So the predicted backbench rebellion failed to materialise, and yesterday the new bill outlawing incitement to religious hatred passed its second reading in the Commons by 303 votes to 247. Interesting that the Lib Dems found themselves in a bloc with the Tories in opposing the bill.
It’s not every day that this member of the Islamophobia Watch collective applauds the politics of Gerald Kaufman MP, but I can’t help approving of the attack he launched on the Tories in the course of the debate:
“The problem with interventions by Conservative Members is they are totally unrepresentative of the population as a whole in that hardly any of them are open to the kind of humiliation that many members of our communities are open to. If they were, they would not be criticising this legislation.”
He went on to refer to “the case of Mrs Shahzada, a constituent of mine who went to a shop in central Manchester soon after 9/11. She wears a veil over her face, and the shopkeeper refused to serve her because she was, to his perception, a Muslim. That was hatred against an individual, not a criticism of Islam. It is about time that we had an Opposition who understood the kind of country that we live in today.”
It’s also worth noting that Boris Johnson, in opposing the bill, used Kenan Malik’s arguments to back up his assertion that “the problem of Islamophobia is in danger of being exaggerated” (see here). Johnson is of course the editor of the Spectator, which last July published an article with the standfirst: “There’s no plot … Islam really does want to conquer the world” (see here).
Regrettably, the Labour left was mainly notable for its reluctance to back the bill.
Diane Abbott, for example, raised the (non-existent) prospect that the legislation could result in the introduction of “a blasphemy law for Islam” (see here).
Bob Marshall-Andrews, for his part, argued that “there is a profound difference between race and gender and religion. Our race and our gender are what we are and should be protected. Our religion is what we choose to believe” (see here).
It was the new MP for Tooting, Sadiq Khan, who in the course of an excellent speech demolished this argument:
“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? We have a duty to protect our most vulnerable communities” (see here).
Another new MP, Emily Thornberry, offered one of the best arguments against the Lib Dems’ “Lester amendment” – which would ban using attacks on a person’s religious belief “as a pretext for stirring up racial hatred” – and demonstrated the need for a specific ban on inciting religious hatred:
“A young lady on her way to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school is on the bus with her head covered. A man starts shouting at her and abusing her because she is a Muslim. That abuse results in an assault on her by a gang of boys, who know not only that she is a Muslim, but that she is white and has converted, which makes the situation worse. In normal circumstances, that man would get off scot-free. Such religious abuse is an insult to people who live in London” (see here).
And of course Frank Dobson gave a storming speech (see here).