Andreas Whittam Smith: Don't bring the police and the judges into religious debate

'Muslim leaders hadn't envisaged that religious hate laws could be used against themselves'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Home Secretary should drop the new offence of inciting religious hatred from the anti-terrorism bill. Rumours over the weekend suggested that Mr Blunkett might back down. In the second reading debate a week ago, no member of Parliament spoke in favour.

The Muslim community, which alone urged the Government to act, is now having second thoughts. Muslim leaders hadn't envisaged that such legislation could be used against themselves. But Muslims are no less subject to the law than Christians, Hindus, Jews or anyone else. And the Koran, like the Old Testament, has some pretty bloodthirsty stuff in it: "muster against the unbelievers all the men and cavalry at your disposal, so that you may strike terror into the enemies of Allah". In practice, the new legislation could have a perverse result. Instead of comforting the followers of Islam, it might be seen as a new method of attacking them.

Mr Blunkett argued that the Bill contained two safeguards. For a case to succeed, prosecutors would have to prove that there was an "intention" and a "likelihood" that the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words would stir up hatred. And only the Attorney General could decide whether to bring charges.

These arguments miss the point. In practice, when a complaint is made, the police would be bound to investigate. Statements would be taken down. Warnings of possible prosecution would be given. Papers would be prepared for the judgement of the Attorney General. So that even if the Attorney General of the day subsequently declined to carry the case any further, the damage would have been done. Those expressing the views that generated the original complaint would have been harassed and would from then onwards feel inhibited.

The anti-terrorism bill also embodies dangerous confusions. Anti-terrorism measures, properly so-called, are designed to protect the public – the majority – against the actions of a small number of people who are often not even residents of this country. The clauses dealing with inciting religious hatred, on the other hand, are concerned with the protection of a minority of British citizens. Such measures don't belong in an anti-terrorism bill.

Furthermore, race and religion are wrongly linked together as if they were interchangeable. The bill takes the Public Order Act 1986 and simply inserts the words "or religious" wherever the phrase "racial hatred" appears. This is inept even if technically effective. Moreover, by treating race and religion together, Parliament is in danger of entering areas from which it rightly withdrew over 100 years ago – the policing of what people believe and the vetting of how vigorously they press their religious opinions on others. We do not expect Parliament to be concerned with "standardising opinion or entrenching orthodoxy" as one MP put it. The courts should not become arbiters of what is acceptable in religious controversy. Yet that is exactly what the religious clauses in the anti-terrorism bill would bring about.

At least, that is what I think. Nobody can argue that I am definitely wrong because the likely consequences are unknowable, which itself is a reason for not proceeding. Let us start with the oft-quoted example of The Rev Ian Paisley MP. For as long as anybody can remember, he has been saying that the Pope, the revered head of the Roman Catholic Church, is the Anti-Christ. It is hard to think of anything more offensive to Catholics. But if taken to court, I suppose Mr Paisley would say that, his words do not seem to have incited any additional hatred of Catholics. But we don't know.

As it happens, Northern Ireland provides a better example than this. Would the enactment of the religious hate clauses in the anti-terrorism bill have been any use to the parents and girls at the Holy Cross School in the Ardoyne? Haven't they experienced weeks of religious hatred as they have walked to their classes? The Attorney General could hardly brush a complaint aside in this case.

Then the other day at the Tottenham Hotspur ground in London, hundreds of supporters held up posters carrying the single word "Judas" and directed them towards a former member of the club now playing for a rival team, Sol Campbell. Were those actions designed to stir up hatred? Probably yes. Were the sentiments religiously motivated? Probably not. But suppose that a complaint were made by Mr Campbell himself. Wouldn't the police have to investigate?

Would the author Salmon Rushdie, upon whose protection the state spent hundreds of thousands of pounds, now find himself prosecuted for writing a book with the same impact as Satanic Verses? And because religion isn't defined in the bill, would cults get protection which they would otherwise not deserve? And so on.

The Home Secretary cannot wish to be haunted by unintended consequences of his bill. That is why he should withdraw the religious hate clauses. He doesn't need them.