Those who want a succinct and persuasive argument against the proposed Racial and Religious Hatred legislation – as presently drafted – should click here.
The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill is not yet the talk of locals in the public bar of The Dog and Duck, or of parents on the school run. But it will become just that if it is railroaded through without any changes. It was designed to extend to Muslims the kind of protections from insults and abuse that they had failed to get when they sought to prosecute Salman Rushdie for blasphemous libel in 1991, Choudhury’s case. Ancient blasphemy laws cover Christianity. Jews and Sikhs are regarded as distinct races and are therefore protected by laws prohibiting racial hatred. Muslims, fearful of a public backlash in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, were anxious to be accorded similar protections from any anti-Islamic backlash. There would undoubtedly be symbolic value to such a new law, if it could be introduced in a way that did not undermine civil liberties.
But the drafting of the Bill has produced not just a mess, but a proposed law that would severely threaten free speech. No one can choose their race, but they can, and do, choose their religious or political beliefs. Criticism of these beliefs is the very essence of a healthy democracy.
As comedian Rowan Atkinson said:
The Government is proposing a law that would allow people to ridicule ideas as long as they were not religious ideas. That cannot be right. If allowed to stand, a Government that often offers the impression of being indifferent towards civil liberties will have strengthened that perception.
All is not lost however. The bill, due to be discussed in the House of Lords tomorrow will be subject to proposed amendments which would go a long way to improving things:
The Lords amendments, tabled by a cross-party group of peers, seek to clarify the important distinction between laws against racism and those that seek to protect the religious from persecution. They specifically spell out that ridicule, criticism and antipathy expressed towards a religion — an important measure of a healthy liberal democracy — would be protected.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens.