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