On the penultimate Saturday before the General Election, the Labour Party made a fairly startling policy announcement that was hardly noticed by the media: “Labour would outlaw Islamophobia”, said Ed Miliband in an interview. At first glance, that doesn’t seem like a scary announcement – I mean, Islamophobia is a bad thing, right?
Unfortunately, it’s much more complex than that.
The proposals are fairly nebulous at this point: Ed says he intends to “make Islamophobia an aggravated crime” and “toughen existing hate crime legislation”. Defenders of freedom of speech should be alarmed at this, because Labour has dangerous previous form in exactly this area: the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.
What Ed is proposing looks like a return to finish the 2006 act. In 2006 Labour originally tried to criminalise “deliberately insulting” a religion. Those opposed to that law argued that it would become a criminal offence mock a religion, or to say that a religion damages British society, because in doing so they would be accused of “inciting religious hatred” *. There was a huge public out-cry, led by academics, artists, writers and comedians (notably Rowan Atkinson), and in the end the Labour government was defeated by a single vote and the law was watered down. Ed Miliband personally voted for the original wording.
The term “Islamophobia” itself had been so over-used and abused in discourse in recent years that unfortunately it has little real meaning any more, much like the terms “anti-Semitism” and “genocide”, both of which are thrown around all the time in a politicised way. A very large majority of Muslims and a fair number of progressives (including, disappointingly, some in the Lib Dems) considered the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed to be both abusive and insulting, and indeed Islamophobic – and the un-amended 2006 Bill would have pretty certainly criminalised such images in the UK. Ed Miliband himself attended the “Je Suis Charlie” march in Paris, but now looks like he would want to criminalise the magazine in the UK.
At the Liberal Democrats Conference in Liverpool in 2015, Parliamentary candidate candidate Maajid Nawaz moved a motion in favour of free expression that was passed, and that thankfully puts us in direct opposition to any plans to curb freedom of expression and criticism/insulting of religions. In 2006 five SNP MPs voted with the Lib Dems, but we have no idea what the SNP’s position on this will be if they have 40-50 new MPs; and given their generally illiberal tendencies in other areas we should assume the worst: that they might well support Labour’s plans.
One of the reasons I was so happy to see the back of the previous Labour government was their relentless assault on civil liberties and freedoms.
Ed Miliband had said in the past the he now accepts that this was a mistake, but this announcement indicates that this might not be true at all and that yet again we have things to fear from a Labour or Labour/SNP government. Let us hope, yet again, that there will be enough Liberal Democrats in Parliament to make the difference on legislation like this.
* Please note: Scientology is legally a religion in the UK and would be equally protected as Islam under such laws.
* Dr Mark Wright is a councillor in Bristol and was the 2015 general election Parliamentary candidate for Bristol South.