A law to close minds

About the author
Lisa Appignanesi is a novelist and writer. She is deputy president of English PEN and chair of its Free Expression is No Offence.

Shakira Hussein’s vivid account of her family’s “chutnification” – what she calls “the product of immigration, spiritual curiosity, globalisation and intermarriage (in some cases, multiple)” is not just endearing – it warrants several novels. What it doesn’t warrant is more bad legislation in the name of “security” and pacifying groups from government ministries which, as in the case of Britain’s Home Office, have already given us far too much.

Ms Hussein imagines that the amendment to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, creating a new offence of incitement to religious hatred, would have the effect of protecting faith and perhaps attendant ethnicity. But it would certainly have the opposite effect. By signalling the possibility of prosecution, it would create a chain of reactions: encourage the taking of offence, inflame tempers and a sense of grievance, and give publicity to those who often seek it for nefarious purposes. As for violence to persons on any grounds, there is already ample legislation in the statute books to deal with that.

Is legal protection against incitement to religious hatred the promotion of tolerance or censorship? openDemocracy’s debate includes:

Salman Rushdie, “Defend the right to be offended” (February 2005)

Shakira Hussein, “‘They do not vilify our ideas, they vilify us’” (February 2005)

The Home Office has renamed the proposed offence after protests from the writers’ organisation English PEN (of which I am deputy president), the writer Salman Rushdie, the actor Rowan Atkinson, and many others. But even under the new definition – “hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds” – the legislation will help to induce (self-)censorship in Britain’s artistic, broadcasting and publishing establishments. Corporations and sponsors are not known for their bravery. Lawyers almost always err on the side of caution, and will simply put provocative work of any kind to one side rather than spend months in court waiting for the attorney-general’s ruling on individual cases.

More broadly, the offence will also create a climate in which expression is constrained for those who might wish to criticise some of the palpable ills associated with religious hierarchies, which are extensive in Britain and many other countries.

It gets worse. The breadth of the legislation, whatever the government’s assurances, is misunderstood by many, including its parliamentary supporters in the ruling Labour party. I attended the debate in the House of Commons on 7 February and needed to read the official report in the daily journal Hansard just to make sure I wasn’t mishearing. Khalid Mahmood, member of parliament (MP) for Birmingham, Perry Barr (and a Muslim), is happy to defend free speech in its generality, but he showed a very real intolerance in relation to specific instances. He was ready to see the law tested precisely in the way that writers and journalists – indeed anyone who works for the media – fear. I quote from Hansard:

Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington: (Khalid Mahmood) says that nobody in the Muslim community denies that people should be able to make valid criticisms of the religion, but I was a Member of Parliament at the time of The Satanic Verses, and there were thousands and thousands of Muslims who believed emphatically that people were not entitled to criticise their religion.

Khalid Mahmood: I am sorry, but I take issue with that. It was not a question of making a valid criticism of the religion. In the context of Salman Rushdie, the issue was the abusive words that he deliberately used, which were written in phonetic Urdu, criticising – [interruption.] Actual swear words were used within that text.

Alice Mahon, Labour MP for Halifax: Who decides?

Khalid Mahmood: The decision is taken in the courts, if it comes to that. As (Frank Dobson, Labour MP for Holborn and St. Pancras) said, there will be an opportunity for some of those cases and issues to be tested. In a sense, that is what the judicial system is about and what this democracy is about: giving people that opportunity.”

Salman Rushdie has already responded to Khalid Mahmood’s enduringly misleading description of relevant portions of his novel The Satanic Verses. Shakira Hussein may want protection from malign criticism of her faith, but what this parliamentary exchange suggests is that legislation against religious hatred may incur more of it, as various faiths – sensitised even more to their differences from one another, to real or imagined slights, and to the possiblity of winning legal sanction for their position – take each other to court. It will also endanger even further the very writer she so admires.

If even the government’s own parliamentary supporters have false expectations of this new offence, is it too much to imagine how widespread these expectations will be outside parliament and what serious constraints on expression will follow?