This is your errant blogger here, reporting for duty.
It is becoming ever clearer to me that you all really want to read the words of Melissa rather than me – and I don’t blame you – but since my name and superscription appears on the site, I feel I should provide you with the latest freshly-brewed stuff, still steaming from the urn.
Today I am sitting in my boiling and un-air-conditioned office getting psyched up for an afternoon in the House of Commons.
We have before us an appalling bill, and because I have no confidence that I will catch the Speaker’s eye, I want to tell you NOW roughly what I am going to say – or what I would say, if given the chance to speak.
Boris Johnson (Henley): “Mr Speaker I do not want to detain the House long, since so many of the points have of course been so eloquently made by my Hon Friends on the front benches.
I simply want to add my voice to the general and growing chorus of those who believe that this bill is bad, ill-thought out, and likely to do far more harm than good.
In trying to create a new offence, of incitement to religious hatred, I believe the government is on the verge of an almost mediaeval repression of free speech.
I speak as one whose job it is, as a politician and journalist, to say things that some people may find offensive and even inflammatory…
And I hope it will be some protection today – if I should accidentally say anything incendiary – that I am the first MP for Henley in history whose paternal grandfather was born a Muslim
It is hard to know where to begin in my condemnation of the bill, but perhaps we might start the motives behind it.
We are told by the minister (Mr Goggins) that this is intended to combat the scourge of “Islamophobia” and religiously inspired attacks on Muslims. These are said to be on the increase since 9/11, and the problem is taken so seriously that the EU commissioned a report into the subject.
The EU found that in the four months after 9/11 there were 12 serious attacks on British Muslims, and of course that is 12 too many. But in the words of the excellent British Asian journalist Kenan Malik, that does not speak of a climate of vicious Islamophobia.
As the report’s author Chris Allen himself put it, “there were very few serious attacks, and Islamophobia manifested itself in quite basic and low level ways.”
We have come a long way from 1978, when violence against Asians was so alarming that 10,000 Bengalis marched from Whitehcapel to Whitehall to protest against the murder of garment worker Altab Ali near Brick Lane. In the decade that followed there were at least another 49 such killings
The problem this bill is supposed to be addressing has been greatly exaggerated, and in so far as there is a problem we already have plenty of statute to deal with it.
Indeed we already have a law against the offence of “religious aggravation”. The 1986 Public Order act was already amended in 1998 so that a person commits an offence if he displays any writing, sign, or other visible representation which is threatening or abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused embarrassment, alarm or distress. The offence may be committed in a public or a private place.
That is pretty draconian stuff.
So why on earth are we producing a new Bill, to outlaw the incitement to religious hatred.
– by which two notoriously cloudy abstracts – religion and hate – are fused into an impenetrable fog of muddle and misunderstanding?
It is nothing to do with the needs of criminal justice, and everything to do with politics.
This bill is part of the price in civil liberties that the country is paying for the Iraq war.
It is of a piece with control orders, and ID cards, and of course intended as a sop to those communities that feel especially oppressed by such measures.
As the former Trade Minister (Mike O’Brien) wrote recently in the Muslim news, Muslims feel “betrayed” by the Iraq war, and in run-up to the last election Labour decided that they needed to do something to appease those feelings.
Here are the words of O’Brien: “Iqbal Sacranie, gen sec of the Muslim council, asked Tony Blair to declare that the government would introduce a new law banning religious discrimination. Two weeks later, in his speech to the Labour party conference, Tony Blair promised that the next Labour government would ban religious discrimination. It was a major victory for the Muslim Community in Britain.”
It was not a victory for common sense or free speech
It is not good enough to pretend, as the Minister does, that this is somehow the logical extension of laws against incitement to racial hatred
It ought to be obvious to everyone that your race is a question of nature, but your religion is a matter of choice and conscience and belief and if a religion is worth believing in, it ought to be strong enough to withstand the most scurrilous and monstrous attacks.
If a religion is worth believing in, then those assaults should diminish the critics, and not the religion itself.
And whether or not a religion is worth believing in, it is the sovereign right of every human being to say what he or she thinks of it
We have not even begun properly to define a religion.
