The proposed incitement law won't stop criticism of religion, by Sher Khan
Tuesday June 14, 2005
I was five years old when, on a cold and windy day at Heathrow airport in 1974, my mother and I joined my father to start a new life in London. It was not long before I realised that adjusting to the change in the weather was the least of our problems. Racial tension and frequent attacks against my ethnic community were to be a regular feature in our new environment.
As I look back, I can't forget the frequent advice I used to receive from the police when reporting bricks through our window: "Don't you think you would be better off going back to your own country." Today Britain is a different world. But we seem to forget how much tireless work was needed to make it "obvious" that hatred and mistreatment of people on the basis of their ethnicity was wrong. More worrying still is how quick people are to pat themselves on the back about the new tolerant society. We have good reasons to be proud of our country today, but should not ignore the tensions that simmer beneath the surface. We must admit to the realities of human societies: we are all capable of irrational hatred towards other identities. Our only refuge is better education and alertness about our own weaknesses.
Having survived the tensions of the 70s and 80s, my community finds itself in the midst of a new and equally threatening challenge. In 1997 the Runnymede Trust published Islamophobia - A Challenge for Us All. In the report are pages of evidence of the tensions and fears the Muslim community endures. Post-9/11 many other reports have documented the dramatic increase in those tensions. Tell those who are spat on or attacked because they are seen to be Muslim that Islamophobia is a nonsense. It is in this context that the Muslim Council of Britain and other organisations lobbied the government to take action.
The government listened, and has embarked on legislation, including the proposed expansion of existing incitement laws to cover both race and religion. Though the existing race-hate law could not combat harassment or violence directly, it has restrained those who would otherwise help create an environment where such acts would be possible.
In acting, the government has a clear mandate based on a manifesto commitment. It is supported by the Commission for Racial Equality, the Law Society, Justice, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the director of public prosecutions - and the public. In an ICM poll 57% supported the need "to stop those who want to stir up hatred against people of particular religious faiths". In the same survey 80% agreed that "people should be free to criticise any religion so long as they do not incite religious hatred".
But the media has failed to report this level of support, instead giving a blitz of publicity to a famous comedian who took the opposite view.
Central to the opposition argument is whether it will be possible to distinguish between legitimate criticisms of religion and incitement to hatred. The question fails to recognise that existing incitement laws already cover two faith groups - Jews and Sikhs. The distinction will be made in exactly the same way as between criticism of Judaism and incitement to hate Jews. Note that during the controversy over the play Behzti, which caused offence to the Sikh community, the police decided that there were no grounds for action against the play despite the Sikh community being covered by existing incitement laws.
Some oppose the proposals by comparing them with the Australian incitement law. But the UK proposal is fundamentally different. In Australia the law prohibits ridicule of religion; in Britain ridicule and criticism are not covered. In Australia individuals can decide whether they have been incited against; in the UK the attorney general would decide whether to prosecute.
Those who support this proposed law clearly accept that legitimate debate and criticism about religion will continue. Instead, this is about protecting a group of people who share a particular identity. And it is about the attacker's perception of the individual's identity - after all, Sikhs were attacked after 9/11 because people thought they were Muslims.
Those who seek to be seen as reasonable say they would support amended legislation, banning "incitement to religious hatred as a pretext to stirring up racial hatred". However, if it were possible to identify religious hatred as linked to racial hatred there would be no need for the proposed laws. The point of the proposal is to protect a group of people who don't fall into a single racial identity. This is precisely why law-enforcement agencies believe current legislation is inadequate.
During the 70s and 80s Labour was seen as the party that understood the concerns of ethnic minorities. If the party enacts this law it would have good grounds to continue to claim that heritage.
Sher Khan is chair of the public affairs committee of the Muslim Council of Britain.