JR'S Free Thought Pages
Terrorism and the “incitement to religious hatred” A. C. Grayling (The Form of Things: Essays on Life, Ideas and Liberty in the 21st Century, 2007, pp. 206-11)
A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com
Neither the government nor the security services have ever claimed that it is possible to prevent terrorist atrocities altogether. Everyone recognizes that policing by itself can only be part of the solution. The main part has to be an engagement with the causes of terrorism, both to remove the reasons for it, and in the meantime to isolate terrorists from the support, tacit and otherwise, they get from their communities.
Because the British government assumes, with justification, that today's terrorism stems almost exclusively from disaffection in the Islamic world, it has aimed its domestic counter-terrorism strategy at making Britain's own 1.6 million Muslims more at home, in the hope of rendering it inhospitable to both foreign and home-grown radicalism.
The blueprint for this strategy is Operation Contest, adopted by the government in 2005. Its hearts and minds thrust include funding for moderate Islamic news media, encouragement of Muslim interest-exempt banking facilities, and recommendations to companies to make prayer rooms available for Muslim employees. It also includes the controversial proposal currently before Parliament to criminalize 'incitement to religious hatred'.
All of these proposals are well-meaning, and some are positive. But the proposed law against incitement to religious hatred is a serious mistake. Intended as a reassuring gesture towards a small minority, it represents a drastic step towards limiting freedom of expression for the entire population - which is far too high a cost to pay.
Apart from the United States, most countries have laws criminalizing offences against religion. In the West such laws have been dead letters in the last hundred years and more, because the opposing value of free speech has been regarded as far outweighing them. But there are sudden danger signals in secular Europe now, warning of a reversal in this arrangement. One indication is that the government's 'religious hatred' law is being proposed just as an Italian magistrate is invoking an old statute criminalizing 'vilification of religion' to indict a journalist for offending Islam. She faces two years in prison.
The fact that religion-protecting laws threaten free speech is so obvious that the advocates of Britain's proposed statute are careful to insist that it has inbuilt free speech safeguards. They claim that satire and criticism directed at religion will not result in prison sentences, because the law aims to protect people not beliefs, and because the Director of Public Prosecutions will have a veto over proposed indictments to ensure that the law is not abused.
Are such reassurances satisfactory? Laws can change in the light of circumstance, so in harsher times this law can easily be refocused to 'protect' against much vaguer provocations, such as 'offence' or 'derogatory remarks'. Consider the similarity of certain laws in present-day Pakistan to those of medieval Europe in this respect. A Pakistani statute of 1984 specifies life imprisonment or death for utterance of 'derogatory remarks' about the Koran. The country's Federal Sharia Court additionally ruled in 1990 that 'the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet... is death and nothing else'. This resembles laws protecting Christianity in earlier phases of European history, when the cognate crimes of heresy and blasphemy were capital offences. As this shows, history has a bad habit of repeating itself in different places and guises, especially if a door is left ajar for it to do so.
The Italian journalist currently in trouble is Oriana Fallaci, one of her country's most controversial because often least temperate writers. Following 9/11 she assumed the role of defender of Western values against Islamic assaults upon them. The occasion for her indictment is a book in which, among other things, she laments what she sees as a deliberate 'invasion' of Europe by Muslim immigrants, who she says intend to efface European culture and identity.
In support of these claims she cites a speech made by Algerian President Houari Boumedienne at the UN in 1974: 'One day millions of men will leave the southern hemisphere to go to the northern hemisphere. And they will not go there as friends. Because they will go there to conquer it. And they will conquer it with their sons. The wombs of our women will give us victory.' And she quotes a Catholic bishop who heard a Muslim cleric tell Westerners at an interfaith meeting in Turkey, 'Thanks to your democratic laws we will invade you. Thanks to our Islamic laws we will conquer you.'
