Tuesday, February 15, 2005

UK: Religious tolerance laws will stir strife.

Date: Tuesday 15 February 2005
Subj: UK: Religious tolerance laws will stir strife.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.


The British government is presently seeking to extend the existing offence of "incitement to racial hatred" to cover also "religious hatred". Having passed through the House of Commons the proposed religious hate law now proceeds to the House of Lords. A Barnabas Fund press release of 8 February calls on "the House of Lords to be firm in the face of government pressure and reject laws banning incitement to religious hatred which pose a serious danger to free speech." (Link 1)

If the House of Lords passes this religious hate law, then Britain can expect to experience the same troubles, tensions and divisions – not just between faiths but within them – that are now being experienced in Victoria, Australia, since the introduction of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. (Link 2)

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The proposed British legislation, which forms Schedule 10 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, was passed by the House of Commons on Monday 7 February by 291 votes to 191.

The government rejected calls to amend the proposed law by tightening up definitions. The only concession from the government was to change the proposed offence of causing "racial or religious hatred" to "hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds". Home Office Minister Hazel Blears said the change would help clarify the situation. She assured MPs, "This is about protecting people, not about the ability to criticise, ridicule, lampoon and have fundamental disagreements about beliefs." (Link 3)

Like the proposed British law, Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (R&RT Act) also aims to protect persons (not ideologies) and safeguard free speech. However, as the case of the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) vs Daniel Scot and Catch the Fire Ministries (CTF) proved, an attack upon the the integrity and teachings of the Qur'an, or upon Islam (as a faith or as a social-political-legal system), may be deemed to be an attack upon all Muslims. And this, despite persistent calls to love Muslims, and the acknowledgment that most Muslims don't even know (let alone follow) many of the teachings of the Qur'an. What's more, defamation is not the issue here, so truth is not a defence. The only issue is whether the judge believes anyone could be incited to hate members of any racial or religious group on the basis of what you said! This is why on 17 December 2004, after two years of court procedures in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, pastors Scot and Nalliah (CTF) were convicted of religious vilification. The penalty hearing will be held on 2 May 2005. There will probably be an appeal.

The judge's decision in the Victorian case demonstrates that a judge may fail to differentiate between words, texts or behaviours that are anti-Islam or anti-Qur'an (against an ideology/religion) and those that are anti-Muslim (against the person). Or the judge may simply regard vilification of Islam AS vilification of Muslims, having no understanding of the uniquely Christian world view that demands that even if the ideology is 'hated', the adherent is to be loved .

Under the proposed British law, a person "who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusing or insulting..." whether they intend to stir up religious hatred or simply permit the "words, behaviour or material to be heard or seen by any person in whom they are likely to stir up racial or religious hatred", can be found guilty of the offence of inciting religious hatred.

Like the Victorian state government, the British government insists that free speech will be protected. However, protection cannot be guaranteed. In Victoria, the exemption that was supposed to protect the two Christian pastors – the exemption for debate held reasonably and in good faith for genuine religious purposes or in the public interest – did not protect them. The judge simply determined that the pastors had not acted reasonably or in good faith for a legitimate religious purpose or in the public interest, and were therefore not protected by Act.

The British comedian Rowan Atkinson is a vocal opponent of the proposed religious hate law. In explaining why he supported the Liberal Democrats and Labour dissidents in their objection to the law (a link to the objection can be found at Link 2), he acknowledged, "I understand what the intentions of the government are here. I know that they do not intend to militate against people like me or [author] Salman Rushdie or playwrights.

"But the only safety valve that they have put in the legislation is the fact that the attorney general will have the final say. A safety valve operated by a politician subject to the political agendas of the day is not to me a good enough safety valve," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday [7 Feb].

Mr Atkinson told the BBC that the legislation is problematic because it is "all-encompassing". "The incitement of religious hatred doesn't even have to be intended, it is just if it offends any person. It couldn't be more broad." (Link 3)

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COMMENT BY REV. DR MARK DURIE (Australia)

The Reverend Dr Mark Durie provides an analysis of the assumptions behind such vilification and religious hate laws. While this is written specifically with regard to the Victorian R&RT Act, what he says can equally be applied to the British situation.

Dr Durie writes: "The Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act reflects a world view according to which religion is an expression of cultural diversity: it is seen as an attribute of personal identity, like culture, language or social customs.

