When a character in ITV’s Coronation Streetthreatened to hit another over the head with a statue of the elephant-headed god, Lord Ganesh, the soap opera precipitated a religious row. The Hindu Forum of Britain complained that the revered statue was wielded as a weapon.
Even soap operas are in the eye of the current storm of raging religious offence and counter offence!
In another incident, Sikhs attacked the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on 18 December in protest against the play Behzti. Angered that the violent events of the play were set in a Sikh temple (to them a sacred place) they forced the show to close.
British author Salman Rushdie joined the protests against the axing of the play. He, remember, was the writer whose book The Satanic Verses attracted death threats and forced him into hiding. He says he knows what playwright Gupreet kaur Bhatti is going through.
Free speech under threat?
Many are now looking over their shoulders in case they upset someone angry enough to take action. If the process goes too far, the arts will be frustrated, the press muzzled, religious debate silenced and free speech gagged.
To be sure, the media need to temper free speech with responsibility. Gratuitous insults to the sensitivities of others, especially minorities, do not make for a harmonious society. But there is a danger that the pendulum will swing too far in the cause of political correctness.
It was only a few hundred years ago that people in this country were burned at the stake for what they said on religious matters. Gradually, Britain became a free country where we could believe what we wanted and were free to express our opinions.
In countries like the UK free thought and free speech have hitherto been seen as basic rights. We are free to disagree with – and persuade – one another. The press is free, the individual is free, and religions are free to speak out without fear of recrimination, censorship or persecution.
We have fought wars and sacrificed lives to defend these rights. This freedom was won at great cost and protected with much blood.
But now things are about to change; the sun may be setting on the mother of the free world. Our government is about to end religious freedom with Part 5 of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.
Following the terrorist atrocities of September 11, attacks were reported on UK mosques. There has even been an attack on a church. The former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, wanted to deal with this problem and outlaw verbal abuse and physical attacks on people because of their religion.
But in pursuing a commendable objective, Part 5 of the new bill goes to lengths that could become draconian. It creates two new offences to deal with religious hatred: ‘incitement to hatred on the grounds of religion’ and ‘religiously aggravated offences’.
This first of these provisions will harm freedom of speech and has the potential to criminalise ordinary religious debate. Furthermore, some cults are litigious – the new offences will enable them to silence their critics.
The Attorney General and judges should not be required to adjudicate on people’s religious beliefs. Protection already exists for all people regardless of religion. It is currently an offence to incite a crime against another person, whether or not religion is involved.
Cause to worry
According to the bill, ‘religious hatred’ means ‘hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief’. On this definition, all groups from humanists to Hindus, and animists to atheists, have cause to worry.
The proposed law is so vague in its definitions, and thus so full of uncertainty, that Muslims, humanists, Christians and even gay-rights protestors are objecting to it. Yet despite the vast reach of the new law there has been no widespread consultation.
The new offence, which brackets religious hatred with racial hatred, will see the penalty for both offences set at a maximum of seven years imprisonment – the same sentence as is given to the typical rapist.
Religious controversy is widespread and, for the most part, entirely peaceful. But this law raises the prospect that what currently passes for legitimate argument may become regarded as incitement to religious hatred. Even ordinary preaching could fall foul of the law.
The Home Secretary explicitly ruled out including a definition of religion in the bill. This leaves it open to groups such as scientologists to assert their legitimacy as a religion by demanding prosecution of those who deride their beliefs.
Vociferous atheists could invoke the new law against those who condemn irreligious behaviour – only to be caught themselves because they speak out against religion! A journalist who alleges that Freemasonry amongst police and judges could corrupt the judicial system could be taken to court.
The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association could complain if a Roman Catholic Cardinal said ‘homosexuality is an abomination’. They could argue that their views are a particular brand of atheism and they are thus protected by the new law as ‘a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief’ (that is, they do not have any such belief).
Beyond the UK
As a final example, a vicar who encourages Christian evangelism in Israel in his parish newsletter could be taken to court by a Jewish parishioner for inciting ‘religious hatred’ against Jews in Israel (the bill specifically covers incitement against people outside the UK).
These illustrations should be sufficient to demonstrate how dangerously ambiguous and confusing the application of this law could be.
There are already sufficient laws in place to protect against the inciting of crime. The proposed new laws can only tend to destroy freedom of speech and produce much confusion.
The proposals are ill thought out and constitute a threat to us all, whatever our religious perspective may be.