We need this law to fight hatred
By Sadiq Khan, MP for Tooting
Evening Standard, 21 June 2005
It is, if its critics are to believed, a grievous threat both to our freedom of speech and to the nation’s cherished sense of humour. As such, the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which has its second reading in Parliament today, has been derided as dangerous, politically cynical, and most of all, as unnecessary. So why do so few of my fellow Muslims see it that way?
Debating the Bill, Muslims tend to think not of vicar jokes but of incidents like one in a charity shop in Shepherd’s Bush recently, where a white, British Muslim woman was told by another customer: “You may be English, but you married a f***ing Muslim.”
We think not about alleged political calculations, but about the dangers faced, for example, by one woman recently attacked in the street in north-west London while wearing Muslim dress. She was warned sympathetically by the nurse who treated her injuries: “You have to take off this scarf. Every month we get several cases like you who come for treatment.”
Indeed Muslims might tend to question the extent of freedom of speech when simply going out dressed recognisably as a Muslim can invite assault. Many reported cases involve Muslim women having their headscarves forcibly pulled off and or having alcohol thrown at them. In one incident, a schoolgirl had her headscarf pulled off by a parent of another child at the school gates, to the sound of laughter from those watching.
All these incidents happened because these Londoners were Muslims. It was not about the colour of their skin but the religion they follow.
The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill is not about gagging comedians or curbing criticism of any religion. It is about giving Muslims and other followers of religions the same protection from hate crimes as, for example, black people.
I was born and brought up in London: I know it is a tolerant city that embraces people of different faiths, ethnicities, backgrounds and beliefs. But a small minority exploit circumstances to incite hatred, knowing that they will get away with it.
This Bill is aimed at closing a loophole that exists, and that far-Right groups are well aware of, thus outlawing incitement against the followers of multiethnic faiths.
Over the past few years the far Right has cynically and deliberately been targeting British Muslims.
Freedom, the British National Party’s magazine, has explained the loophole to its readers. An article under the headline “Police drop a clanger” recounts how a supporter who repeatedly displayed an “Islam out of Britain” poster in his window was arrested and charged with incitement to racial hatred.
But the article goes on: “The snag for the police, however, is that Muslims are not covered by anti-free speech race law. It’s legal to say anything you want about Muslims, even far more extreme things.” Incidentally, that person then sued the police for wrongful arrest.
There are no longer posters calling for “Blacks out” because that is a criminal offence. Yet there was enormous opposition when a Labour government first introduced race relations legislation in 1968, and more in 1986, when a Conservative government outlawed incitement to racial hatred.
Its many critics portrayed it, to use a more recent label, as “political correctness gone mad”. They claimed that it would stifle robust debate. It would destroy the centuries-old tradition of freedom of speech.
In fact, it did none of those things. It protected an abused minority. It made a real difference to the lives of black and ethnic minority people in Britain. And more than helping end public abuse, it made us feel full citizens of this country.
The courts interpreted the law as giving protection to the followers of mono-ethnic faiths such as Judaism and Sikhism – and they were right to do so. We now need it to be extended to followers of multi-ethnic faiths like Islam.
Some have said that there is no need for a new law. Yet as the law stands, it is not possible to identify religious hatred separately from racial hatred. The point is to protect a group of people who don’t fall into a single racial identity. This is why so many senior police officers, including the recently retired Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir John Stevens, believe that the current law is inadequate.
And as for the idea that one cannot choose one’s race but can choose one’s religion, and therefore the former gets protection but not the latter, this is absurd. Just what is being suggested here? That Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims should convert to Christianity or abandon their faith?
There are more serious objections raised about freedom of speech. Yet we do not enjoy complete and unrestricted freedom of speech: free speech has to have a few restrictions to ensure that one person’s liberty to say what they think does not infringe others’ liberty. And just as the notion of free speech should not be used as an excuse for inciting hatred against black or Jewish people, neither should it be used against followers of a particular religion.
There have been accusations too that the Government is using the Bill as a sop to the Muslim community because of the Iraq war. Yet the legislation was first mooted in late 2001, well before the invasion of Iraq.
It is in any case not about preferential treatment but about equality before the law for all believers. That is why it is supported by the Board of Jewish Deputies, the Church of England, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, the Hindu Council, the Network of Sikh Organisations, and the Commission for Racial Equality – hardly a bunch of Muslim fundamentalists looking for special favours.
But most important of all, this Bill is not about stifling those who want to question, criticise, satirise or mock a religion. Its aim is to protect people from hatred, not shield faiths from criticism. That is a goal entirely in keeping with Britain’s unique record of religious and racial tolerance – one on which we rightly pride ourselves.
Long may our irreverent sense of humour flourish. The bigots are the only ones with anything to fear from a law banning religious hatred.