The recent controversies surrounding the performance and subsequent cancellation of the play, Behzti in Birmingham, and the BBC’s broadcast of Jerry Springer – The Opera, pose awkward questions about the future co-existence of liberal and religious values in Britain. On the one hand, civil liberty campaigners fear the ability of an increasingly vocal faith lobby to compromise the values of a predominantly liberal and secular society. Against this, religious minorities complain that such artistic representations are deeply offensive to their faith, and tantamount to inciting hatred against their communities.
How should the government respond to these conflicting demands?
The question has been made more pressing by the introduction of the proposed law of incitement to religious hatred, currently being considered by parliament as part of the Serious Organised Crime Bill. If passed, the law will ‘make it an offence to knowingly use words, behaviour or material that is threatening, abusive or insulting with the intention or likely effect that hatred will be stirred up against a group of people targeted because of their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs, as well as those targeted on racial grounds’.
The government insists that it is not an extended blasphemy law, and is not intended to cover disputes such as those surrounding Jerry Springer – The Opera and the play, Behzti. It is needed, they say, for members of multi-ethnic faiths not protected by the existing race hate legislation, such as white Muslims.
However, opponents of the law, including the National Secular Society, are concerned about its implications for free speech and artistic expression. They cite the example of a similar piece of legislation that was introduced in the Australian state of Victoria. There, the charge of ‘religious vilification’ has become the legal weapon of choice in a series of increasingly futile spats between opposing religious groups.
Even those who initially supported the introduction of the Australian law are having doubts. According to Amir Butler, executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee, all it has ‘achieved is to provide a legalistic weapon by which religious groups can silence their ideological opponents, rather than engaging in debate and discussion.’
Liberal commentators are worried that the proposed charge of incitement to religious hatred could have a similar effect in Britain. They fear that its implementation could lead to a less tolerant attitude between members of different faiths, and a climate of self-censorship on religious issues in the media and wider society.
Supporters of the law dispute this, saying that the level of ‘religious hatred’ will be set much higher than in the Australian legislation.
The CRE has pointed to evidence that extreme right groups are increasingly avoiding race hate charges by using religion, particularly involving attacks on Muslims, as a proxy for race. The proposed legislation, they argue, would close this loophole, whilst ensuring adequate protection for freedom of expression.
Which side is right? The answer will partly depend on the final wording of the legislation. Most supporters of the bill accept that it will need to make a clear distinction between protecting people from having hatred stirred up against them because of their religious beliefs, and protecting religious beliefs themselves from criticism and mockery.
Some organisations, who support the need for a change in the law, are nonetheless concerned about the current wording of the bill. The British Humanist Association say that the definition of ‘religious hatred’ is unclear, and has been interpreted by people on both sides of the argument as protecting religious belief from criticism.
‘The Bill needs to be amended so that it distinguishes – beyond any doubt – between protecting people and protecting beliefs’, says the association’s executive director, Hanne Stinson.
Other groups, including the National Secular Society, are unwilling to make any concessions to the religious lobby. They fear that its introduction will fuel a growing tendency among faith groups to expect their actual beliefs, and not just the adherents of those beliefs, to be protected. ‘This will be a bad law, inflaming, not calming, religious passions’, warns the society’s honorary associate, Polly Toynbee.
One thing the government might do to assuage liberal fears on the bill would be to repeal the existing blasphemy laws, in place to protect the Church of England from inappropriate criticism and ridicule. Not only is the law anachronistic in the modern age. It is also divisive, granting legal protection to one religion over and above other faiths. Repeal would send out a strong message about the necessary legal difference between protecting people and protecting beliefs, and affirm the government’s commitment to defending the rights of all of Britain’s diverse communities.
The government might also want to look at the role of religion in stoking unnecessary hatred and discrimination in society. For instance, faith groups are currently exempt from the provisions of the recently introduced EU employment directive, which outlaws discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of sexual orientation. Seemingly, many faith groups are unable to tolerate the presence of non-heterosexual staff on their pay roll, even if they are ‘just a little bit gay’ to quote Jerry Springer – The Opera.
Hate is a quality condemned by most world religions. If faith groups in this country wish to enjoy the protection of the law against hatred, perhaps it’s about time they started to practice what they preach.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.