originally written in June '05 by jez
The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill has survived its second reading in the House of Commons, and given that the government has said it is willing to use the parliamentary act to force it through the House of Lords, seems almost certain to become law. This, in this correspondent’s opinion, is a Bad Thing. The bill, also known as the religious hatred law, or my own personal favourite, the bigot’s charter, is supposedly meant to protect people from being hated because of their religious beliefs. Put like that, it sounds relatively harmless, but of course, there’s more to it than that. Politicians always speak with forked tongues, and this has been particularly evident over this legislation. In one breath government spokespeople have been at pains to stress that freedom of speech will not be affected and have portrayed the bill as a mere tidying up exercise, closing a loop-hole in existing racial hatred laws whereby racists can use religion as an analogy for ethnicity. In the next breath they make outrageous claims like those of home office minister Paul Goggins who said that this new law could have prevented the racially charged street-fighting between asian and white youths in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in 2001. And of course, the government is anxious that religious communities, particularly moslems, see the bill as protecting them, not only from the ambiguous concept of religious hatred, but also from criticism. Despite the almost throwaway clause in the bill which says it will protect people of all faiths and none, it is obvious that the driving force behind the proposed law is the government’s desire to win the support of self-appointed leaders of powerful organised religions. By the government’s own admission this legislation has been asked for by "key leaders in all the major faith communities" and has been drawn up in consultation with them. This cosy relationship, whereby these state-approved faith leaders give support to the government in return for concessions like this bill and ongoing support for faith schools, makes a mockery of secularism. A secular society, where religion and state are separate, would not only protect the right of the individual to believe what they want to, free from interference from either the state or monolithic, authoritarian religious organisations, but it would also protect religions themselves from the corrupting influence of the state. Instead, increasingly we are seeing secular gains being rolled back by the state acting in concert with religious leaders. Religious lobby groups have money and are able to mobilise the faithful, and as such can influence government decision-making, and in turn, the government wants to get on their good side in order to have a share of that money and influence. Thankfully, we have not yet reached the dangerous situation that exists in the US, but unless we wake up to this possibility and begin to organise against it, we will see hard fought for rights, like access to abortion, eroded, and we will see more and more virulent campaigns like the one that forced the play Behzti to close, or that tried to stop the BBC screening Jerry Springer the Opera. That opposition has yet to materialise. The promised back-bench rebellion against this bill failed, and outside of parliament, vocal opposition has been limited to comedians like Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. Fair play to them for their tenacious defence of free speech, but is this yet more evidence that we rely on celebrities to speak on our behalf? (Still, we should be thankful that the sanctimonious and hypocritical Saint Bob Geldof and his travelling circus haven’t jumped on the bandwagon on this issue. I suppose there isn’t enough money and fame involved to catch his interest.) Sure, there’s been opposition from the right-wing as well, but the Tories commitment to free speech only extends to people they like saying things they approve of, and the Liberal Democrats opposition to anything can change with the wind. Meanwhile in the right-wing media, The Sun expressed their outrage that pagans and religious cults would also be protected by the new law, while the more high-brow class of chauvinists loyally echoed the Tories. It is an indication of the weakness of the left that the only opposition from our quarter is in the form of a handful of impotent articles like this one, while the largest of the Leninist sects, the Socialist Worker’s Party, stays silent. Despite their recent, hollow claim that they have "defended the right to freedom of speech, debate and the clash of ideas," the SWP are now openly opposed to secularism. There are no prizes for guessing why. The success of their current project, Respect, depends on their continued appeasement of the deeply religious George Galloway MP and self-styled, self-appointed leaders of the moslem community like the Moslem Association of Britain. The MAB are outspoken in their support of this bill, which one of their spokespersons (and former Respect candidate), Anas Altikriti, described as "legislation that promised to ensure the rights and freedoms of Muslims and all faith communities." I actively dislike religion, and I’m perfectly open about that (see red star 5 for details). Even so, I agree with Altikriti and his co-thinkers that people of faith should be entitled to the same rights and freedoms as everyone else. I am opposed to people being discriminated against on the basis of the beliefs that they hold, or threatened or attacked. But I am also opposed to this law, partly because I think that legislation is as incapable of ending religious hatred as it is of solving any other social ill, and partly because I regard it as being part of an insidious attack on the principle of free speech. People should be free to practice their beliefs as they choose, free from harm and coercion. Conversely though, people should be free to choose not to hold any particular beliefs, or to change existing beliefs. Personally I do not have any faith. I think religions are at best silly, and at worst downright reactionary. I am entitled to openly hold those views, and criticise, mock and ridicule religion if I so choose. People are entitled to disagree with me (they often do) and criticise, mock and ridicule what I think (again, they often