Return of the Repressed

It’s back, as the saying goes. The incitement to religious hatred law.

The bill extends the offence of incitement to racial hatred, under the Public Order Act 1988, to religious hatred, so that multi-ethnic faith groups are covered, as Sikhs and Jews are at the moment. 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.

Well why not? How do you know? How do I know? How do comedians like Rowan Atkinson, and bloggers like OB and journalists like Christopher Hitchens and science popularisers like Richard Dawkins and philosophy popularisers like A C Grayling and secularism popularisers like Ibn Warraq and Maryam Namazie and Azam Kamguian – how do any of us know? We don’t. That’s just it. We don’t know at all, and some spokesman just saying so doesn’t help. Sadiq Khan doesn’t know what sort of prosecutions would be brought under such a law, does he. How could he know? So where does he get the calm assurance of that assertion? Who knows.

And that word ‘loophole’ is deceptive, too. Loophole shmoophole. One might as well say a new law against incitement to political hatred ‘closes a loophole’ which means that those who incite hatred against socialists and libertarians cannot be prosecuted. It’s not a ‘loophole,’ it’s the essence of the thing. Just as it’s not a ‘technicality’ to say that the police can’t extort confessions by torture, so it’s not a ‘loophole’ to say that ideas must not be protected from criticism by threats of prosecution and imprisonment. In fact this new law would not so much close a loophole as create an absurdity, as Rowan Atkinson points out:

And a law that attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas, as long as they are not religious ideas, is a very peculiar law indeed.

There is nothing very reassuring in the explanatory notes that accompany the bill:

Explanatory notes accompanying the Bill say the offence would apply ”to the use of words or behaviour or display of written material, publishing or distributing written material, the public performance of a play, distributing, showing or playing a recording, broadcasting or including a programme in a programme service and the possession of written materials or recordings with a view to display, publication, distribution or inclusion in a programme service”. They add: ”For each offence the words, behaviour, written material, recordings or programmes must be threatening, abusive or insulting and intended or likely to stir up racial hatred.”

Must be threatening, abusive or insulting. Oh well that’s all right then! Because it’s well-known how calm and equable religious believers always are when non-believers challenge their beliefs. Believers will never see an ‘insult’ where other observers might see simply a difference of opinion. Oh hell no. And all those corpses littering the landscape, all those death threats, all those politicians under police protection, all those novelists and journalists who have gone into hiding – that’s just – um – a misunderstanding, which will never happen once this splendid law is in place and nobody is allowed to insult religion any more. Excellent.

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