Opinion: Labour’s unfinished business on ‘Religious hatred’

 

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.

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44 Comments

  • Simon McGrath 27th Apr '15 - 3:43pm

    I imagine that Lutfur Rahman would have wanted criminal charges brought under this proposed law against those who criticised him.

  • Very concerning: I am what people refer to as a militant atheist: especially when someones faith encroaches on human rights and personal freedom. I am a theophobe; would that make my blog posts on my anti-religious rants illegal?

  • Do you actually have any specifics on the legislation Mr Miliband is proposing, or are you just imagining possibilities based on a headline?

  • Joseph Donnelly 27th Apr '15 - 5:25pm

    Exactly the kind of issue where the Liberal Democrat should strike a distinctive liberal line.

    Unfortunately we often seem to drop the baton as a party on issues like this and smudge our principles so as to be more in line with mainstream opinion. What exactly is the point of a liberal party if we arent loudly liberal on an issue like this?

    Indeed, you often see members of the party actually arguing for a distinctly illiberal take on issues like this (baffles me slightly why they joined a ‘liberal’ party in the first place, if you just want vaguely left social democracy, there are alternative parties out there).

  • The 2006 act has * not * been repealed by the coalition and it makes sense that Liberals should support the same protection for Muslims as it does for gays and ethnic minorities. What Ed Miliband was proposing had nothing at all to do with Charlie Hebdo and there are no quotations from him that can justify that inference.
    The author completely ignores the fact that Islamophobic is rife and the government should tackle this with the same determination that it does with anti-Semitism and homophobia. It is ridiculous how some Liberals have instead gone into panic mode imagining something that doesn’t apply rather than welcoming a serious attempt to reduce prejudice which as liberals we surely all want.

  • Courting the Muslim vote in a tight election.

    The Muslim population grew from 1.5 million in the 2001 census to 2.7 million in 2011, a 70% increase.

    If anyone has any data that this population increase is slowing I would like to see it. Most projections I see forecast this to continue.

    So we can expect to see this “vote” playing a greater and greater role going forward. Labour will be the major beneficiaries judged by past experience…

  • There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed. But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it.

    -J.S.Mill, On Liberty

  • When my comment is eventually allowed through the automatic vetting system, people may be highly amused that it was held up!

  • Sorry – not my comment at all – obviously; how could I be so presumptuous?

  • David-1

    “Do you actually have any specifics on the legislation Mr Miliband is proposing, or are you just imagining possibilities based on a headline?”

    Well, if was assume an Oxford and Harvard educated politician can speak the English language he wants to outlaw fear of a particular religion.

    A truely bonkers position.

    This is one of those few occations where I find myself agreeing with Caracatus.

  • Having read the article on which this note is based, my impression is that Mr Miliband is talking about additional penalties for hate crimes. However, I don’t assume that my impression is correct. Possibly it is in the direction which Cllr Wright suggests, or possibly it’s just vapid words with no legislative substance at all. Without actual legislation to read, how would I know?

  • Alex Sabine 27th Apr '15 - 8:13pm

    @ Joseph
    “Exactly the kind of issue where the Liberal Democrat should strike a distinctive liberal line.”
    Agreed. This is a typical example of the knee-jerk impulse to legislate where what is required is the exposure of bigoted or hateful views to scrutiny, rational debate and rebuttal, and, in many cases, humour and indeed ridicule.

    For a forensic dissection of why the approach that this Labour proposal takes is profoundly wrong-headed as well as illiberal, I recommend this typically trenchant speech by the late Christopher Hitchens in a debate at the University of Toronto in 2006: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=olefVguutfo

    In one of many penetrating passages, ‘Hitch’ observes: “I’m beginning to resent the confusion that’s being imposed on us now — and there was some of it this evening — between a religious belief, blasphemy, ethnicity, profanity, and what one might call multicultural etiquette. It’s quite common now for people to use the expression “anti-Islamic racism,” as though an attack on a religion was an attack on an ethnic group. The word Islamophobia is in fact beginning to acquire the opprobrium that was once reserved for racial prejudice. This is a subtle and very nasty insinuation that needs to be met head on.”

    And later: “…And up go the placards, and up go the yells and the howls and the screams, “Behead those” — this is in London, this is Toronto, this is in New York, it’s right in our midst now — “Behead those who cartoon Islam!” Do they get arrested for hate speech? No. Might I get in trouble for saying what I’ve just said about the Prophet Muhammad? Yes, I might. Where are your priorities, ladies and gentlemen? You’re giving away what is most precious in your own society, and you’re giving it away without a fight, and you’re even praising the people who want to deny you the right to resist it. Shame on you, while you do this. Make the best use of the time you’ve got left. This is really serious.”

