted by Amir Butler, who is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee. In a statement called 'Why I've changed my mind on vilification laws', he claims:
"This legislation is undermining those religious freedoms it is intended to protect".
For example, he is worried by a turning of the tables against Muslims, who themselves advocated the legislation and had used it against Daniel Scot. He describes how Muslims are now being monitored by Christians, presumably intent on demonstrating that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. He points out that this legislation has not helped relationships between those faith communities. Rather, it has increased tension. ..
... I finish with a statement of commitment to the principle of freedom of speech by Mr Amir Butler, the executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee:
"It is obvious that criticism of one's religion is likely to offend, but just as Muslims should be entitled to aggressively criticise other faiths, likewise those same faiths should be afforded the right to voice their concerns about Islam . . . Who, after all, would give credence to a religion that appears so fragile it can only exist if protected by a bodyguard of lawyers".
Extracts from other articles
Incitement of Religious Hatred - Rowan Atkinson; Briefing meeting, House of Lords: 26 January 2005
I am here to plead the case in opposition to a law of Incitement of Religious Hatred on behalf of those who make a living from creativity: those whose job it is to analyse, to criticise and to satirise. Authors, journalists, academics, actors, politicians and comedians. All of whom, the government claim, need have no concerns about the legislation but as the arguments both for and against the measure have evolved, I have found these reassurances to lack any logic or conviction...
... I question the inarguable nature of the phrase “religious hatred”, afforded by the use of the highly emotive word “hatred”. So I thought I would modify the name of the proposed measure, by changing the terminology but retaining the meaning and use the dictionary definition of the word hatred, which is: intense dislike. Incitement of Religious Intense Dislike. Isn't it strange how that small change makes it seem a much less desirable or necessary measure? I then found my self asking a strange question. What is wrong with encouraging intense dislike of a religion? Why shouldn't you do so, if the beliefs of that religion or the activities perpetrated in its name deserve to be intensely disliked? What if the teaching or beliefs of the religion are so out-moded, hypocritical and hateful that not expressing criticism of them would be perverse? The government claim that one would be allowed to say what you like about beliefs because the measure is not intended to defend beliefs but believers. But I don't see how you can distinguish between them. Beliefs are only invested with life and meaning by believers. If you attack beliefs, you are automatically attacking those who believe the beliefs. You wouldn't need to criticise the beliefs if no-one believed them. ..
... The government's belief that religious hatred legislation will work just like that of racial hatred is optimistic in the extreme: the pressures in relation to religious hatred are going to be on a completely different scale to that for race – the spread of fundamentalism across a whole range of religions is going to make the issue politically far more highly charged. And even if I had faith that the Attorney General would bail me out in the end, what would I have to go through first?
I don't particularly want to discover that my comedy revue has not, after all, fallen foul of the legislation sitting in an interview room in Paddington Green police station. I would like to know that I could not possibly be put in that situation because of my criticism or ridicule of religious ideas and by implication, those who follow those ideas. And we now know that even the Attorney General's judgments can be subjected to judicial review. Where would it end?
...British Muslims and I appreciate that this measure is an attempt to provide comfort and protection to them but unfortunately it is a wholly inappropriate response far more likely to promote tension between communities than tolerance. The government could have worded the document to tackle a specific issue but chose not to and as a result, those caught in the crossfire are reluctantly going to have to fight to defend intellectual curiosity, the right to criticise ideas, whatever form they have and the right to ridicule the ridiculous, in whatever context it lies.
Some Arguments Against a Religious-Hatred Law: A note to the Home Secretary from David Green – Director of Civitas:
Summary: A law against religious hatred will encourage religious extremism by shielding religious leaders from legitimate criticism.
.... As David Hume warned in the 18th century, religious leaders often have a different motivation from their followers. The rank and file tend to be inspired by the light of faith, whereas the leaders are more likely to be driven by a mixture of calculation and self-interest. Freedom of criticism protects gullible followers from manipulation by scheming leaders, whether priests or imams...
The 17th century settlement in Britain took the form of an agreement between religious sects that none would seek to use state power to persecute rivals; and all would be equally protected by the laws of the land. Democracy is a system of government by discussion, but religious doctrine and the fanatical disputes often associated with it, can probably never be resolved by debate and are best left to the private sphere. The religious 'cease-fire' of the 17th century was based on respect for the freedom of others to argue their corner outside the political domain, in civil society.
This ethos has encouraged efforts to see the other person's point of view, to seek agreement rather than to quibble, and where possible, to compromise. For all groups to be subject to open criticism, including mockery and ridicule, has been a great leveller. The liberal settlement of the 17th century, cemented in the 18th by America, helped to create the most tolerant and prosperous societies known to human history and we should take pains to understand what made such freedom possible and what might destroy it...
... Just as open criticism under a democracy produces better government than the suppression of debate under autocracy, and just as competition produces better goods and services than monopoly, so too freedom of criticism prevents religious leaders from talking above-average nonsense and manipulating their followers.
The 18th century defenders of the Enlightenment were right to fear religious enthusiasm. For the sake of religion, democracy and the continuance of our tradition of tolerance, there should be no law against religious hatred. Priests, rabbis and imams should develop thick skins.
This will be a law too far: Why the new Bill on religious hatred is more likely to stir up discord than resolve it, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, The Times, March 14, 2005
THE GREAT strength of our democracy has been the toleration of views, particularly religious or anti-religious views, that many find offensive. As Lord Justice Sedley said when defending the right of three women to preach about God, morality and the Bible on the steps of Wakefield Cathedral: “Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence.”
... On March 4 last year the Prime Minister made the following comment, speaking in his constituency: “What galvanised me was that it was a declaration of war by religious fanatics who are prepared to wage that war without limit. They killed 3,000 (in the 9/11 attacks). But if they could have killed 30,000 or 300,000 they would have rejoiced in it.” I cannot think of anything more likely to stir up hatred against a group than that they would have rejoiced in killing such large numbers of people. It is obvious that Tony Blair was attributing this conduct to the religion of the killers. Would Mr Blair's statement be a breach of this law had it been in force at the time?
... The vagueness of the present wording is likely to generate complaints on a wide variety of grounds from people of opposing faiths, or of those who do not have any faith. If, as I suspect, the complaint will very often be investigated because it appears to the police to come within the law, but the Attorney General does not give his necessary consent to a prosecution, the likely result will be dissatisfaction, increasing confusion and disharmony. ...
... In a recent letter to The Times, Fiona Mactaggart, the Home Office Minister, spoke of the new provision as a protection. But obviously it is not a protection to those who want to exercise freedom of speech, whether it be a forceful preacher who believes the only way to Heaven is through Christ, or a militant atheist who wants to attack those who make such provocative claims.
Friday 17 June 2005