Most people back religious hatred law – and they’re right

Most people back religious hatred law – and they’re right

By Ken Livingstone

Tribune, 1 July 2005

Anyone would think from the media coverage of the government’s proposed legislation to ban incitement to religious hatred that the combination of some comedians and celebrities, along with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, represented the views of the great majority of the population.

In London, they definitely do not. The Government’s new Bill, which will significantly build on existing legislative measures aimed at combating hate crime, has overwhelming backing from Londoners. Seventy-two per cent of London residents support the new anti-incitement law, according to our opinion polls. Just 15 per cent are against. The media has ignored this impressive show of popular support for the Bill, preferring to give publicity to the unrepresentative views of a few high-profile celebrities, who have falsely portrayed it as a new blasphemy law.

Some faith groups such as Jews and Sikhs are currently protected from incitement to hatred on the basis that these religions are held to be mono-ethnic, and therefore come under the 1986 Public Order Act which bans incitement to racial hatred. Members of faiths which are defined as multi-ethnic, such as Hindus and Muslims, are not so protected. This is clearly unacceptable, and has left a loophole for the far Right.

Opponents of the Bill claim that existing laws are sufficient to deal with the racists. They cite the case of Mark Norwood, a BNP member in Shropshire who was successfully prosecuted in 2002 after he placed a poster in his window carrying the slogan “Islam Out of Britain”. They omit to mention the case of another BNP member, Dick Warrington, who was prosecuted for displaying a poster with the same slogan but was acquitted by magistrates in Leeds in 2002.

The BNP had this to say about Warrington’s prosecution: “The snag for the police, however, is that Islam is not covered by the anti-free speech race law… it’s legal to say anything you want about Islam, even far more extreme things…”

Nick Griffin’s secretly-filmed tirade against Muslims, clearly desgined to whip up the most unpleasant hatred against Asians, indicates what we are up against.

The comedian Rowan Atkinson has accused the government of “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”, which could be taken to imply that the rise in anti-Muslim hatred is a matter of little significance.

The same argument was employed during the Commons debate on the Bill by Tory MP Boris Johnson, who stated that “the problem of Islamophobia is in danger of being exaggerated”. As the editor of a magazine – The Spectator – that has brazenly contributed some of the worst examples of Islamophobia in the media, this is hardly surprising.

A recent report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance expressed its concern that “the Muslim communities of the United Kingdom continue to experience societal prejudice … as well as harassment and violence”. Figures released by the Crown Prosecution Service earlier this year showed that 50 per cent of religiously aggravated offences were directed against Muslims.

The Bill will not restrict the right of people to criticise religion in literature, art or other fields – just as the outlawing of incitement to racial hatred in 1986 did nothing to restrict artistic freedom.

Despite this the Tories and LibDems have hidden behind amendments to the Bill that would render the legislation ineffective.

Opponents of the Bill tell us that religious belief, unlike ethnicity, is a personal decision. Speaking in the Commons debate, Tooting’s Labour MP Sadiq Khan answered this point very effectively: “The idea that one cannot choose one’s race but can choose one’s religion so that the former but not the latter should get protection is absurd. Some people talk about religion as a lifestyle choice, but what is being suggested – that Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims should convert to Christianity or become atheists?”

In any case, the European Convention on Human Rights requires that states protect the right to freedom of religion and ensure people do not suffer discrimination in the enjoyment of that right. This is incompatible with the view that people should be forced to change their faith to avoid hatred directed against them because of their existing beliefs.

London is a city where tolerance and understanding are crucial to community cohesion, and there is no place for extremists who attack the religion of minority groups. The new law will provide a powerful response and a strong deterrent to these racist individuals and organisations. The Government deserves support in bringing forward this legislation.