  • @Geoffrey Payne
    “The author completely ignores the fact that Islamophobia is rife and the government should tackle this with the same determination that it does with anti-Semitism and homophobia.”

    Ironically enough, this “determination” to tackle anti-Semitism and homophobia does not apply to those religious texts which are a major source of much of the anti-Semitism and homophobia in the world. Religions have the legally protected right to peddle hatred against other religions and other groups, while the freedom to criticise religions for doing so is increasingly under attack.

  • It is worth recalling that the Nazi’s wanted to exterminate all Jews and Jehova Witnesses, so I think it is, to coin a phrase “an exceptionally dangerous principle” to imagine that we should not consider implementing government policy to protect Muslims from religious hatred. Where you say “that is not what is being talked about here” I think that very much applies to the interview itself which does not refer to blasphemy or Charlie Hebdo or anything like that, but becomes the main preoccupation of the article that has been written.
    I think the danger is that any serious proposal to tackle Islamophobia will not be taken seriously by some Liberal Democrats because we now seemed to have reached the stage where anything at all to tackle religious hatred against Muslims will be mixed up with introducing blasphemy laws that no one actually supports anymore.

  • @Geoffrey
    The problem here is that the word “Islamophobia” comes with a lot of excess baggage.

    Why do people bring up Charlie Hebdo? Well, one reason is that at the recent “Islamophobe of the Year” awards – an event billed as “light-hearted” by its organisers – the recently-slain CH cartoonists were given the top prize.

    Islamophobia is such a nebulous concept – in contrast to racism, which some people seem to want to equate it to – that alarm bells should start ringing loud and clear whenever anybody starts suggesting that it be criminalised.

    Nobody would argue that Muslims deserve to be protected from harassment and violence – though frankly, I would hope that we already had laws capable of doing that. But when people talk in vague terms about “Islamophobia”, others are right to question whether this is going to end up as an attack on free speech.

  • “Nobody would argue that Muslims deserve to be protected from harassment and violence”

    Sorry, this doesn’t read right – I of course mean that nobody would argue AGAINST that kind of protection.

  • For all the furore about Charlie Hebdo I do not recall there being a single MP who has suggested that we should reintroduce blasphemy laws. So the argument that “He didn’t say it but we are going to imagine he did say it” simply does not wash. And I am not impressed either that Islamophobia is so hard to define so we need not consider it. Religious hatred has previously led to the Holocaust of Jews so we should take seriously what is happening today, which is a build up of Islamophobia that has mobilised increasing support for the far right. Liberals should be at the forefront of speaking out against this hatred, it makes our society more illiberal.

  • Martin

    That is fantastic. The unofficial discussion forum of the successor to the Liberal Party has an automated filter that blocks quotes from John Stuart Mill, about free speech. Absolutely brilliant. Now perhaps we should try out some Orwell quotes…

  • Just to point out the LibDem manifesto states:

    “We are determined to combat antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate in the UK and internationally”

    So thankfully whoever wrote it can speak English.

  • It seems clear that Mr Miliband’s intent was to use the word “Islamophobia” as a counterpart to antisemitism, but, obviously, referring to Muslims rather than Jews. If this is a quibble over etymologies that’s one thing, but perhaps Cllr Wright is actually taking issue with the notion of legally recognising anti-Muslim hate crimes as such. If so, some clarity would be desirable.

  • There are already plenty of laws to protect people fro physical and verbal abuse. There is simply no need to bring in specific laws aimed at protecting one group more than another group. Labour are suggesting this simply because they have lots of Muslim votes and involved Britain in a war that killed lots of Muslims. It is driven by fear losing votes and the rise of Islamic extremism, the pretence that if there is a problem it’s other than what it is.

  • Geoffrey Payne

    “The 2006 act has * not * been repealed by the coalition”

    And that is a great failing of the Lib Dem MPs in the last parliament. It is an unacceptable restriction on free speech.

    As to your claim:
    “to imagine that we should not consider implementing government policy to protect Muslims from religious hatred”

    Is just a sign that you don’t understand that you can’t legislate the world better. Laws should exist to prevent violence and harassment but laws that seek to outlaw “hate speech” achieve nothing but make dealing with the underlying views harder.

    Anti-immigrant views spent a long time being squeezed out of the public sphere and presented UN a caricatured manner when they were aired. Do you believe everyone in the UK loves immigration now?

  • Ian Sanderson

    Perhaps the front page should read:

    Posh Oxford and Harvard educated Labour leader who wants to run the English education system can speak English.

  • *can’t speak English

  • “But listen, Psi, when I talk to ordinary people in my constituency, which I even actually visited once, the say “Hell yeah”, so don’t accuse me of not talking proper English.”

