May You Live in Inciting Times


Argument is raging in the UK over a new law against incitement to religious hatred, passed in the Commons the day before yesterday and now before the Lords. Laws against racial hatred and incitement to violence already exist, and were recently used to jail a Muslim cleric, but some feel that further restrictions are required. The Guardian has published a letter by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, in favour of the new statute:

…Currently, some religious groups, such as Jews and Sikhs, are protected from incitement to hatred under the law. Others, such as Muslims and Christians, are not. This inconsistency is exploited by the extreme right.

Recent figures by the Crown Prosecution Service at the end of January showed 50% of religiously aggravated offences were directed against Muslims.

…The criminalisation of incitement to racial hatred in 1986 did not put artists, authors and comedians out of work nor prevent them from using their media to tackle controversial issues. Freedom of speech must be upheld. But not a freedom to urge people to whip up hatred against people because they are Jews or Sikhs or Muslims.

Prominent among those opposed to the law are Rowan Atkinson, Salman Rushdie and the Barnabas Fund. Atkinson’s prominence might seem strange to Americans who know him primarily as Mr Bean, but Atkinson made his name in satire, including involvement with a marvellous song, “Ayatollah, Don’t Khomeini Closer” (More recently he caused upset with a sketch in which he played a vicar explaining his views on oral sex while dipping a communion wafer into wine). Atkinson complained that:

the only safety valve that they have put in the legislation is the fact that the attorney general will have the final say…A safety valve operated by a politician subject to the political agendas of the day is not to me a good enough safety valve…The incitement of religious hatred doesn’t even have to be intended, it is just if it offends any person…It couldn’t be more broad…This is undoubtedly a politically motivated move on the government’s part because they think it will give them some advantage among certain religious groups in the imminent general election

Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie adds:

The pressure of members of English PEN has wrested a late concession from the government, which has renamed the proposed offence “hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds”. But the danger the legislation carries for freedom of speech, while diminished, remain.

…The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not?

…The ability of this law to protect “the Muslims” seems to me arguable. It is entirely possible that instead it will be used against Muslims before it’s used against anyone else. There are identifiable racist and right-wing groups in this country who would argue that Muslims are the ones inciting religious hatred, and these groups will use, or try to use, this law.

The Barnabas Fund, which exists to highlight persecution of Christians abroad, is also unhappy. ASSIST reports (their footnotes here made into hyperlinks):

The proposed legislation, which forms Schedule 10 of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Bill, was passed by the House of Commons on Monday 7 February and now proceeds to the Lords, according to a press release obtained by ASSIST News Service (ANS). [1]. Both in Committee and at Report Stage the government consistently rejected reasonable amendments which, though not perfect, would have reduced the risk the law poses to legitimate free speech.

The release says: “The law is tucked away on just 3 pages of this otherwise unrelated bill. Members of Parliament from all sides of the house were outraged by the very limited time allowed by the government for discussion of this crucially important issue with potentially huge ramifications for free speech”

ASSIST also notes:

in the Report Stage debate in the Commons Mr Khalid Mahmood, a Labour MP, appeared to give the impression that he personally did not rule out the possible application of the law in the case of The Satanic Verses [4]. When pressed on this point Home Office minister Hazel Blears avoided giving a direct confirmation that Salman Rushdie could not be prosecuted under the law [5]…Further information on the proposed law banning Incitement to Religious Hatred is available on Barnabas Fund’s website [7].

One thing that hasn’t really been remarked on is that religious hatred was actually pretty central to British identity for a long time, and this heritage can still be seen in parts of the UK. Wren’s Monument to the Fire of London blames “frenzied Popery” for the calamity (although the note has been amended); the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in Norfolk (used by Roman Catholics and high Anglicans) is regularly picketed by dour Reformed fundamentalists. The town of Lewes, in my home county of East Sussex, famously celebrates the 5th of November (“Bonfire Night” in the UK) by burning effigies of the Pope and carrying anti-Catholic banners. And of course, while it may be simplistic to label the Northern Ireland conflict as religious, for many people it is epitomised by Ian Paisley’s outbursts against Popery and Romish superstition.

I suppose this gets so little notice because nobody really takes it seriously outside Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland. Lewes Bonfire Night is seen as just a bit of history (although when I went in 1995 I saw one reveller making comments supporting Northern Ireland Loyalist terrorists); anti-Catholic Reformed Christians are few in number, and they look and talk like they’ve fallen through a time wormhole from the 1950s (the same goes for the Seventh-Day Adventists). All they evoke is vague bemusement and ridicule – and those discussing the rights and wrongs of the new law appear to have forgotten they even exist.

(Rushdie link from The Revealer)

2 Responses

  1. […] film can be read here). And with the British government currently backing off from its own proposed new legislation concerning incitement to religious hatred, it’s worrying to see that the UNCHR seems unaware […]

  2. […] have been used to “edit” Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. I covered the debate here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)X Rated by Saudi Vice CommissionVideo: Melanie […]

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