"This is an inadequate assumption for regulating religion. Different religions will and do seek radically different values, and can produce quite different kinds of societies. Such differences extend to different understandings of slavery, caste, marriage (e.g. monogamy, divorce, polygamy), the death penalty, euthanasia, the distribution of wealth, sexual politics, abortion, attitudes to truth, the nature of political representation, the whole legal system, and warfare. Treating religious beliefs as merely a matter of identity is a recipe for confusion.

"The case demonstrates that apologetic religious activity which challenges a religious belief system could be found illegal to the extent that it is judged to marginalize and diminish the dignity of those who hold such beliefs. This could be done, for example, by saying that a particular belief system is flawed and inferior to other belief systems. By means of this law, the state could end up protecting — and thus promoting — particular religious beliefs. Similar protection does not exist for most other kinds of beliefs. For example if you state that the virgin birth is ridiculous, you could be breaking the law, but if you said that the flat earth theory is laughable, you would be safe as long as no Australian religious group holds this view.

"It is a fact that the Qur'an and Hadiths contain numerous examples of shocking material, including incitements to hatred and killing. Few would dispute that this material, taken in isolation, has the potential to offend. There is no doubt that this material, because of its place within the canon of Islam, and its embedding within the exegetical and legal traditions of the shari'a, forms part of the 'attributes' of Muslim beliefs – whether or not individual Muslims are familiar with it – and thus it gains a measure of protection under the Act.

"For this reason the Act's presupposition (paragraph 4(1)a) that ignorance is the cause of religious tensions is naive. It is the knowledge, not ignorance of some religious teachings, that is more likely to create religious tension.

"The problem of an offensive canon is not unique to Islam, but it is particularly acute for Muslims: there is nothing so offensive in the life of Jesus or Buddha: a frank critique of the life of Muhammad risks illegality to a degree that a critique of the life of Jesus does not. The very nature of such material makes robust religious debate difficult in a way the Act does not anticipate. Because religions differ in the degree to which their canon contains such material, the Act causes a kind of religious discrimination."

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BRITISH MUSLIMS DIVIDED

Most Muslims support the proposed religious hate law and have lobbied aggressively for it (see Barnabas Fund 8 Feb press release at Link 1). They see it primarily as a tool they can use to silence public criticism of their religion, and thus protect Islam, leaving Muslims free to propagate a more peaceful apologetic in line with their own beliefs or interests. This however, is not acceptable. Muslims must confront the problems in their Qur'an, sharia law and history.

There are other Muslims however, who are not so sure the religious hate law is a good thing. An article on the fundamentalist Khilafah.com expresses the concern, "The adoption of an 'incitement to religious hatred' law will be an attempt to muzzle Muslims from quoting the Quran, and the other sacred texts of Islam. There is no shortage of verses in the Qur'an to excite the interest of the British judiciary. The dozens of verses exhorting Jihad for starters, or perhaps the verses warning of the plans of the Jews or Christians, or which castigate the unjust!" (Link 4)

These laws do not inhibit confrontation between people. They create that! But they do inhibit confrontation with troublesome and offensive ideologies, texts and histories. The more offensive the material, the more probable it is that its exposure will be deemed vilification or incitement to hatred.

These laws open a religious and legal Pandora's Box. Is this really what the British want?

- Elizabeth Kendal
rl-research@crossnet.org.au

Links

1) BARNABAS FUND
Religious Hate Law: A threat to free speech?
http://www.barnabasfund.org/news/itrhc/about_itrhc.htm
This site contains everything you would ever need for studying or monitoring the UK's proposed religious hate law. The site contains Barnabas Fund press releases on the progress of the law, the text of the proposed religious hate law, and numerous media articles and political statements.

2) RELIGION LAW
http://www.religionlaw.co.uk
This site contains a link to the text of the UK's proposed incitement to religious hatred law, and gives some history behind the present law proposal.
This site also contains links for everything to do with the Victorian situation (click on "Australia")including links to the transcript of Daniel Scot's Seminar on the Qur'an (run by Catch the Fire Ministries in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 2002); as well as the Islamic Council of Victoria's initial complaint, Catch the Fire Ministries' formal defense, the judge's decision, and various other submissions and documents.

3) Religious hatred law gets backing. BBC 7 Feb 2005
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4242397.stm
ALSO http://www.christiantoday.com/news/soc/186.htm

4)The Qur'an to be banned in UK?
http://www.khilafah.com/home/category.php?DocumentID=10645&TagID=1