The British Government seems almost certain to pass a new law which will severely limit freedom of speech within religious communities and society at large.
The proposed bill, which is set to pass through the House of Commons, is strongly opposed by church groups, as well as representatives of other religious communities.
The legislation sets out to ban what it calls 'incitement to religious hatred.' However, far from promoting harmony between religious groups this law would promote nothing but mistrust and fear.
The bill will in fact work against the religious minorities it purportedly wants to protect.
On the release of the original bill, the Islamic Human Rights Commission issued a press statement. It says: 'IHRC would like to express its deep concern at Home Secretary David Blunkett's latest proposals to outlaw incitement to religious hatred.'
'Rather than enjoying additional protection from the law, religious minorities could find themselves the targets of prosecutions under the proposed legislation.' (1)
Homosexual lobby groups, civil rights groups, and even comedians have come out against the proposed law. (The latter because they say it will threaten their livelihood, which is often largely on poking fun at what other's believe.)
Under this law, fringe groups from one religion would be able to attack the efforts of other faith communities, destroying in the process all the hard work they're doing for the community.
There are real differences of belief between various religions and there's no point in denying it.For example, one can't properly call oneself a follower of Christ, a Christian, without accepting his teaching, which includes the claim that he was 'the Way, the Truth and the Life', that there is no way to reach God the Father except through him. (2)
That claim marks out people of one faith – in this case, the Christian faith – from people of another. (3) Yet the same Christ taught us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
We can share our version of reality with our neighbour without disrespecting or mistreating him. In fact, according to Jesus, it is the fact that we are motivated by love and not hate which causes us to share our faith in the first place.
Religious beliefs do separate people; there's no avoiding that. As John Mortimer wrote in The Daily Mail, 'If we are free to adopt a religion we must also be free to discuss the dangers of other religious beliefs.' (4)
Political beliefs also separate people, as do beliefs about football teams – and both of those are often defended with something like 'religious fervour'. To try to limit discussion in either of these areas would be anathema to any sensible politician.
The proposed UK law is similar to one passed in the Australia state of Victoria in 2001. The Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 is something of a test case, one of the first of its kind in the world.
If the British proposal is passed into law, however, there's no reason why other European governments will not try to follow suit.
The Victorian bill hit the headlines when, on 17 December 2004, two Christian pastors were found guilty of 'inciting hatred' during a Melbourne church seminar in March 2002.
I have read a good part of the transcript from that seminar and it seems to me that what is on offer has nothing at all to do with a hatred of Muslims. It has everything to do with celebrating the freedom of expression traditionally available in Australian society.
Pastor Daniel Scott, one of the defendants in the court case, presented his overview of the history of the Muslim faith and shared his views on how Christians can reach out to Muslims.
He questioned the compatibility of Muslim faith with Western-style democracy. He also made several personal observations about the concept of jihad, saying that the Koran gives more space to this idea than is often reported.
His views are, no doubt, shaped by his experience of life in Pakistan. This purportedly Muslim state is not, by anyone's estimation, the most tolerant toward outside cultural influences.
The pastor's claims are, of course, open to debate and they deserve to be held up to scrutiny, but they should never have been a matter for the courts. A well organised religious group simply used the new law to silence what they saw as criticism of their beliefs.
At no time in the seminar did the pastor call for action of any kind against Muslims, nor did he encourage vilification of them. Quite the opposite: he seemed to be inviting his Christian audience to engage more with Muslim people.
Observers believe that the British legislation, which has received little attention in the mainstream media, will be passed by virtue of the government's numbers in the House of Commons. It will then proceed to the House of Lords for further discussion.
Whatever the ultimate outcome in Westminster, the writing is on the wall for freedom of speech. Leaders from disparate religious organisations and civil liberties groups are openly opposing it.
A UK barrister, writing in The Times, said: 'The danger with creating these special types of religious offence is that they stimulate feelings of divisiveness, create "thought crimes" and lead to show trials where judges, or juries, have to make decisions in areas where historians and philosophers have been unable to agree for centuries.' (5)
If the bill is passed into law, churches and other religious meeting places may become places of fear. Speakers and leaders will be afraid to share the tenets of their faith, knowing that they may say something which is deemed offensive by a person of another persuasion and opens them to prosecution.
According to the Christian Institute, a charity promoting Christian values in Britain, 'Sunday morning sermons are within the ambit of the bill. Somebody may take the view that a sermon on the uniqueness of Christ as the way of salvation incites religious hatred in a member of the congregation.' (6)
The proposed UK bill threatens the very basis of healthy debate: the freedom to state a belief, to put a case. This freedom should not be denied in any sphere of life – including that of religion.
Christian or not, religious or otherwise, how should we respond to this proposed law? There are several points which cry out to be made.
First, the proposed law uses a very large sledge hammer to crack a very small nut. Yes, there are extremes of view in some religious communities – just as there are in any section of society.
There will always be fringe elements; as long as we can limit their influence, we are secure as a society. But how is society helped by banning all debate on something so fundamental – and, most often, so enriching – to human culture as religious belief?
Secondly, if a religious leader or believer is promoting violent action or acts of hatred against people of other cultures or faiths, he or she should be subject to penalties. But those penalties are already covered by existing laws which deal with incitement to violence and racial intolerance. Why do we need to add a component dealing specifically with religion?
To single out religious belief as this bill is doing is an act of discrimination and injustice. Why not single out other forms of belief in which there is the potential for heated debate – political beliefs, for example? They are often defended with as much passion as religious beliefs.
Third, contrary to the claims of its supporters – who seem to be few outside of the political classes – this law will do absolutely nothing to reduce the threat of terrorism. People who use terror as a tool for change operate as much or more from political motives as religious ones. (So, again, why not stamp out political debate? Or is that the next cab off the rank?)
While legislation can limit human behaviour, it does not change the human heart. Laws alone will never eradicate the bitter attitudes which lead a small minority of individuals – most of whom operate outside mainstream religious communities – to violence.
If they're not held to account right now, governments will use the threat of terrorist activity to pass all kinds of legislation which have little to do with community harmony and more to do with government control.
Finally, we should pause to consider what future generations might build on the platform of such a law. What one generation tolerates, the next generation often treats as the basic norm. What's to stop law-makers in ten or twenty years from now using the present bill as a precedent for even more draconian measures? Perhaps Orwell's ominous thought-police will become a reality.
Do we need a new law specifically outlawing 'religious intolerance'? For all kinds of reasons, the answer is decidedly no!
(1) Islamic Human Rights Commission, Press Release, 7 July 2004.
(2) John 14:6, the Bible.
(3) The practicing Muslim will be just as adamant that Mohammed is the greatest of God's prophets.
(4) John Mortimer QC, The Daily Mail, 18 October 2001.
(5) Neil Addison, barrister and author of 'Harassment Law and Practice' (Blackstones), The Times, 9 November 2004.
(6) Full discussion of the bill, plus reporting on the Melbourne case, is available at: www.christian.org.uk.