  • Psi – you say you cannot legislate for a better world. Well I would not suggest it is the whole answer. However we are Liberals not anarchists. If we remove all the laws of the land we will get mob rule and survival only of the fittest. The opposite of a Liberal society. And I find it odd that only now are some people arguing that the 2006 legislation should be repealed. Well it obviously was not so tyrannical that anyone thought of repealing it sooner, like when we were in government and can do anything about it.
    Still if you think the 2006 legislation should be repealed, then submit a motion to Lib Dem conference and see how far you get. I am sure that EMLD and LGBT+ Liberal Democrats would have something to say about it.

  • Ian Sanderson – perhaps if the word Islamophobia is poorer defined – just for the sake of argument – then the same also applies to homophobia as well? Maybe we should not use that word either?
    However whatever you think about that, the truth is that Muslims face discrimination far greater than most groups that are discriminated against, not least because of the terrible news stories that are associated with their religion at the moment.
    Actually I do see an irrational fear that many have towards Muslims. Many people think that the Al Qaeda interpretation of Islam is the only true literal interpretation and whatever Muslims say in public it is what they believe – all of them – in private. That if they wanted to all they have to do is pick up the phone to Osama Bin WhoeverItIsTheseDays and Al Qaeda will call off their campaign of violence. Even this particular article contains an irrational belief that there is a backdoor conspiracy to reintroduce blasphemy laws even though not a single MP from any political party has suggested it.

  • This is exactly the sort of reason why I believe the UK needs a genuinely liberal party. At least one party needs to be making the case that people have the right to say what they like and people don’t have the right to not be offended.

    The problem is the lib dems haven’t always been consistent on this. I hope that the new party that is rebuilt from the ashes of the general election is an unashamedly liberal one. Unless it is the lib dems have no reason to exist.

  • Geoffrey Payne

    “Liberals not anarchists. If we remove all the laws of the land we will get mob rule and survival only of the fittest. The opposite of a Liberal society”

    Now, were you intending to straw man that one? Or did you just not read it properly? Let’s revisit what I said:
    “Laws should exist to prevent violence and harassment but laws that seek to outlaw ‘hate speech’ achieve nothing but make dealing with the underlying views harder.”

    Not much anarchist thought there. Clearly Laws are needed, as I stated but only for incitement to violence or direct harassment.

    As for your claim that:
    “And I find it odd that only now are some people arguing that the 2006 legislation should be repealed.”

    If you go back through the comments on LDV you will find many people arguing for “Hate Speech” to not be a crime, which would require more than the 2006 act to be repealed the earlier ones would as well.

    So this isn’t a “Johnny come lately” argument, I would hope you would expect there to be people advocating for greater free speech rather than find it “odd” even if you disagree with them.

    The fundamental point it that the world is not as Tony Blair imagined it where you pass legislation labelling something as “bad” and suddenly everyone changes their behaviour and views to match said legislation.

    If we want to live in a free country and want to keep it we can’t rely on the state to address unpleasant views, we have to take responsibility ourselves challenging those views. That is much harder to do that if the views are repressed. You need the views out there so they can be exposed for what they are and dealt with.

    I note you don’t engage with the arguments made above, perhaps if you did you would find it more informative.

  • PSI – you are right, I did not read properly what you said. Apologies for that.
    I think the optimal approach to dealing with Islamophobia would require a combination of better education and improving the law. It has worked very well in terms of tackling homophobia where attitudes have changed remarkably over the years, although there is still someway to go. The problem with the way the original article tackles the issue is that in the absence of knowing precisely what Ed Miliband has in mind in changing the law, the author assumes he can use this as an opportunity to make a point about something that is not being proposed.

  • Geoffrey Payne
    “I did not read properly what you said”
    No problem, I didn’t think you were in the normal straw man using crowd.

    “I think the optimal approach to dealing with Islamophobia would require a combination of better education and improving the law. It has worked very well in terms of tackling homophobia where attitudes have changed remarkably over the years, although there is still someway to go.”

    Well I would agree on the front of what broadly gets lumped together as “education” needs to improve. Any coverage of religious matters by TV is terrible and Radio is no better, just listening to things like “Thought for the Day” on “Today” shows the BBC regard it as “that fluffy stuff” and their tendency to invite the likes of Mo Ansar on to discuss Islam illustrates how it has no idea what it is doing.

    Christianity is generally covered as part of historic topics (in the two recent ones that spring to mind are basically art history and cultural history programs that happen to rely on Christianity due to its cultural impact at the times being covered). Islam is covered normally in passing referring to some atrocity in the world (the worst way to cover any religion). I can’t remember the last time when any other Eastern religions were covered in any significant way.

