Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

'Religious Radicals Want to Limit Our Freedoms, So to Curb Free Speech Is to Give Them Exactly What They Want': After the Events of 7 July, the Proposed Law to Criminalise Incitement to Racial Hatred Is Even More Dangerous, Argues A C Grayling. Such Laws Simply Provide Weapons for All Sides to Attack Each Other

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

'Religious Radicals Want to Limit Our Freedoms, So to Curb Free Speech Is to Give Them Exactly What They Want': After the Events of 7 July, the Proposed Law to Criminalise Incitement to Racial Hatred Is Even More Dangerous, Argues A C Grayling. Such Laws Simply Provide Weapons for All Sides to Attack Each Other

Article excerpt

Government efforts to reduce the risk of terrorist atrocities such as the London bombings of 7 July have two aspects. One is about enhanced security, the other is about reassuring Britain's 1.6 million Muslims that they are welcome here. The government's hearts-and-minds strategy includes funding moderate Islamic news media, encouraging the setting up of Muslim interest-exempt banking facilities, and persuading companies to set aside prayer rooms for Muslim employees. It also, much more controversially, includes the bill, currently before parliament, to criminalise incitement to religious hatred.

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Because Muslims are an ethnically diverse group, they are not protected by the race laws, and yet they have been made to feel the need for something analogous by anti-Islamic sentiment after terrorist attacks. This is what the proposed incitement law is designed to provide. But the law is a serious mistake. Intended as a positive gesture towards a small minority of the British population, it represents a drastic step towards limiting freedom of expression for the entire population--and that is far too high a cost to pay.

Most countries, apart from the United States, have laws criminalising offences against religion. In the west, such laws have been dead letters for the past century and more, because the opposing value of free speech has been regarded as far outweighing them. However, there are sudden danger signals in secular Europe now, warning of a reversal of this arrangement. One indication is that just as the British government puts forward its religious hatred law, so a magistrate in Bergamo, Italy, is invoking an old statute criminalising vilification of religion to indict his country's most celebrated journalist--who stands charged with defaming Islam.

The threat to free speech from religion-protecting laws is so obvious that advocates of Britain's proposed statute are careful to insist that it has inbuilt free-speech safeguards. They claim that satire and criticism directed at religion will not result in prison sentences, because the law is aimed at protecting people not beliefs, and because the Director of Public Prosecutions will have a veto over proposed indictments to ensure that the law is not abused.

Are such reassurances satisfactory? Laws can change in the light of circumstance, so in harsher times this one could easily be refocused to protect against much vaguer provocations, such as offence or derogatory remarks. Consider the similarity of certain laws in present-day Pakistan to those in the not-too-distant history of Europe. A Pakistani statute of 1984 specifies life imprisonment or death for derogatory remarks about the Koran. The country's federal sharia court additionally ruled in 1990 that the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet was death and nothing else. These uncompromising laws resemble those protecting Christianity in earlier phases of European history, when cognate crimes of heresy and blasphemy were capital offences. As this shows, history has a bad habit of repeating itself in different places and guises, especially if a door is left ajar for it to do so.

The Italian journalist currently in trouble is Oriana Fallaci, one of her country's most distinguished writers. If found guilty, she faces two years in prison. Since 11 September 2001 she has assumed the role of defender of western values against Islamic assaults upon them. The occasion for her indictment is a book called The Force of Reason, in which among other things she laments what she sees as a deliberate invasion of Europe by Muslim immigrants, who she says intend to conquer Europe and efface its culture and identity. In support of these claims, she cites a speech allegedly made by the then Algerian president Houari Boumedienne in 1974: "One day millions of men will leave the southern hemisphere to go to the northern hemisphere. And they will not go there as friends. …

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