Did you ever hear the one about the Muslim, the Christian and the Jew? It’s a cracker! But I’d better tell it to you quick while there’s still time. If I leave it too long I might be arrested.
Arrested, you ask? Why on earth would that happen?
The Bill is back in town. Strongly lobbied for by the mainstream Muslim Council of Britain who want “safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs”, the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill, first put forward in the British Parliament last year, and which failed to get through before May’s general election, is now being reintroduced. Third time lucky?
It’s already an offence to incite racial hatred under the 1986 Public Order Act (yay!); but the Religious Hatred Bill will also cover the stirring up of hatred against people of any religious faith.
The offence will carry a maximum seven-year jail sentence.
The new law has been warmly applauded by some religious groups who say it is needed to give protection to all faiths and beliefs.
A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Great Britain said: “We believe stirring up hatred simply because of someone’s religious beliefs should not be tolerated and is a social evil.
“Some communities, Sikhs and Jewish communities, are already covered by existing laws all we are seeking is equality for people of all faiths.”
Home Office Minister Paul Goggins insisted the law would not stop people from telling jokes.
“It does not stop people poking fun or causing offence. It is about stopping people from inciting hatred.”
Hatred is a strong term, and a tricky word. It goes beyond ridicule, prejudice, dislike, contempt, anger or offence. But who can measure where it tips the balance?
In a statement about the bill last year, English comedian Rowan Atkinson told the House of Commons: “To criticize a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous. But to criticize their religion – that is a right. That is a freedom.”
And Hanne Stinson, executive director of the British Humanist Association said: “There are many things that can be legitimately criticized in religion. Religions make extensive and often mutually incompatible claims about the nature of life and the world – claims that can legitimately be appraised and argued over. There is no parallel for race. And religions, unlike race, set out to dictate their followers’ attitudes and behaviour, sometimes in ways that are extremely controversial. The religions also exert influence on social attitudes and national and international policy so it has to be legitimate to criticise.”
“There seems to be a lot of confusion about what “incitement to religious hatred” means,” said Hanne, “with many people interpreting it as a broad extension to the law on blasphemy. The Government needs to send out a very clear message that their proposed legislation is not about blasphemy, but about protecting individuals from incitement to hatred. The best way to do this would be to abolish the blasphemy law at the same time.”
Yes, the archaic Blasphemy Laws, which only covers offence to Christians, still exists in British jurisdiction.
Despite a recommendation in 1985 by the Law Commission that the laws be removed from the statute book or widened to apply to all religious faiths, and a Bill introduced by Tony Benn into the House of Commons in 1989 to abolish prosecution for the expression of opinion on matters of religion’ (dropped without debate), Britain retains its law against blasphemous libel. This is defined as the publication of any writing concerning God or Christ, the Christian religion, the Bible, or some sacred subject using words which are scurrilous, abusive or offensive and which tend to vilify the Christian religion or outrage the feelings of believers’, and can still be invoked at any time.
In the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society that Britain has become, this law which protects Christians alone is manifestly unjust, but rather than extending the laws to cover Islam and other religions, I believe that the blasphemy laws should be abolished entirely.
The existence of a blasphemy law which protects Christianity alone in a modern democracy like Britain sets an example and provides legitimacy for fundamentalists to justify their own law in countries governed by Islamic law, where the concept of blasphemy embraces many kinds of disrespect or denial of religion. In Pakistan words or actions against the Koran or Mohammed can result in the death penalty or life imprisonment.
With the introduction of the European Convention of Human Rights into British domestic law and its legislation which guarantees freedom of thought, expression, conscience and religion’ Home Office lawyers believe that the blasphemy laws will not stand up to any test and therefore become obsolete, but there are no plans to remove them from the statute book.
Surely we have learned by now that morality can exist without religion, and Christianity is capable of surviving without penal sanctions. The use of the criminal law to smooth down ruffled religious feathers endangers liberty. Any country that has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has agreed to Article 19 which clearly states: Everybody has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
Whatever, the government hasn’t parceled the Blasphemy laws up with its new proposals and has only said that it may look again at the law in the future.
Time to go. But before I do, I’d better tell you that one about the Muslim, the Christian and the Jew while I’m able.
They all worshipped the same God but they hated each other!
MICHAEL DICKINSON is a writer and artist who works as an English teacher in Istanbul, Turkey. He designed the cover art for two CounterPunch books, Serpents in the Garden and Dime’s Worth of Difference, as well as Grand Theft Pentagon, forthcoming from Common Courage Press. He can be contacted at www.stuckism.com, where collages from his recently banned website can be seen.