    Christianity gets saved in coverage due to the fact that the news would not be able to reduce it to “Christianity thinks…” due to the fact that enough people in the UK recognise the number of strands of Christianity so a singular view would not sound credible. Still they manage to completely confuse the internal differences within the Catholic Church when they try and discuss the impact of the recent change in Pope.

    I don’t know what the solution is as it seems to stem from a sneary distain for religion in the media world, so there won’t be any improvement from that end.

    I find it interesting that you think it was the law that changed attitudes to LGBT issues. Personally I don’t think it was I think it was simply a matter of more people willing to be more open and those who previously would have had some level of “phobia” or dislike simply realised it was irrational.

    We have laws to prevent people being discriminated against in the work place or in the provision of services. To silence views of those who hold views that we would like to change is the opposite of the position that has changed views to other discriminated groups. More exposure leads to more opportunity for understanding and opportunity to change minds.

  • Geoffrey Payne
    “The problem with the way the original article tackles the issue is that in the absence of knowing precisely what Ed Miliband has in mind in changing the law, the author assumes he can use this as an opportunity to make a point about something that is not being proposed.”

    The problem is that politicians don’t like to say what they mean, so they are too blame if people misunderstand them. I think the original article take the most logical approach, look at how he voted in the past and the position he has advocated.

    Talk is cheap (even more so at election time) so if someone has a history of voting for repressive legislation then if they make a speech on that topic then the best estimate of what they mean is to measure them by their record, they are likely to vote for repressive legislation again (allowing that people can make mistakes, but people tend to be extra careful to point this out when discussing similar topics afterwards).

  • @ Mr Wallace
    “This is exactly the sort of reason why I believe the UK needs a genuinely liberal party. At least one party needs to be making the case that people have the right to say what they like and people don’t have the right to not be offended.”

    Well said, Mr Wallace. Much good sense from Glenn and Psi also.

  • Oh, and Stuart too with his important point that: “Religions have the legally protected right to peddle hatred against other religions and other groups, while the freedom to criticise religions for doing so is increasingly under attack.”

  • @David-1
    Given the vagueness of the word “Islamophobia”, I don’t think it’s mere quibbling over etymology to be alarmed when politicians talk about criminalising it. Especially when all major parties have close links with organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain (who get a name check in the Lib Dem manifesto). The MCB are well known for flinging the Islamophobe label around liberally (for want of a better word).

    Perhaps it would help if you or Geoffrey could identify some Islamophobic behaviour that is not illegal now, but should be?

  • The original New Labour legislation of 2006 would have severely limited any criticism of religion by criminal law. That is what Miliband supported at the time. The opposition parties were against such a totalitarian restriction on free speech. It was during the Lords consideration of the bill that an effective opposition was mounted and the law was amended to remove the most draconian aspects, indeed, a specific clause was added by the Lords protecting freedom to criticise, criticise vigorously, religion. Labour and Ed Miliband tried to overturn the Lord’s amendments when the bill returned to the commons during “ping pong”- they failed by a single vote. That’s the thread our freedom of speech hung on and was saved by in the face of Labour’s attempt to massively criminalise free expression which was not threatening or encouraging violence.

    Miliband and Labour’s form on this means the author of the article is quite right to be concerned about what Labour might do in power – the idea that they are no longer the restricters of civil liberties they once were, is almost certainly wishful thinking. I’ve seen little sign of it being the case.

  • Brendan Newport 1st May '15 - 1:44pm

    I don’t rightly know how Ed Miliband is going to achieve this without a Labour government introducing a blasphemy law, to outlaw, specifically, anything determined to be blasphemous against Allah and/or Mohammed, and any critiques of the Qu’ran.

    In 2008 2008, Gordon Browns administration abolished the common-law offense of blasphemy and blasphemous libel through the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act (2008). It appears Mr Miliband is going to pursue an anti-secular line, with distinct privilege given our for religious belief. I think that will sit fine with the modern British Left, but many liberals I suspect will struggle with this return to 19th century secular protection.

  • Meral Hussein Ece 2nd May '15 - 1:00am

    I think this has completely missed the point. Tightening up on existing homophobic, anti-Semitic, people with disabilities, and including Islamophobic hate crimes is hardly a threat to free speech. The majority of UK people from a Muslim background ( 2.6m) , simply want to have the same protection against the growing incidence of hate crimes, that people from the above groups enjoy. I suggest you read this considered article before jumping to this knee jerk ill thought out reaction: http://www.jasonmehmet.org.uk/2015/how-knee-jerk-reactions-can-cost-votes

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