Wake Up

People don’t pay enough attention. Maybe they don’t pay any attention. Maybe all those octagonal red signs just flash pointlessly in front of their eyes without being taken in. Maybe everyone is entirely made of wood. I have to wonder sometimes.

It’s this BBC item on Rowan Atkinson, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and others joining forces to urge the government to add three amendments to the religious hatred bill – ‘to ensure people can still ridicule and criticise religion.’

Opponents of the bill, which faces detailed scrutiny in the House of Lords next week, say it would outlaw jokes and criticism of beliefs. They argue that people can choose their religion, unlike their race and so should not be protected against offence or criticism. On Thursday, the alliance of writers, comedians, bishops and peers unveiled a series of amendments they want added to the bill.

Good, good. Hope they succeed. Would prefer (as they would) no such bill, but failing that, hope they get the amendments accepted.

Blackadder star Mr Atkinson said campaigners against the law backed the government’s alleged intentions. But he warned: “The prime motivating energy for the bill seemed to come not from communities seeking protection from bullying by the British National Party but more from individuals with a more aggressive, fundamentalist agenda.” He pointed to those who would have liked to use such laws to prevent Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Even if there were no prosecutions under the new law, it would create self-censorship by writers, suggested Mr Atkinson.

A lot of that self-censorship is already on site, I would say – in the form of all the hand-wringers who are always rushing to and fro urging everyone to ‘respect’ religion I do beg your pardon I mean ‘faith’ and not to ‘insult’ or ‘offend’ religious beliefs. But not to worry – according to an authoritative body.

But the Muslim Council of Britain defended the law, disputing claims that it would lead to a loss of free speech. “People like Rowan Atkinson have created a media frenzy by claiming that the proposed law will ban criticism of religious beliefs. It certainly will not,” said Sher Khan, chairman of its public affairs committee.

And apart from a perfunctory ‘Sure, we’ll have a look’ from the Home Office, the MCB comment is the last thing in the article. In other words, they get the last word. Also the only word from that particular ‘community.’ Okay – that’s the not paying attention part. Why is the MCB consulted? Why did the BBC rush to ask the MCB what it thought? Why is the MCB so readily – so downright automatically – treated as the authoritative body to consult on such questions? Why is it treated as some sort of ‘leadership’ or as ‘representative’ when a lot of people – emphatically including Muslims – have pointed out that they’re not leaders and not representative? Not to mention not elected and not even – what they are so often taken to be – particularly ‘moderate’. Especially after that ‘Panorama’ – and Panorama is a BBC show, after all. So…they’re not paying attention. That’s irritating.

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