Bruce Anderson: This attempt to criminalise religious hatred is an absurd perversion of the rule of law

Some Muslims are still not accustomed to the freedom of debate we take for granted
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Hatred and religion are close kin. Nor is this solely a manifestation of original sin. How could hatred be avoided when both sides claim a monopoly of the truth which brings eternal life to those who accept it and eternal damnation to those who reject it?

Hatred and religion are close kin. Nor is this solely a manifestation of original sin. How could hatred be avoided when both sides claim a monopoly of the truth which brings eternal life to those who accept it and eternal damnation to those who reject it?

In the days when religion dominated British intellectual life, the phrase "odium theologicum"- the hatreds associated with theological disputes - had become a cliché. Yet that only referred to intra-Christian arguments. Today, Muslims are making converts in Africa. Many of the new adherents to Islam are apostates from Christianity. A hundred years ago, when the Christian hierarchies were unapologetic about their faith, one can imagine the reaction. Here were poor benighted Africans, only recently rescued from heathendom, being lured into immortal peril by the wiles of Islam. In those days, it is probable that the outraged Christian missionaries would have demanded the assistance of the civil power.

Muslims are still unapologetic about their faith. That is why there are hardly any Islamic countries in which it is legal, or safe, for Christian missionaries to proselytise. Muslims are equally unapologetic - and intolerant - about the Koran. Modern scholarship has produced a lot of evidence that the writing of the Koran was a much more complex and protracted business than Islamic teaching would have us believe. It appears that the Koran did not achieve its final shape until some decades after Mohammed's death. This is not widely known in the Islamic world. There is no equivalent of the eagerness with which Christian theologians have embraced the Dead Sea Scrolls, and even in the West, Koranic scholars tend not to seek publicity for their revisionist endeavours.

But whenever the Koran was written, it contains some - literally - damning comments about Jews and Christians. There are passages which would not discourage suicide bombers. There are also passages in the New Testament which have encouraged violence. The Jewish mob brushes aside Pilate's attempts to spare Christ and demands His crucifixion while embracing blood guilt: "Then answered all the people and said, His blood be on us and on our children." Down the Christian centuries, this has often been treated as a guilty plea to the charge of deicide, thus justifying the most hideous crimes against Jews.

It is true that modern Christianity has abased itself in apology for these blood libels. But the words are still there, in the Gospels of peace and love. Many Jewish leaders were unhappy about Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ. Yet it was well sourced in the New Testament. It is not inconceivable that the same passages could still inspire some disturbed obsessive to arson or bloodshed.

So one might have thought that any legislator who was serious about proscribing religious hatred would start by demanding that the Koran or the Bible should only be published in bowdlerised versions (these days, the Christians might agree). Such a suggestion would be absurd, yet it is the logical conclusion of the Government's current moves to criminalise religious hatred, which is why the current Bill is illogical and absurd, as well as a violation of a vital human right: free speech.

As the US Supreme Court once acknowledged, freedom of speech is not an absolute entitlement; no one has the right to shout "Fire" in a crowded theatre. In practice, however, the First Amendment to the US Constitution gives Americans an almost untrammelled right to free speech on the basis that no democracy can flourish without a robust exchange of opinions. That is equally true of Britain.

Free speech can be offensive. We are used to that in politics, but it also applies to religion. A conscientious Jew ought to believe that Jesus Christ was an impostor, and bewail the gullibility of the Christians who have been deceived. A good Christian ought to lament the Jews' refusal to join in the glory of the revelation which they nurtured. Jew and Christian could combine to denounce Mohammed as a mountebank and to deplore his followers' credulity. The Mohammedans would have a reply. All three groups should have the right to state their views, however much offence they give.

Jews, Christians and Muslims should agree on one point, and find support from atheists and agnostics. Anyone who subscribes to a grown-up religion, or a grown-up absence of religion, ought to deride Mormonism, Scientology, Rastafarianism and all the so-called New Age cults.

As all these religions and pseudo-religions contend, the Government should only have one role: to point out the absolute distinction between causing offence to one's neighbour and hitting him over the head. There is nothing wrong with religious hatred; there is everything wrong with religious-inspired violence.

Even before the latest clod-hopping intervention, the Government was neglecting its duty. A few months ago, Sikh militants used the threat of violence to force the curtailment of a theatrical performance. Learning from this example, Christian fundamentalists who wished to prevent the screening of Jerry Springer: The Opera threatened violence against the governors of the BBC. Yet ministers showed little interest in countering this blackmail and upholding freedom under the law. Perhaps they were too busy preparing to yield to blackmail.

Many Muslim leaders were so upset by the war in Iraq that they urged their followers to vote against the Labour Party. Though these Muslims are as entitled to their view and their votes as anyone else in the UK, some of them are still not accustomed to the freedom of debate which we in the West take for granted. Some of them are hoping for a ban on any criticism of Islam.

The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has assured Parliament that there is no such intention;the ban on religious hatred would amount to little more than a prohibition of incitement to violence. But there is already a perfectly good law against incitement to violence, which could be punished by a substantial term of imprisonment. There would be nothing to prevent the Home Secretary from encouraging the judiciary to look towards the maximum sentence range in cases where religion was involved. As so often, it is not more law that we need, but more order.

This new law would only encourage compulsive complainers and vexatious litigants. While it is unlikely that there would be many prosecutions, it would arouse widespread ill feeling as many Englishmen, believing that their freedom of speech was being circumscribed, turned their resentment on the groups which they held responsible. The Government is preparing a perversion of the rule of law in a ruthless attempt to shore up the Labour vote. It is to be hoped that even if the Labour whips ram it through the Commons, the Lords will stand up for free speech.