Muslims and members of other religions should get used to being mocked, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday.
Lord Carey of Clifton said he passionately believed it was good for members of a religion to have their faith criticised on certain occasions.
Speaking as a member of an all-party group of peers opposing the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, Lord Carey said he wanted to live in a society where people were sensitive to the feelings of others.
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“But in being sensitive, what we mustn’t do is create a society in which certain stories are not told,” Lord Carey told a news conference.
“They were very offended by Satanic Verses but I said you are living in a country and civilisation where we are quite used to this,” he said.
“They say: ‘Why as a Christian don’t you condemn the Life of Brian?’ I said: ‘I love the film and I think it is good for religion to be knocked, to be criticised, to be challenged because we have done a lot of damage in the past’.
“We know religion is a force for good but I don’t want to control a writer not to criticise me, because I may need that criticism.
“The Church of England is a broad church, we are used to being mocked. I do believe passionately in this. I wanted to assure Salman Rushdie that although many of his statements may have been in bad taste he had the right to say it as a lapsed Muslim.”
Ministers are facing defeat in the Lords next week when peers debate the detail of the Bill, which would make inciting religious hatred an offence.
The Tories and the Liberal Democrats, who together can outvote Labour in the Lords, have tabled an amendment designed to address the concerns that the Government’s Bill would undermine freedom of speech.
The amendment would create a “freedom of expression” defence making it clear that people were entitled to criticise religions in terms that involved ridicule and abuse. An offence would be committed only if it could be shown that someone was “intentionally” fomenting religious hatred.
The amendment would fulfil the Government’s manifesto promise to legislate on religious hatred, giving Muslims the same protection as groups like Jews and Sikhs, who are already protected by race hatred legislation.
Rowan Atkinson, the comedian, told the journalists that if the Government’s Bill were passed, it would not be used against someone as high-profile as himself.
“It is the little person I fear for. I worry about the bloke in the pub, the bloke writing the thesis about Judaism. It is those people who are more likely to be got at,” he said.