do). The only way that ideas can evolve and spread is through full and open debate, and religious beliefs are ideas like any other and should be open to debate to the same extent. Supporters of the religious hatred law claim that it will not affect free speech, that it is not intended to silence criticism of religious beliefs. Government spokespersons, with an almost audible sneer in their voices, have patiently explained that it will not prevent people telling jokes about religion or criticising it. I am unconvinced. Elements within the religious groups that support this law certainly do want to restrict criticism. Some religious people, and this does not apply to all by any means, are oversensitive about criticism, particularly of their mythological figures like Jesus and Mohammed. Witness for example, the church of scientology in the USA, which has litigated against so many people on the grounds of defamation and copyright infringements, that many of their critics have been intimidated into silence. Such groups will certainly try to use this law to their own ends in order to stifle criticism. This law will not be used by ordinary working class people: it will be used by the state and powerful religious organisations to advance their own agendas. They have the money and the influence to take a case to the courts and make it stick. Ordinary people and less centralised religions like paganism do not. Such laws can all too easily be used against our class, and not in the way that they are claimed to be used for when first put on the statute books, for example, the harassment laws and ASBOs increasingly being used against protesters. The chances are that this law, like the incitement to racial hatred law that it has been compared to (tenuously in my opinion), will be seldom used: the existing incitement to racial hatred law has seen only 67 trials and 44 convictions since it was brought in nearly twenty years ago. Also, the chances are that the law will be used, at least at first against the likes of the BNP and the kind of controversial fundamentalist Moslem clerics that drive the right-wing tabloids into a frenzy. Unpleasant as these people are, criminalising them for what they say will not change what they and their supporters think. Allowing the state to have the monopoly on deciding what people can say or not is potentially far more dangerous.
Just because this law will be seldom used does not make it any less dangerous; it just means that the effects will be more insidious. People will feel reluctant to voice criticisms of religion, at first maybe out of fear of prosecution, but over time, simply out of habit. It goes without saying that contrary to the intent of the law this will make for fertile ground for resentment and prejudice to breed in. Religious fundamentalists will become more confident and more outspoken. The architect of this nasty piece of legislation, the equally nasty former home secretary, David Blunkett, in a speech in July 2004 said: "The issue of incitement to religious hate is a tiny part of a much broader pattern that we are attempting, collectively, to put together, to create a society where cohesion, tolerance and understanding are natural, where people can settle their differences in ways that don't develop hate and where people feel free to be able to express sensible views and have sensible arguments." (The emphasis is mine.) I’m sure everyone who is adept at interpreting Blairite doublespeak will have felt a little shiver down their spine on reading that. Blunkett of course, has no intention of building a genuinely tolerant society. When a Blairite talks about "sensible views" and "sensible arguments," they mean views and arguments that they approve of. Anything remotely unconventional will not be tolerated; not only religious fundamentalism or the racism of the BNP but also socialist, anarchist and other progressive ideas and activism. Blunkett is aiming for a sanitised and banal society where none of us would dare rock the boat, where we don’t ask awkward questions and where we wouldn’t dream of doing anything that wasn’t approved of by the state. This law will not end religious hatred. That is not how laws work. People use illegal drugs even though they are illegal. People below the age of consent still have sex, even though it is against the law. No matter what the law says there are still going to be people who hate other people because of their sexuality or the colour of their skin or their religious beliefs. Equally though, there are some things that most people do not do regardless of their legality. As an extreme example, if murder was legalised, it would still not be commonplace. There are a lot of good reasons not to murder people apart from the fact that it is illegal. Laws, thankfully, are incapable of changing people’s minds. What can change people’s minds is being able to freely debate ideas and the context in which those ideas are presented. The best defence against reactionary ideas is a culture in which people are able to see through their own experience that they do not fit with reality. This law will impede the development of such a culture.
What does do is place more power in the hands of the state, in the form of the police, the CPS and the courts, to decide what level of criticism of religion is permitted, and to prosecute people who they deem to have stepped over that line. It gives them the power to restrict free speech. The purpose of the state is restrictive: it exists to control the individual members of society in the interests of the ruling class. This idea is simple and uncontroversial enough, what is disappointing though is the way in which people on the receiving end of state oppression, particularly moslems in this current climate, are willing to put their trust in that same state to protect their interests. Disappointing, but not surprising: all of us are so used to deferring to authority that it has become second nature. We are complicit in our own subjugation. We rely on authority figures to do things for us and do our thinking for us. The paradigm of thinking of people, including ourselves, in terms of who leads and who is led is so deep-rooted that it is dominant even in the radical movement that seeks to overthrow the status quo, where too many people see themselves as leaders or look to leaders to provide the answers for them.