Why watered down religious hatred legislation won’t work

Why watered down religious hatred legislation won’t work

By Ken Livingstone

Morning Star, 25 June 2005

The government’s new Bill proposing a ban on incitement to religious hatred, which last week passed its second reading in the Commons by 303 votes to 247, has been the subject of much controversy.

As mayor of the most diverse city in the world, I strongly support this Bill, and welcome the fact that the overwhelming majority of Londoners do so too.

Our polls show that 72 per cent of Londoners support a ban on inciting hatred against people on grounds of their religion, while only 15 per cent oppose it.

Unfortunately, this mass public support for the Bill has been ignored by the media, who have concentrated on publicising the vocal objections of the Tory party and a few well-known celebrities, who have tended to portray the Bill as a form of blasphemy law.

The position under existing race relations laws is discriminatory and clearly unacceptable.

Some faith groups such as Jews and Sikhs are currently protected from incitement to hatred, whereas members of other faiths such as Hindus and Muslims are not.

This has left a dangerous loophole in the law which is being exploited by the extreme right.

The British National Party has been energetically propagating its racist filth by whipping up Islamophobia, playing on post-9/11 stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists.

Under existing race relations law they are able to engage in abuse of Muslims that would be illegal if the same thing were said about Sikhs or black people.

Figures released by the Crown Prosecution Service earlier this year showed that 50 per cent of religiously aggravated offences were directed against Muslims.

The new law will provide important protection for Muslim communities who have experienced growing abuse and targeting by racists.

The comedian Rowan Atkinson, a leading opponent of the Bill, has accused the government of “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut” – which implies that incitement of hatred against Asian people in our society is a small matter.

Those who are the victims of this sort of hate crime would take a less relaxed view of the situation.

Opponents of the Bill also claim that if it becomes law they will no longer be allowed to criticise or mock religion. This is nonsense.

It is material inciting hatred which will be outlawed, not material which some find offensive or even insulting.

Differences of opinion over works such as The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie and Jerry Springer – the Opera, which religious groups have found offensive and hurtful, would continue to provoke vigorous public debate, but this kind of material would not be banned under the new law.

The criminalisation of incitement to racial hatred in 1986 did not put artists, authors and comedians out of work – and did not prevent them from tackling thorny and controversial issues relating to race and culture.

It has not reduced real freedom of speech.

It was one of a number of pieces of legislation which have contributed to improving race relations in Britain over the last 20 years.

Anti-racist legislation has made a real difference to the lives of minority ethnic communities by laying down a clear marker as to what society regards as acceptable behaviour.

Despite this, some Labour MPs are unconvinced that the proposed new law should be backed.

I respect their views but I believe they are mistaken.

For example, during last week’s Commons debate Bob Marshall-Andrews stated: “Our race and our gender are what we are and should be protected. Our religion is what we choose to believe.”

This is a familiar argument. However, by reducing faith to a matter of individual choice, it ignores the fact that religious belief is part of a community’s collective culture, and that people don’t choose what community they are born into any more than they select their gender or the colour of their skin.

As Tooting’s Labour MP Sadiq Khan pointed out in reply, the logic of this argument is that Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims don’t require the defence of the law against incitement to hatred because they all have the option of renouncing Islam and converting to Christianity, or becoming atheists!

The Tories and Liberal Democrats have predictably come out in opposition to the new Bill.

It was due to their efforts that two previous attempts at legal reform, in 2001 and again earlier this year, were defeated.

Last week their parliamentary groups joined together to support an amendment declaring that the new law would curtail freedom of expression, worsen community relations, create uncertainty as to what words or behaviour are permitted and bring the law into disrepute.

The Lib Dems’ main spokesperson on the issue, Evan Harris, was an enthusiastic supporter of the French government’s decision to ban the Islamic headscarf in schools.

As an alternative to the government’s Bill, Evans and his colleagues are promoting the so-called “Lester amendment”, formulated by Lib Dem peer Anthony Lester, which would ban using attacks on a person’s religious belief “as a pretext for stirring up racial hatred”.

This may sound reasonable, and it is backed by Rowan Atkinson and other opponents of the government’s Bill, but if adopted it would not mark a significant advance on the present position.

Under the change proposed by Lord Lester, it would still be difficult to prosecute people who incite racial hatred against adherents of religions that are held to be multi-ethnic.

Furthermore, it is not only members of minority ethnic communities who are subject to hatred on the grounds of their religion.

In the Commons debate the Labour MP for Islington South, Emily Thornberry, gave a good illustration of why we need a law specifically banning the incitement of 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…”

Freedom of speech must be upheld – but not the freedom to whip up hatred against people because they are Jews or Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims.

The government has been right to bring forward this measure and they deserve the full support of the labour movement.