‘What’s at stake is the right to insult and cause offence’

Polly ToynbeeSo Polly Toynbee claims in a Guardian article attacking the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. In fact, what’s actually at stake is the right to incite hatred.

Toynbee criticises the “free speech” clauses in the government’s amendment (which as we have already pointed out make dangerous concessions to the opposition). She asserts that these legal guarantees “would not protect Rowan Atkinson’s sketch showing men bowed down praying in a mosque with the voiceover intoning: ‘And the search goes on for the Ayatollah Khomeini’s contact lens.’ Many were insulted. It would not protect Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, let alone Christ in nappies on the cross in Jerry Springer – the Opera. Nor would it stop Behzti being closed down by angry Sikh mobs.”

There is nothing in the Bill that would prevent Rowan Atkinson from taking the piss out of the Ayatollah Khomeini, or Salman Rushdie from publishing The Satanic Verses or any theatre from staging Jerry Springer – the Opera. What the proposed legislation criminalises is not ridicule or insult but incitement to hatred. As for Bezhti, Sikhs are defined as a mono-ethnic faith group and are therefore already covered by the law against racial hatred. The new legislation won’t make the slightest difference to the legal position in relation to the incitement of hatred against Sikhs.

Toynbee claims that “The Lords amendment took out ‘abusive or insulting’ to make hatred of religion a crime only if it was part of a threat. That catches any attempt by the BNP to use ‘Muslim’ as a proxy for race in stirring up hate.” This is complete nonsense. The BNP carefully frames its hate-propaganda in order to avoid making explicit threats. Their method is to rely on abuse and insults directed against Islam as a religion in order to incite hatred against Muslims as people. If the Lords amendment were accepted, a successful prosecution of the fascists would be virtually impossible.

What’s astonishing is how self-proclaimed supporters of secular rationalism like Toynbee show utter contempt for the facts and take refuge in a mindless dogmatism that rivals anything you might find among among the most extreme of religious fundamentalists.