Fight For Freedom of Speech and Belief

I am finding the debate over the proposal to introduce a new offence of “incitement to religious hatred” really scary.

Free speech used to be one of those cornerstones of British liberal democracy (like… erm… the right to trial by jury) but it looks like it might be the next thing for the chop in this brave new labour / new puritan / Christian right world of ours.

Some comedians here caused a minor splash recently by focussing on the danger that religious satire might be banned by this law. Whilst I’d be sad to lose Father Ted, I have heard far more scary things suggested. I heard a British Muslim “leader” on Radio 4 this mornin suggesting, apparently in all seriousness, that it would have been handy to have had this law in place when Salman Rushdie published the Satanic Verses, as it would have allowed them to force him to “change a few words here and there”.

Religion is not the same thing as ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or disability. People choose their religion (or at least they should be allowed to, if they haven’t had it stuffed down their throats by parents, teachers, or missionaries).

If you choose to believe something, that is your right, and I would defend your right to express that belief, however distasteful I might find it. By the same token, you should then be prepared to accept the same from others - including their right to debate the wisdom of your belief, and the possibility that it may be misguided, wrong, or even downright harmful.

Likewise, if your belief causes you to act in an illegal way (for example by attacking, or inciting attack on a group of people with a different belief), you should be subject to the same laws as anyone else. We already have laws protecting people against violence, and punishing people for inciting others to violence. We don’t need any more, and we certainly don’t need specific protection for religion.

The erosion of these kinds of freedoms are the thin edge of a very, very dangerous wedge. There is an awful lot of complacency in this country. Next time you watch the news on TV and tell yourself that it couldn’t happen here, it might be worth checking the statute books and the next labour manifesto first.