PEN’s Open Letter is quite interesting, I think.
Although we applaud the government’s wish to make everyone in our multi-cultural, multi-faith nation feel that they have an equal stake in Britain, the proposed amendment to the bill is misguided. It is emphatically not the way forward. It creates a climate which engenders events such as the recent Sikh riot in Birmingham. Here a violent mob, on the grounds that a play offended their religion, successfully prevented its performance, acted as censors, and threatened the life of its author. Fiona MacTaggart, the Home Office Minister, has contended that the remit of the proposed legislation is narrow. However, the signal the offence clause sends out to religious leaders is broad. It serves as a sanction for censorship of a kind which would constrain writers and impoverish our cultural life. Rather than averting intolerance, ‘it would’, as the Southall Black Sisters have pointed out, ‘encourage the culture of intolerance that already exists in all religions’. To gag criticism is to encourage abuse of power within religious communities.
There. It creates a climate, it sends a signal, it serves as a sanction, it would encourage a culture of intolerance. Just so. Of course, that’s all fairly subjunctive, fairly conditional, fairly subtle. It’s an interpretation, an extrapolation, an educated surmise, rather than 3 + 3=6. It’s about other minds, and why people do what they do, and groupthink, and hidden influences. But then so is the clause itself, and so is politics. Mathematical certainty isn’t a requirement or a possibility for legislation, so it can’t be required for opposition to legislation either. And surely the surmise is plausible. Does it not seem likely that the proposed criminalization of ‘religious hatred’ is interpreted by many religious people not as Fiona MacTaggart interprets it but more broadly – as encouragement to get in a temper at anything that ‘offends’ their sensibilities?
Finally, as writers of many faiths and none, we must emphasize that if religious leaders had their way, we would have little literature, less art and no humour. The religious can be quick to take offence. The Papal Index makes salutary reading: it has banned every great offender from Voltaire to Flaubert to James Joyce. On their side, some Jews have objected to Philip Roth and to Joseph Heller; while some Muslim clerics have been so severely offended by the fictions of Salman Rushdie and the Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz, as to issue fatwas against them – much to the distress of other Muslims. Now some British Sikhs have succeeded in censoring the play Behzti and forcing Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti into hiding.
The religious can be quick to take offense. Yeah. You could say that.
The new legislation encourages rather than combats intolerance. We do not need it. What we need is a signal from government that it wishes to defend true democracy and its many virtues, including those of dissent and the freedom of expression. If the government feels more legislation is essential in this area, then it would achieve more of its ends by repealing the law on blasphemy, a relic of pre-multicultural times. Less, here, is more.
Well said. Go, PEN. The response of the Home Office is not very encouraging though.
A Home Office spokesman said: “Both Fiona Mactaggart and the home secretary understand the concerns some groups feel about this legislation and are happy to have meetings to discuss these and reassure them.”
Oh how sweet. As if those ‘some groups’ were whiny little children afraid of the dark. I don’t think Salman Rushdie and Lisa Appignanesi want to be ‘reassured’ – I think they want the Home Office people to take on board what the writers and PEN are saying. I don’t think ‘There, there, everything will be all right’ is precisely what they’re after.