My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen
Those of us who have opposed this measure since its introduction in 2001 have never had a problem with its alleged intent, viz. to counter the expression of racial hatred under the disguise of religious hatred. Rather, our problem was always the legislation’s breathtaking scope and reach far beyond that intent.
The prime motivating energy for the Bill seemed to come not from communities seeking protection from bullying by the British National Party but from individuals with a more aggressive, fundamentalist agenda. Those who have sought, from the very day of the publication in 1989 of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, to immunise religions against criticism and ridicule – or at least to promote legislation that is so sinister and intimidating, it can provide that immunity without even the need to prosecute anyone. In other words, to impose self-censorship.
The starting point for my objections to this Bill is to argue with its supposedly inarguable premise: the ‘ooh Yes Religious Hatred, that sounds like a bad thing, let’s have a law against that’. As hatred is defined as intense dislike, what is wrong with inciting intense dislike of a religion, if the activities or teachings of that religion are so outrageous, irrational or abusive of human rights that they deserve to be intensely disliked?
The Government has often spoken of how under existing legislation, Jews and Sikhs are protected from religious hatred on the basis of their race and that this Bill seeks merely to extend that protection to others. The problem that that ignores is that race and religion are fundamentally different concepts – you cannot choose your race, you can choose your religion – and even if for many the line dividing their race from their religion is blurred in the eyes of the law. A sharp line can and should be drawn.
If Jews and Sikhs are protected from criticism of their religious beliefs or religious activities, then that is a wrong and the idea of extending that to other religions is also a wrong. To criticise people for their race is manifestly irrational but to criticise their religion, that is a right.
The freedom to criticise or ridicule ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is a fundamental freedom and a law which says that you can ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas, is a very odd law indeed. It promotes the idea that there should be a right not to be offended, when I think that the right to offend is far more important than a right not to be offended.
The only moderating influence on this legislation will be the Attorney General, who can veto prosecutions. Yet how can the Office of the Attorney General, an instrument of government, be expected to take only a judicial view of cases brought before him and not be influenced by the political ambitions of his employer?
The ease with which one religious group or another could be favoured or disfavoured is clear. You many not know that there is an Anti-Vilification law in a state in Australia, where a Witch successfully brought a prosecution against a Christian pastor for vilification of her religion. Now the government has assured us that our Attorney General would veto such a frivolous prosecution.
However, you can imagine that if, one day, electoral research by the party in government revealed that there were a surprising number of witches living in a number of marginal constituencies whose votes could be of considerable benefit to the party at the next general election, then such a prosecution might suddenly seem a more attractive and less frivolous idea to the Attorney General than it had previously. The potential for abuse is manifest.
It is time for the Government to listen. It has made no attempt to address any of these concerns – other than to deflect the criticism with the most anodyne rebuttals.
The Government says you will continue to be able to criticise or ridicule religion. Where in the Bill does it say that? Where is the clause that even implies that kind of freedom of expression? How can such bland reassurances carry any authority when there is no wording in the bill to support them and the chief promoters and supporters of this legislation, in consultation with whom the thing was drafted, have always taken the opposite view. They don’t think that religions should be ridiculed. They don’t think that religions should be criticised or insulted. That is why they have lobbied for this legislation for so many years and unlike the government are not blind to its potential to achieve those aims.
The problem with this Bill is its imbalance. It represents the relentless pursuit of the interests of a tiny minority of the population with, so far, no consideration or quarter being given to the concerns of the baffled majority. This is not to belittle the concerns of the minority which can be and should be accommodated but good government is also about doing everything in your power to accommodate the concerns of those most affected by your legislative ambitions. And this is simply not happening.
That is what these amendments are about. They do not affect the essence of the Bill – they seek only to provide reassurance and above all to protect freedom of speech, from which not just a minority will benefit, nor just a majority, but every single one of us.