In defence of the religious hatred bill

George Carty emails us to ask: “How can you brand opponents of the [religious hatred] bill in general as Islamophobes, given that Amir Butler (very sympathetic to the Islamist cause) opposed similar laws in Australia?” (For Butler’s views see here.)

I suppose there are several answers to this.

First, there are also Muslims who oppose the religious hatred bill in Britain – Dr Siddiqui of the Muslim Parliament is one, and I believe the Islamic Human Rights Commission takes a similar position.

But these are hardly mass organisations. The Muslim Council of Britain is the umbrella body for the majority of Muslim organisations in the UK, with over 300 affiliates, and it is solidly behind the bill. I suspect that you will find that Amir Butler’s views are those of only a minority of Australian Muslims.

Also, the arguments used by the likes of Amir Butler, Dr Siddiqui and the IHRC are essentially pragmatic – that the legislation will act to the detriment of Muslims – which is rather different from the arguments put forward by non-Muslim opponents of the bill.

In any case the Australian law is different from that proposed in Britain.

Section 8 of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, adopted by the state of Victoria in 2001, is framed much more broadly than the present bill. It reads:

“A person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons.”

The present bill, by contrast, specifically restricts the offence to one of inciting hatred – not contempt, revulsion or ridicule.

The explanatory notes attached to the bill make this point clear:

“Hatred is a strong term. The offences will not encompass material that just stirs up ridicule or prejudice or causes offence. Further what must be stirred up is hatred of a group of persons defined by their religious beliefs and not hatred of the religion itself. Of themselves, criticism or expressions of antipathy or dislike of particular religions or their adherents will not be caught by the offence.”

In addition, under the provisions of the present Bill, any prosecution for incitement to religious hatred will have to be agreed by the Attorney-General. This will ensure that frivolous or vexatious prosecutions cannot be launched by small and unrepresentative religious groups in support of their own extreme views.