Melanie Phillips on the “religious hatred” law

The British parliament is currently debating bringing in a law banning incitement to “religious hatred”, in order to plug a loophole in an existing law banning incitement to racial hatred. The latter law is already held to apply to Jews and Sikhs, because these religions are considered to be mono-ethnic (Sikhs are all or nearly all Punjabi, but then again, not all Punjabis are Sikhs by any means). The new law would make it illegal to incite hatred based on anyone’s religion.

Melanie Phillips, in an article called “The British Inquisition”, has posted an article at her “diary” in which she relates an incident where Robert Beckley of the Association of Chief Police Officers said he wanted to prosecute “people who had argued that Hindus and Muslims in Britain would enact a re-run of the violent Ayodhya dispute in northern India”, but couldn’t, because of the race / religion distinction in the law on inciting hatred. If the people alluded to were trying to actually start such a conflict, it’s quite understandable that they could be prosecuted, given the loss of life the Ayodhya dispute has caused on several occasions (most recently Gujarat in 2002). Were such a conflict to break out here, it would lead to riots and bloodshed in several districts of London and numerous other towns across England.

Phillips tells us that she asked Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain “whether he thought that any public statements about Islamic terrorism, or any speculation about the number of Muslims in Britain who might support Islamic terrorism, would constitute incitement to religious hatred”. He replied in the affirmative, and the first part of his statement is admittedly quite worrying, because it’s something not everyone actually knows: “There is no such thing as an Islamic terrorist. This is deeply offensive. Saying Muslims are terrorists would be covered by this provision”. The latter I could support if “saying Muslims are terrorists” meant “saying all Muslims are terrorists”, which it could do, depending on the context. A neo-Nazi rabble-rouser trying to cause trouble by talking about Muslims being terrorists is, one hopes, the target of this law.

Still, I think the wording should be something like “communal hostility based on religion” or something like that, rather than “religious hatred”, which is a bit of dodgy English anyway (it means “hatred stemming from religion” rather than “hatred of someone for their religion”). This way it would not appear to be aimed at stifling debate on religion, but at stopping people who want to cause violence and conflict.

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