Free speech and thought crimes in Britain
Gordon Brown says the Government must do everything it can to "root out" the preaching of religious and racial hatred: not just religious and racial discrimination, or even persecution, but hatred. To this end, he threatens to "look again" at the law, even though a measure that would have made incitement to such hatred an offence was defeated in the Commons this year – a point not lost on his colleague John Reid, who is sensibly holding back from a trigger-happy reaction.
Given that I am Jewish, and thus a member of the ethnic group that has probably suffered more from religious hatred than any other, I can appreciate the Brown urgency. But no politician in a democracy has any business trying to ban (or even "root out") hatred. In a free society, you may hate anything or anyone you want to – provided you do not act on it. Hatred is something that exists in your head, and – thus far at least – we do not prosecute people for thought crimes in Britain.
Having been caught out in an inept, ill-judged prosecution (provoked by an equally inept, overplayed BBC sting operation), which ended by providing the BNP with the public-relations coup of its dreams, the Government is desperate to save face. And to save votes: Labour has been losing a small but steady stream of council seats to the BNP in working-class areas, so there is more than moral sanctity involved in the desire to shut down this pestilential threat.
The question of the moment is not whether we have a right to feel certain unpleasant emotions, but whether we have the right to express them. Since the principle of freedom of expression is basic to our constitution, the only way that any form of speech may be criminalised is by its capacity to produce actual actions or events. (As the old axiom goes, freedom of speech doesn't give you the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre.) So hatred cannot be a crime in itself, but incitement to hatred may be, because it could cause people to do things that are criminal. By helping to foment antagonism in others, you are stepping outside the privacy of your own thoughts, as it were, and moving into the realm of action, of influencing public events. But when does the expression of what could be principled disapproval – the kind of heated debate that religious doctrine and belief quite properly generate – become "incitement to hatred"?
Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, was secretly filmed saying that Islam was "a wicked, vicious faith". That is a stupid and bigoted generalisation. But what if he had condemned certain Islamic practices specifically? Suppose he had said: "The stoning of women for adultery is wicked and vicious." A great many of us might be prepared to say that. Would it constitute incitement to religious hatred? Or suppose I stood up at a meeting of animal-rights activists and declared that halal butchery was unforgivably cruel? Would that be incitement? What if I condemned the Islamic principle that the punishment for apostasy is death? For that matter, suppose I attacked Roman Catholicism in strong terms for forbidding abortion – a subject on which many of us feel passionately.
Religion is profoundly different from race in this respect: belonging to a racial group does not involve subscribing to a set of doctrines that might be contentious, or even disruptive to the moral views of society at large. Disputes about the ethical consequences of religious belief may well become angry and vituperative; should we legislate against what could be legitimate moral outrage?
As an amendment to the Government Bill that was passed in February acknowledged, there is an important distinction between words that appear to foment hatred towards people (members of a religion) and attacking the religion itself; between the believers and the belief. To say that Islam, as a faith, is wicked and vicious might be uninformed and gratuitous, but it is within the realm of debate about the nature of religion. Most disturbingly, it is a view that has resonance for a great many voters who are not being helped to overcome their prejudices by politicians of all parties (and the BBC) who pretend that they either do not exist in any significant numbers, or, to the extent that they do, are beneath contempt. The BNP in its earlier incarnation as the National Front was effectively put out of business by the Thatcher government in the 1980s because most voters felt that their anxieties and concerns about mass immigration were being addressed by major political leaders.
John Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham (where the BNP won 11 council seats in May), has said, rather bravely, that "the BNP thrives in areas where people feel forgotten by the mainstream parties". This complements rather neatly Mr Brown's stated view that "any preaching of religious or racial hatred will offend mainstream opinion in this country (and therefore we must root it out)". The Chancellor's idea of the political mainstream seems to be that it is an enforceable dogma, that any form of speech that offends "mainstream opinion" should be made illegal. In effect, he is confirming the notion that Mr Griffin is exploiting to such effect – the sense many voters have that unless their opinions conform to what the main political parties regard as acceptable, they will simply be discounted.
This is a profoundly irresponsible bit of cowardice on the part of Britain's political class. If it is left to the Nick Griffins among us to acknowledge what is clearly quite widespread concern about Islam, we will never be able to have the serious, substantial debate that we need about the role of Muslim practice in Britain. How is a liberal democracy to deal with an illiberal orthodoxy in its midst? How can a faith whose own laws often contravene those of its host society make its peace with the secular state? These are questions that need urgently to be addressed. They cannot be fudged by banning "religious hatred", or by insisting that anyone who alludes to them (or who resents the problems that they raise for our society) is a bigot fit only to be fodder for the neo-fascist fringe.
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