By Sacha Ismail and Houzan Mahmoud
On the evening of Tuesday 21 June, the Government’s proposals to outlaw “incitement to religious hatred” passed the House of Commons with a majority of 57. The measure was abandoned before the last election due to obstruction in the House of Lords, and there were widespread predictions that this time enough Labour MPs would rebel to overturn the Government’s newly narrowed majority. In the event the backbench Labour rebellion was almost non-existent — John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn were the honourable exceptions.
Outlawing incitement to hatred on the basis of religious belief, as opposed to ethnicity, is a major attack on freedom of speech. It means extending the blasphemy laws which still, at least in theory, protect Anglican Christianity from rational public debate, to shield all religions with authoritarian impartiality. The bill is partly a cynical pitch to win back Muslim voters outraged by Blair’s warmongering and erosion of civil liberties (like the expansion of state funding for faith schools, and defence of the hijab) and partly the brainchild of a Prime Minister with a lot of respect for religious superstition and very little for human rights.
So why did the left of the Parliamentary Labour Party, whose leaders have boasted that they will be “setting the agenda” for this Parliament, fail to rebel?
Unfortunately, on this issue as on many others, these MPs are highly representative of a left which is increasingly losing its political bearings. The “religious hatred” law has elicited not a squeak of protest from the trade union movement; meanwhile the National Union of Students, on the initiative of the SWP and their Stalinists friends Socialist Action, has positively endorsed new Labour’s assault on respect for rational thinking and free speech.
Depressingly, the last few months have seen right-wingers from Will Hutton to Melanie Phillips, from Liberal Democrat Lords to the Tory front bench, issue defences of free speech well to the left of the nonsense being uttered by many self-styled revolutionary socialists on this issue.
All this is particularly appalling since the recent parliamentary debate has made it very clear indeed that the issue at stake is not whether one is concerned about racist incitement against Muslims. The existing law on incitement to racial hatred has already been used to prosecute BNP leaders whose speeches were clearly attacking “Islam” as a community of people, not a religion. In addition, however, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West, Evan Harris, has proposed an amendment to the law allowing for attacks on religious belief to be outlawed when they are clearly a “proxy” for racial incitement. For those concerned about attacks on Muslims, as of course socialists should be, that sort of amendment makes sense.
The Government’s bill, in contrast, will stifle free speech by creating an expectation among believers that the Attourney General will act to suppress material “offensive” to their religious sensibilities — and a pressure on Governments to meet this expectation lest they face an electoral backlash. It would undoubtedly have further emboldened those Sikhs who campaigned for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to cancel its showing of the controversial play Behzti.
In addition, and even more insidiously, it will create a climate of self-censorship.
Ironically, it will probably also increase tension between people of different religions. As the Nottingham North MP Graham Allen (who ended up abstaining on the vote) put it in a letter to the Labour whips:
“Bringing the law into play in areas of religion will turn our courts into the playground of religious extremists. We may unwittingly be winding up the dormant clockwork religious armies. Those who will be absent from the courtroom will be the vast majority of British people of all ethnic backgrounds who care nothing for the esoteric debates of religious fundamentalists. But it will be them who will be silenced by the courts’ decisions. Open, honest, vigorous debate around ideas should not give way initially to silent acquiescence, sullen grievance, then the festering repressed anger in which racism breeds.”
It is a disgrace that the Labour and trade union left (to say nothing of most organised left groups) have failed to oppose this law. Socialists must not only continue to fight the “religious incitement” bill, but demand the abolition of all blasphemy laws without exception.