Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Religious Hatred

The controversy over the defeated Religious Hatred Bill seems to have died down somewhat now, but until very recently it pointed to some significant divisions amongst the left. Most noteably between Respect and George Galloway (who voted for the Bill in parliament), attempting to court the favour of Muslim voters on the one hand, and those fervently believing that religion is the opium of the masses and those concerned about restrictions on freedom of speech on the other. But these are not divisions that will go away with a simple vote, and with the cartoon controversy adding fuel to the fire, it seems that they will continue to arise.

The division that has most troubled me, however, is my own. Until recently I have been in two minds on the issue. Certainly banning religious hatred would place a necessary restriction on the BNP, who are able to use the loophole to spew their racist bile legitimately by targetting Muslim populations. The word Paki can conveniently be replaced with the word Muslim, and there you have legitimised racism. The same goes for immigrants, asylum seekers and travellers. At the same time, however, religions should be criticised and such criticism must never be curtailed. Equally I support the right for the papers to publish the cartoons, whilst recognising that their publication is part of a phenomenon that I am fundamentally opposed to. They were used to victimise a vulnerable minority and formed part of a rising anti-immigrant backlash in many European countries. Ideologically, this is something that the left should be opposed to, irrespective of our opinions on freedom of speech. Yes, the papers should be free to publish the material, yes, I disagree with their publication, and yes, ideologically speaking, those papers are an enemy of mine.

Two things, however, swayed my opinion towards opposing the Religious Hatred Bill. The first was a brilliant speech by Shami Chakrabarti at the Cambridge Union and the second, was interviewing Jill Paton Walsh, author of the Booker Prize nominated 'Knowledge of Angels', for Varsity back in February. You can find the interview here:

http://www.varsity.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=8772&Itemid=31

or the more visually appealing version on page 21 of the paper (page 20 of the pdf document) here:

http://www.varsity.co.uk/archive/634.pdf

3 comments:

Jim Jay said...

Well personally I oppose the bill not because I oppose religious ideas, which I don't particularly, but because it's part of a raft of measures that the government is implementing increasing police powers over every aspect of our lives.

ASBO's, the terrorism acts and the parliament "do what ever we like bill" are not unrelated to each other but part of a policy that the government wants to have carte blanche to do as it pleases. The religous hatred bill is yet more legislation giving them power over what we say.

I also think that although many Muslims are for this legislation they will be in for a shock and I suspect that 9 out of 10 prosecutions under the act will be against Muslims rather than in defense of them.

AN said...

I would point out that another example of what Jim absolutley correctly describes as "increasing police powers over every aspect of our lives." is the ban on smoking in pubs. But let's not start that again :o)

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s football hooliganism was a very serious problem, with bad fighting, fans occasionally being killed, etc. I am not minimising racism or religious intolerance by making the comparison, as football related violence was on a big scale. The government could have responded by a "incitement of football hatred bill" outlawing people from insulting Gooners. Instead the problem was addressed by a number of measures (not all of which were a good thing) such as all seater stadia, more club stewards instead of police, life bans for persitent offenders, no drinking at the ground, etc.

I am convinced, that no change in the law was necessary to protect Moslems from hate crimes, because it is clear from (for example) the recent case of Regina V Griffin & Collett, that the accused interchangeably swapped the terms Moslem with Asians, and their real target was clear. (to everyone except the jury - which is another drawback of using the law in this way, as now the BNP's hatred has been in a sense legitimised by the not-guilty verdict)

As most religions are pretty intolerant of all other faiths, many devout Christians or Moslems could be in trouble for saying that beleivers in other faiths are despicable people.

And what next? How about an "incitement of political hatred" bill, which may be a way of stopping working people telling New Labour what they really think of Tony Blair.

badmatthew said...

I'd have thought that the failure of the case against Collett and Griffin was evidence of weakness in the eisting law, rather than confirmation of its continued efficacy! And blame the prosecution, not the jury!