Philip Pullman: Why this new law will stifle any criticism of religion

From a speech by the author, given at the University of East Anglia

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There is an increasing tendency for people to describe their primary identity not in ethnic or geographical terms, but in terms of the religion they profess. They don't say "I'm Asian," or "I'm British Bangladeshi," they say "I'm a Muslim."

There is an increasing tendency for people to describe their primary identity not in ethnic or geographical terms, but in terms of the religion they profess. They don't say "I'm Asian," or "I'm British Bangladeshi," they say "I'm a Muslim."

Of course, people are allowed to describe themselves in any way they like, but this way of labelling ourselves by religion is a new thing, and it worries me because it ties in with the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Bill. This is the "incitement to religious hatred" law. The result will be that people who identify themselves by religion will be able to claim that anyone who criticises their beliefs is exposing them personally to hatred and contempt, because their religion is their identity.

This Bill has been strongly criticised by those who care about freedom of speech. The Prime Minister has said that it won't be any threat to free speech, because every complaint will come before the Crown Prosecution Service, and in most cases they won't prosecute. That will just make things worse. People will be invited to feel aggrieved by the invention of an offence that didn't exist before, and then denied satisfaction through the courts. Are the zealots going to say "Oh, well, fair enough, we tried"? Are they hell.

So to ward off trouble before it begins, theatres and publishers will turn more and more to lawyers. A local authority that licenses and subsidises a theatre will insist on a legal opinion before they let a new play go on; a publisher with a risky novel will have it read by my learned friends; and of course they will advise against the risk, because - as the Home Office minister Hazel Blears has said - if such a case comes to court, "It is difficult for me to say what a court would decide in those circumstances." They won't take the risk; and books or plays that question or criticise religious belief will quietly vanish from sight.

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