Wednesday, February 09, 2005

UK softens religious hatred/incitement bill

Times Online

It seems like the distinction is between religious "incitement" (the original phrasing of the bill), and the harder "hatred" (in the new phrasing). The goal is to prevent the law from being invoked against comedians, parodists, and Salman Rushdie:

Performers and writers, including Rowan Atkinson and Salman Rushdie, have helped to force a government climbdown over new legislation which bans incitement to religious hatred.

The Government is to rename the offence “hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds” to make clear that it is not religious jokes, beliefs or ideas that are being targeted.

I'm still a little confused as to what is current British law. These paragraphs, for instance, are hard to parse:

Ms [Pamela] Mactaggart said: “The Government has put down an amendment which is changing the title in order to clarify something that I think has created some anxiety.

"It is hatred against people rather than hatred of ideas that we are trying to prohibit. The name of the offence has helped to create a context in which some of this confusion has flourished."

The law against inciting racial hatred protects Jews and Sikhs but not Muslims, Christians or other religious groups. The Board of Deputies of British Jews believes that the incitement to racial hatred offence has reduced the amount of anti-Semitic literature.

The Government believes that the new religious hatred offence will have a symbolic impact, particularly in reassuring Muslim communities that have felt vulnerable since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Wait, it applies to Jews and Sikhs, but not Muslims or Christians? How does that make sense?


Rob said...

The underlying assumption is that Jews and Sikhs are "racial" groups, whereas Muslims and Christians are "religious" groups.

I've always assumed that, thusly, extremely anti-Muslim material would be legal, but certain anti-Arab material would be illegal; whereas any extreme anti-Jewish material would be anti-semitic, because the racial and religious groups "Jews" are presumed synonymous by the law.

At least that's what I've always presumed!

3:17 PM  
Amardeep said...


Thanks -- that kind of makes sense with Jews, who have a history of being racialized, and who have a theological emphasis on inheritance.

But I don't see how it makes sense with Sikhs, who are usually ethnically Punjabi, but their religious identity and their ethnic identity only overlap coincidentally (not definitionally). What about Hindus, Jains, and Parsis, whose ethnic and religious identites are more directly mutually defining?

(Presumably this hasn't been discussed because there is no significant anti-Hindu movement in the UK...?)

BTW Some of the pluses of the anti-religious hatred law were discussed on Crooked Timber, both before and then during the Behzti controversy in late December. You may already have seen that discussion.

I just want them to be dead sure the phrasing of this law can't be used to criminalize things like Behzti or The Satanic Verses.

3:39 PM  
Rob said...

Thanks for the CT link, I'll be sure to check it out.

There is an official Home Office spiel here, which is of some use in envisaging the law's opinion. You'll be pleased to know it even has a FAQ on Behzti!

Its pronouncement:
"mono-ethnic faith groups such as Jews or Sikhs are protected from those who stir up hatred against them, but multi-ethnic faith groups are not."

I think you're absolutely right about the absence of a visible anti-Hindu/Jain/Parsi movement as being a reason why these issues aren't really interrogated. The very protection of Sikhs is itself I'm guessing just a case-law by-product of a law that was really about Blacks and Jews.

Indeed these Bills are often such explicit products of circumstance that I wonder how the government proposes to pretend that any softened version is really about principle more than pragmatism. Putting on a very cynical hat, I'd suggest that somewhere in the government there seems to be a recognition that this Bill is really almost entirely about making an (arguably legitimate) response to Muslim conditions and opinion, BUT that if they said that, they wouldn't be able to sell it to Middle England.

6:51 PM  
coolie said...


If you visit this pdf page:

You will see on the second page an outline of the benchmark case in English law, Mandla versus Lee (1976) which established Sikhs as being considered to constitute a separate ethnic group along the lines of how the law protects Jews. The whole article is actually quite interesting. Personally, I dont agree with it, because it is inimical to the basis of Sikhi, but that is how Sikh pressure groups have succeeded to get this instituted in law.

I am ambivalent about the religious hatred law. First of all, I think that the fears of the 'artistic community' are fairly ill founded. The truth of the matter is that extreme right wing racist organisations know the law very well and often incite hatred against Muslims in a way that simply would not be acceptabe against Jews. However, if Muslims believe it will act as some kind of blasphemy law that will silence criticism of their religion they will be deeply dissapointed. I have faith that the English legal system is nuanced enough to differentiate between art, principled anti-clericalism and hate speech.

Besides, I have a feeling that some of the people who would fall foul of the law would actually be some extremist firebrand Muslim preachers. There was a case of a Muslim priest who was jailed last year for inciting violence against Jews.



5:53 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home