Meghnad Desai: We don't need new laws on religious hatred

A secular democracy needs to get away from privileging religion, not give it special status
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The Independent Online

We have been here once before. Indeed the House of Lords has been here twice before. It is the attempt by various well meaning people to legislate religious hatred as a ground for prosecution on the same basis as racial hatred. David Blunkett tagged on a clause about religious hatred to an Anti-Terrorism Bill in the wake of 11 September.

We have been here once before. Indeed the House of Lords has been here twice before. It is the attempt by various well meaning people to legislate religious hatred as a ground for prosecution on the same basis as racial hatred. David Blunkett tagged on a clause about religious hatred to an Anti-Terrorism Bill in the wake of 11 September.

The idea was to amend the existing race-relations legislation by adding religious hatred to racial hatred in the relevant sections as grounds for prosecution. I objected then and have continued to object since about such a provision. At that stage, the Home Secretary dropped the religious hatred clauses from the Bill to ensure its passage.

Since then. Lord Avebury, the Liberal Democrat peer, introduced a Private Member's Bill, which was then scrutinised by a Select Committee of the House of Lords. When the committee reported back, the Bill was shelved. The difficulties of legislating religious hatred as an extra ground for prosecution are enormous. The issue is not that we should be tolerant of all religions and all adherents of different religions, but whether religious hatred as such can be identified as a category on which prosecutions can be based. We have laws against inciting racial hatred, and indeed incitement to violence on any grounds. Why do we need to add religious hatred ?

The argument has hinged mainly on the experience of Muslims, not just here but around the western world. They are attracting special and unwelcome attention from hatemongers. But in the UK, at least, it is moot to argue that the hatred is confined to people from the Middle East and South Asia.

It is not against their religion, but against their place of origin or their ethnicity. Black Muslims from the USA, Chinese, Indonesian or Malaysian Muslims do not attract perhaps the same attention. It is the weakness of the current law that few prosecutions succeed on racial hatred grounds. If this was strengthened, then we could get better protection. The answer, however, is not to proliferate the grounds on which prosecutions can be brought, but to tighten what exists.

The one response that many make is that under current legislation Jews and Sikhs enjoy protection as races and religions, so why not Muslims? The answer to that is that perhaps one ought to clarify that the protection is for racial groups, not religious ones. Both Judaism and Sikhism are exclusive religions not given to proselytising. Sikhs are not a race, but they - at least the Sikh men - are recognisable by their hair and dress. Muslims are a much wider religion, multiracially universal, and do not recognisably constitute a distinct group. There are white British Muslims and black American Muslims as much as Arab, Chinese, Bosnian and Chechen Muslims. What is meant even now by protecting Muslims is protecting those whom the popular demonising imagination thinks of as Muslims, ie the Middle Eastern and South Asian.

But why single out Muslims? Once you step into the religious cauldron, the depth is bottomless. There are Hindus and Buddhists, and so on. The Buddhists did not enjoy religious status under the law on charities because they do not believe in a deity. How are we to define a religion, then? Are the Scientologists to enjoy protection, and what about druids, and Satanists? What about differences within religions? Will Muslims be protected against each other? Will Ahmadiyas, who are not regarded as Muslims by the Sunnis and Shias, be regarded as a religious group?

A secular tolerant democracy needs to get away from privileging religion as a mark of citizenship rather than giving it a special status. The Anglican Church needs to be disestablished and its privileges such as the Blasphemy Law removed. Human rights should adhere to one's humanity regardless of special characteristics. In a truly equal society we will all be citizens protected under the law, regardless of our race, colour, gender. To progress to that state we need to reduce, not increase, divisions. We need to put equality in the public sphere as a top priority rather than enshrine separatenesses into our law.

No doubt there are other more urgent reasons for this move. Muslims are said to be drifting away from the Labour Party, and have to be won back. But the way to win them back is not to single them out. The way is to put forward a programme for equal opportunities for all, regardless of where they come from.

Muslims need to be made to feel British, not labelled separately as Muslims. The need is for integration and assimilation, rather than for perpetuating ghetto status.

Lord Desai is a Labour peer and Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics

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