Most of Fallaci's anger is reserved for the failure of Europe to recognize what she sees as the current realization of these threats. Her response to 9/11, the blunt language she uses in criticizing 'the sons of Allah' and in asserting the superiority of European liberalism over Islamic culture, has provoked an Islamist activist in Italy, one Adel Smith (an Egyptian-Scottish Muslim immigrant), to lay a complaint against her under the 'vilification of religion' law. Ironically, Smith is himself on indictment under the same law, for abusing Catholicism; and is well known in Italy for provocative activities - demanding that crucifixes be removed from schools and hospitals, and allegedly calling for Oriana Fallaci to be 'exterminated'. The Fallaci case illustrates the danger posed by laws protecting faiths and their votaries. In circumstances where tensions are provoked by assertive identity politics based on faith affiliation, such laws provide ready weapons for all sides to attack each other in court. It is a short step from the courtroom to riots in the streets outside. Rhetoric matters in such cases; if someone is indicted for disturbing the peace rather than specifically causing 'religious' offence, there is far less rationale for faith groups to gather outside courtrooms brandishing sticks.
Britain already has laws protecting citizens from verbal or physical attack, no matter how motivated. A current Metropolitan Police leaflet, printed in no fewer than eleven languages, asks: 'Have you ever been abused or attacked because of your race, your religion, the color of your skin, or your sexual orientation?' And it tells readers that the police can protect anyone thus abused, 'if appropriate by arresting' those responsible. That is unequivocal: threatening behavior, assault and battery have always been crimes, whatever provokes them. No new crime needs to be invented.
The Fallaci case shows why inventing a new crime would be profoundly misguided. At this juncture in history, when a new clash is occurring - or rather, being deliberately engineered -between the secular arrangements of European liberal democracies and some increasingly assertive religious groups within them, the need for free speech, however abrasive and challenging, is more important than ever. Religious radicals want to limit our freedoms; to curb free speech is to give them exactly what they want. The worst-case scenario is that what will come from limiting free speech is, in the end, silence.
No one is a Christian or Muslim at birth; people are made so by the community they are born into, or which they later join. They can choose not to be Christian or Muslim, and can convert (o another faith or none. But they cannot choose to be other than ethnically white or black. Ultimately, membership of a religious group is a voluntary matter - even if the coercive effects of childhood brain-washing and social pressure makes opting out difficult. This puts all religions on the same footing as political parties or other voluntary organizations: they are self-selected interest groups, defined by belief or aim, artificial constructs dependent on personal conviction. No one could tolerate the idea that members of a political party should be protected by law against satire or criticism; by the same token neither should a religion and its members.
This especially matters now, because the major religions are busily engaged in pushing themselves further into the public domain, demanding more privileges and protections than they have enjoyed for a long time. The vacuum left by the Cold War's end has been filled by increasing Islamist militancy premised on hostility to a materialist West which the militants' leaders blame for their problems. The other major religions, not wishing to be left behind in the assertiveness stakes, make common cause with them, demanding public money for faith-based schools (the dreadful consequences of which are seen to this day in Northern Ireland), faith representation in the House of Lords, new laws protecting believers qua believers, and much besides.
This common cause can only be temporary, because each of the faiths lays claim to final truth, and they blaspheme one another therefore; so that deep traditional conflicts are merely waiting their time to re-emerge, something far more likely to happen if the religions have been given a larger slice of the public domain, and protection for their special-interest activities there.
Whether or not one agrees with Oriana Fallaci's views - and despite the fact that it is not always easy to condone the manner in which they are put - her indictment is a portent for Britain and all Europe in this climate. It represents secularism and free speech under pressure, indeed under threat: and passing laws to give self-described believers protection from both secularism and free speech increases that pressure, and promises ultimately to turn the threat into reality.
A C Grayling Bio
Anthony Grayling MA, DPhil (Oxon) FRSL, FRSA is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford. He has written and edited many books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are a biography of William Hazlitt and a collection of essays. For several years he wrote the "Last Word" column for the Guardian newspaper and is a regular reviewer for the Literary Review and the Financial Times. He also often writes for the Observer, Economist, Times Literary Supplement, Independent on Sunday and New Statesman, and is a frequent broadcaster on BBC Radios 4, 3 and the World Service. He is the Editor of Online Review London, Contributing Editor of Prospect magazine. In addition he sits on the editorial boards of several academic journals, and for nearly ten years was the Honorary Secretary of the principal British Philosophical Association, the Aristotelian Society. He is a past chairman of June Fourth, a human rights group concerned with China, and has been involved in UN human rights initiative. Anthony Grayling is a Fellow of the World Economic Forum, and a member of its C-100 group on relations between the West and the Islamic world. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and in 2003 was a Booker Prize judge.
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