Members on all sides of the House have made the elementary point, that one man’s religion is another man’s cult
10,000 inhabitants of Newcastle are said to be adherents of the Jedi Knights. Who can say whether or not they are serious and whether their faith deserves respect?
And if religion is a nebulous idea, then so is hatred
Suppose I say that some interpretations of Islam have a barbaric penal code, and that the treatment of women in many Moslem states is shameful?
Am I inciting hatred of that religion? Dislike? Extreme dislike? It will very much depend on the listener.
And this is the key point – in the post MacPherson world, we all know that in determining whether or not an offence has been committed, the police and the courts are bound to place ever more weight on the perceptions of those who take offence.
Let me put this as tactfully as I can.
Despite the best efforts of the ecumenists, we live in a world of mutually antagonistic creeds.
They do not merely advertise the exclusive benefits of their own paths to salvation. They also indulge in a good deal of negative campaigning – in the manner of soap brands, or indeed political parties – against their main rivals.
Now this Bill explicitly interdicts the incitement of religious hatred, where that means hatred of a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack or religious belief.
And since this Bill is intended to offer protection to Muslims, let me now read certain excerpts from the Koran, and I will invite the minister to imagine that I am an Imam or mullah and I must apologise to any Muslims who may be listening or watching, because I hope it will be obvious that what I am about to say is not intended to be disrespectful to the Koran but to make a point about the logic – or absence of logic – of this bill
Here is the Koran on those with a lack of correct religious belief
22.9 As for the unbelievers, for them garments of fire shall be cut and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatever is in their bowels and skins shall be dissolved and they will be punished with hooked iron rods.
And on Christians
They surely are infidels who say god is the third of three; for there is but one god; and if they do not refrain from what they say, a severe punishment shall light on those who are unbelievers.
And on Jews
4.160, 161 Because of the wickedness of certain Jews, and because they turn many from the way of god we have forbidden them good and wholesome foods which were formerly allowed them; and because they have taken to usury, though they were forbidden it; and have cheated others of their possessions, we have prepared a grievous punishment for the infidels amongst them.
On Jews and Christians
Why don’t their rabbis and doctors of law forbid them from uttering sinful words and eating unlawful food? Evil indeed are their works. The hand of god is chained up cry the Jews. Their own hands shall be chained up and they shall be cursed for saying such a thing.
5.51 Believers do not take Jews or Christians as friends. They are but one another’s friends. If anyone of you takes them for his friends then he is surely one of them. God will not guide evil doers.
Now I don’t say that the Koran is unique in its hostility to other creeds, and there are doubtless plenty of other inflammatory texts associated with plenty of other religions
But I would like the minister to explain to us all, here and now, why and how he thinks the repetition of those words, in a public or a private place, does not amount to an incitement to religious hatred of exactly the kind that this bill is supposed to ban.
My point is that if this bill makes any sense at all, it must mean banning the reading – in public or private – of a great many passages of the Koran itself
Which is absurd and paradoxical, given that the measure is intended to be a protection against Islamophobia
And if it does not mean banning the repetition of those phrases – and it would be good to pretend that I have wrenched a few paragraphs out of context, but the truth is that the holy book is full of such exhortations to religious hatred – if it does not mean such a ban, then the Bill is nonsense and should be scrapped.
Let us be clear about the implications here..
If we say that this bill would not have any force against such blatant incitements and if we say that we will all be able to continue to insult each other’s religions and that the Attorney General would never dream of actually USING this piece of law – as the minister suggests – then that in itself will be counter-productive, because its very existence on the statute book may provoke disorder and unrest from those who believe it should be properly enforced.
In other words, this bill is either going to encourage censorship and self-censorship of a kind I find abhorrent.
Or else it is going to raise false hopes, and inflame even further the resentment of those who feel their religion has been insulted.
It is impossible to make an adequate distinction between the freedom to satirise, ridicule, lampoon religion, and the freedom to hold it up to contempt and hatred
People have died for the freedom to say what they want about religion. It was one of the charges against Socrates. It beggars belief that we should be trying to inhibit that freedom today.
It is amazing that ministers have persisted with this arrogant, foolish and counterproductive measure, and I hope the House will come to its senses today and throw it out.”