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(An article written for www.ReligionLaw.co.uk by Neil Addison Barrister)


Many religious and Political Groups, in particular leaders of the Muslim Community have welcomed the proposals from the Government to create a new criminal offence of Incitement to Religious Hatred.  As a practicing Catholic and a practicing Barrister I wonder whether those supporters actually understand the implications of what is being proposed  and the dangers in them.


The proposals from the Home Secretary are based on the existing offences relating to Racial Hatred and the argument often used is that Jews and Sikhs are protected by the Law so why not Muslims or Christians.  This is superficially attractive argument but ignores the fact that Jews are protected not because of their religion but because of their race.  Jews can convert to other religions or become atheists but they still remain Jews.  For example Saint Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein ) was a German Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite Nun.  Despite her conversion she, like many other Christian and atheist Jews, was gassed at Auschwitz not because of her religion but because of her race.


There is a fundamental difference between being a member of a racial group and being a member of a religion.  Race is something you are and cannot change, religion is something you choose and which you can change.  A Jew who becomes a  Christian still remains a Jew, but  a Christian who becomes a Muslim ceases to be a Christian.  Belief in a religion is belief in an idea and any idea must be open to question to debate and indeed to ridicule.  To say that “All men are created equal” is idealistic but to say that “All ideas are created equal” is idiotic. That however is what the Home Secretary is saying.


It may of course be argued that the purpose of the new legislation is simply to provide protection from violence and threats but that is a false argument.  Everyone is already protected by the ordinary criminal law.  If I threaten to harm someone or I incite someone else to harm them then I am committing a criminal offence. It does not matter whether I threaten them because they a Black, Muslim, Gay, Fat or Ugly it is a crime regardless of my motivation. If I set fire to a Mosque, a Church or Sainsburys I commit the crime of Arson.  There is no need for any special legislation to protect either Mosques, Churches or Supermarkets. The law protects everyone equally.


The danger with creating special categories of offence is that they stimulate feelings of divisiveness and lead to special pleading.  In addition such laws create “Thought crimes” and self censorship. Instead of people being punished for what they do they are punished for what they believe and what they say.  It might be suggested that people should not say things that offend others but if we pursue that line into debate on religion then it becomes impossible to argue about religion or the history of religion in any meaningful way.


I am myself a practicing Catholic but I accept that anyone looking at the Catholic Church is entitled to point out the often dubious history of the papacy, the Borgias and the Inquisition and must be allowed to question whether any institution that took part in such activities can truly claim to be the Church established by Christ.  Similarly any analysis of Islam must be able to look at the life of Mohammed and question whether this man who executed the 800 Jews of the Beni Qurayzah tribe in cold blood was truly a prophet of God.  To ask these questions or to point out this history will undoubtedly cause offence to many believing Catholics or Muslims but that does not mean that the questions should not be asked or that history should be censored.  If an idea is wrong or offensive it should be challenged not suppressed by law.


The dangers in the Governments approach are demonstrated by a case taking place in Australia.  The Australian case involves an allegation of “Religious Villification”  brought by the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) against Catch the Fire Ministries (CTFM) and two of its Pastors Daniel Scot and Daniel Nalliah.  It relates to a seminar which they presented in March 2002.  The seminar lasted an entire day and dealt with the Muslim concept of jihad, the history of Islam, the future of Islam in Australia and whether the practice of Islam was compatible with western concepts of Democracy.  The seminar involved quotations from the Koran and references to the life of Mohamed and the Hadith (traditions) of the prophet which together form the basis of Islamic Sharia law.  


Present during various part s of the seminar were 3 Australian converts to Islam who reported back to the ICV who subsequently brought the case against CTFM under s8 of the Victoria  “Racial and Religious Toleration Act 2001” which had come into effect in 2002.  That section says


(1)      A person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons.


The claim asked for Damages and also that the defendants be ordered to “acknowledge” that remarks at the seminar were inaccurate, “retract” the statements,  “sincerely apologise” for the offence caused and be prohibited from “further publication or distribution, directly or indirectly of any material containing statements, suggestions and implications to the same or similar effect”.  If such an order was made any breach would be a contempt of court punishable with imprisonment.


In their defence CTFM not surprisingly argued that the seminar accurately reflected Islamic teaching and history,  it was an exercise in free speech and reflected their personal religious beliefs.  During the case it became apparent that the Muslim converts had been deliberately sent to the Seminar by ICV with a view to bringing a case.  Both Pastors were known to have strong views regarding Islam and Sharia but their views were based on knowledge and experience.  Scot is a Christian from Pakistan who had gone to Australia to escape persecution whilst Nalliah had worked in Saudi Arabia where the practice of Christianity is a criminal offence.  Much of the case revolved around interpretations of the Koran and incidents in the life of Mohammed.  At one point Scot was asked whether he believed that Muslims and Christians prayed to the same God and the question was allowed by the Judge.


The trial took place in the VICTORIAN CIVIL AND ADMINISTRATIVE TRIBUNAL and was originally scheduled to last for 3 days.  It actually extended over 7 months and the judgement is still awaited.  Whilst the verdicts are awaited in that case another case has been launched by a Witch who claims that her religious beliefs have been vilified by the Christian Mayor of her town  and relationships between Muslim and Christian groups in Australia have been damaged.  If the two are cleared Muslim groups will claim that the law is not protecting them and if they are convicted they will be regarded as martyrs on the altar of political correctness.  


In the Australian Newspaper “The Age”  on 4th June 2004  Amir Butler Executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee  criticised the reasoning behind the Religious Vilification laws and I agree with everything he says


“The problem is that as long as religions articulate a sense of what is right, they cannot avoid also defining - whether explicitly or implicitly - what is wrong.  If we love God, then it requires us to hate idolatry. If we believe there is such a thing as goodness, then we must also recognise the presence of evil. If we believe our religion is the only way to Heaven, then we must also affirm that all other paths lead to Hell. If we believe our religion is true, then it requires us to believe others are false.  Yet, this is exactly what this law serves to outlaw and curtail: …………..

All these anti-vilification laws have achieved is to provide a legalistic weapon by which religious groups can silence their ideological opponents, rather than engaging in debate and discussion.  In doing so, people who otherwise might have been ignored as on the fringes of reality will be made martyrs, and their ideas given an airing far beyond anything they might have hoped for.  And at the same time as extremist ideas are strengthened and given legitimacy by attempts to silence them, the position in our society of the religions themselves is weakened and undermined.

Who, after all, would give credence to a religion that appears so fragile it can only exist if protected by a bodyguard of lawyers?”


Freedom of speech is a tender plant.  Fed on the blood of those who have died to protect it freedom can be destroyed by the smothering blanket of well meaning legislation just as easily as by the jackboot of deliberate despotism.  Neither Christianity nor Islam need, nor should they seek, the protection of the law.  Christianity survived 300 years of persecution under the Roman Empire, Islam survived persecution in Mecca and the Hijira to Medina, and both Christianity and Islam survived 70 years of Atheistic persecution in the Soviet Union.  If we believe in freedom of speech then a law restricting comment on religion is wrong and for anyone who truly believes in their religion and their God such a law is unnecessary.


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