June 13, 2005
ONE DAY in November 2001 a large group of protesters from the British National Party dressed as Crusaders and paraded outside the Houses of Parliament with placards reading “Get Islam Out Of Britain”.
Had they been overtly targeting a racial group, they would have been breaking the law — incitement to racial hatred has been a crime since 1986.
To get round the law, groups on the far Right have been cunningly reformulating their noxious rants. Instead of targeting racial groups, they target unprotected religious groups.
In January figures from the Crown Prosecution Service showed that 44 religiously aggravated offences were committed between April 2003 and March 2004. In half of these cases the religion or the perceived religion was Islam. The statistics paint a telling picture when one considers that Muslims make up barely 3 per cent of the British population.
Last week’s announcement that the Government intends to fulfil its manifesto pledge to close this unacceptable loophole and make incitement to religious hatred a crime is therefore welcome. It will help to establish equal protection for all believers and will be an important weapon in the war against bigotry.
Yet this vital piece of legislation has been portrayed by its critics — ranging from the comedian Rowan Atkinson and the conservative commentator Charles Moore to the National Secular Society — as, in the words of Melanie Phillips, “criminalising legitimate and necessary criticism of religion”.
Their objections are preposterous. The new law will not prohibit anyone from offending, criticising or ridiculing faiths. The Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, has clearly said it is “about protecting people from hatred, not faiths from criticism”.
Any prosecution under the new proposals would have to pass the public-interest test of the Crown Prosecution Service and have the consent of the Attorney-General. In the past three years, of the more than 80 race-hate cases passed to the CPS, only four have been approved for prosecution.
There is no reason to suppose that the CPS and the Attorney-General will be any less strict in their interpretation of the new law.
Inayat Bunglawala is a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain