A Law Against Incitement to Religious Hatred
Home Secretary David Blunkett wants to make incitement to religious hatred a crime. A good many people are queuing up to express doubts, as they did last July, when Blunkett was flogging the idea on ‘Today’ by saying that people would still be allowed to express opinions about religion – as long as they were sensible. Johann Hari said many good (even sensible) things then:
One of the unfortunate side-effects of multiculturalism is that it has made even the left reluctant to criticise religion. Any attack on other belief systems is seen as tantamount to racism – a trend that David Blunkett seeks to reinforce with his proposals to criminalise ‘incitement to religious hatred’. This is a false link: we each choose our faith; nobody chooses the colour of their skin…The equality of human beings is integral to the Enlightenment rationalist tradition; the way to defend equality is by defending that tradition and seeking to extend it, not by adopting some fake and disingenuous notion that all ‘cultures’ – including slave-owning theocratic belief systems – are somehow equal.
But sadly, the sensible things a lot of people said had no effect, so they are simply having to say them all over again. Rowan Atkinson, who has taken part in the odd anti-clerical joke from time to time, did his bit:
Unfortunately, what is very arguable is the definition of the terms – the definition of a tolerant society. Is a tolerant society one in which you tolerate absurdities, iniquities and injustices simply because they are being perpetrated by or in the name of a religion and out of a desire not to rock the boat you pass no comment or criticism. So as not to cause discomfort to anyone, not to cause embarrassment. A society with a veneer of tolerance concealing a snake pit of un-aired and of course unchallenged views…In the draft of legislation, it is suggested that we simply substitute the words ‘racial hatred’ for ‘racial or religious hatred’, as if race and religion are basically the same thing and we no longer need to distinguish between them. Race and religion are fundamentally different concepts, even if for many individuals, the two are inextricably linked. To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous but to criticise their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom. The freedom to criticise ideas – any ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society and a law which attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.
What the supporters of the idea say to allay worries of that kind is not as reassuring as it might be:
Sadiq Khan, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said the bill closed a loophole which meant those who incite hatred against Christians and Muslims could not be prosecuted. “The law will not mean that comedians like Rowan Atkinson cannot take the piss out of religion,” he added.
Easily said, but how does Mr Khan know that? And what about comedians unlike Rowan Atkinson? And journalists, writers, streetcorner skeptics, village atheists, the man on the Clapham omnibus – what about any and all of us who have our quarrels with religion and don’t want to be told to keep them to ourselves on pain of imprisonment? Is Mr Khan going to tell us the law will not mean that we will have to talk about other things from now on? It’s hard to see how he can say that, when that seems to be exactly the point of such a law: to forbid people to criticise religion in any but the most anodyne inoffensive ways.