Sops and imminent dangers

Jack Conrad takes a closer look at the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill and explains why communists must oppose them

When parliament reconvenes in October - after its long summer break and the party conference season - government whips will once again be pushing to get the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill through parliament and into law. Despite strong objections - from a wide array of religious and non-religious bodies, artists and political personalities - Tony Blair and Charles Clarke are determined to make "incitement to religious hatred" a criminal offence. New Labour wants a legislative sop to both win back its lost muslim voters and bring 'responsible' muslim leaders into its well rewarded patriotic fold. This is the third attempt to get the bill passed. The first was in 2001 - following the September 11 suicide attacks on New York and Washington. Former home secretary David Blunkett argued at the time that such a law was needed in order to deal with the rash of vandalism directed against mosques and islamic centres and the verbal abuse and physical assaults suffered by ordinary muslims. However, there followed two defeats in the Lords. Neither Tory nor Liberal Democrat front benches like the bill. After noting in the Commons that "the attorney general will decide if someone has gone too far and broken the law", David Davis (Tory leadership contender) went on to say: "Before it reaches that stage, however, an individual can be investigated and have his character called into question "¦ Inevitably, we will end up with a situation where serious debate and freedom of speech are limited. Our society and our tradition of tolerance will be poorer as a result "¦ We risk creating a tit-for-tat situation which encourages suspicion and mistrust between religions, rather than the harmony that we seek" (Hansard June 21 2005, cols 686 and 688). David Heath MP (Liberal Democrat) raises similar objections: "There is a high likelihood of vexatious or other complaints to the police that will result in investigation and which will thus effectively lead to the harassment of people who are legitimately proselytising their faith or behaving properly, which will have an effect on free speech" (Hansard June 21 2005, cols 682-683). There are also divisions within the Labour Party. Left Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews QC says: "At root, the matter is philosophical; there is a profound difference between hatred based on race, sex or age - all of which are thrust upon us; we have no choice - and on religion, which is not thrust upon us. Religion is a matter of choice; it is a matter of what we do. It is intolerable, and should be criminal, to incite hatred of a man or woman because of what they are, but I have grave doubts whether it should be criminal, as opposed to merely socially unacceptable, to incite hatred of someone because of what they do" (Hansard December 7 2004, col 1,075) A second attempt to get the bill through came in early 2005. And the government once again faced stiff ermined opposition, but was defeated on this occasion by lack of time. The general election intervened and meant that the parliamentary timetable became impossibly squeezed. The government had to put its plans on hold. After New Labour's sweeping third general election victory in May 2005, the government once again reintroduced the bill and it successfully completed the House of Commons stages in July. Though there were predictions of a substantial rebellion by the left, it miserably failed to materialise. John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn voted against; others either absented themselves, abstained or, as with George Galloway, shamefully voted with the government. Religious hatred and free speech The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill would make it a criminal offence to incite hatred on the grounds of religion in England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own separate legislation). There have, of course, been repeated government pledges to the effect that it has no intention of curbing free speech, interfering with legitimate religious expression or trying to stop writers and comedians criticising or poking fun at religion. The government tries to give the impression that all it is doing is innocently plugging a legislative gap. Some religious believers are already covered by race hate laws (ie, "mono-ethnic religious groups" such as Sikhs and Jews - whom we would classify as people-religions). But multi-ethnic groups such as muslims, buddhists and other world religions and not covered. The home office claims that it wants to protect people from both religious and racial hatred and thereby close "an unacceptable loophole" (www.homeoffice.gov.uk/com-race/faith/crime/fre.html). Clearly this is nothing more than politically correct camouflage, a convenient cover story designed to deceive. Paradoxical though it may seem, by far the best guide to this proposed legislation I have come across can be found on the website of the Christian Institute. Here we find the convincing argument that, far from closing "an unacceptable loophole", what is being created is in fact an entirely a new offence - one which surely takes English law into the realm of George Orwell's 1984 and thought crimes. Race laws have always been premised on notions of so-called ethnicity. The religious hate law deals with beliefs. Existing legislation on 'race' - actually a political, not a biological concept - touches upon religion only when the two overlap. It applies where the "distinctions between race and religion" are deemed so minor "as makes no practical difference" (www.christian.org.uk.home.htm). The leading case on the extension of race laws to include religion is Mandla v Dowell Lee. The headmaster of a private school refused to admit a Sikh pupil unless he removed his turban and cut his hair. The House of Lords ruled that the term 'ethnic' in the 1976 Race Relations Act was to be "construed in a broad cultural and historic sense". For a section of society to be considered an 'ethnic group' it had to be a distinct community. It had to be able to claim to have "a long-shared history and a cultural tradition of its own, often associated with a religion". Sikhs were therefore a group defined by reference to 'ethnic origins', even though they were not 'racially' distinguishable from other people living in the Punjab (www.christian.org.uk.home.htm). On this basis, in certain exceptional circumstances, clearly defined muslim and christian 'ethnic' groups are protected by existing race laws. But to extend race laws to protect religious belief in general, making religion and race virtually synonymous, is another matter entirely. In general people have no practical choice about their 'race' or 'ethnic' group. They are born into them and remain within them because of culture and inheritance. Religion is something else. It is a belief, a form of consciousness, an ideology ... and people are constantly rejecting one religion for another or rejecting religion altogether for non-religion. The race hatred bill amends the Public Order Act of 1986 so that the offence of inciting racial hatred is widened to include religious hatred. To get a conviction under the new offence, the prosecution must prove that a person used "threatening, abusive or insulting words, or behaviour" or displayed any written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting. They must then go on to prove that the person intended to stir up hatred. A conviction can also be secured if the crown can prove that, "having regard to all the circumstances, hatred was likely to be stirred up". Here the religious hatred bill amends existing law on racial hatred to apply a new test to both racial and religious incitement. The explanatory notes to the bill calls this a 'clarification'. Section 18 (1b) of the 1986 act says that an offence is committed if, "having regard to all the circumstances, racial hatred is likely to be stirred up". Under the new bill this is replaced with: "having regard to all the circumstances, the words, behaviour or material are (or is) likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom they are (or it is) likely to stir up racial or religious hatred." The key phrase is "any person in whom". The rewording is new and untested. It could have unpredictable and possibly dire consequences. Certainly nobody knows who is likely to be prosecuted under it. Assurances This goes much wider than intentional stirring up of hatred. As far as religious freedom goes, this part of the clause represents the greatest threat. If the prosecution falls back on alleging that a person's actions were likely to stir up religious hatred, it is a defence for the accused to show that they did not intend their words, behaviour or material to be "threatening, abusive or insulting" and that they were not aware that it might be. If they were aware, they cannot rely on this defence. And obviously in this period of "greatly heightened religious sensitivities", few people can seriously claim to be unaware of the possibility that religious controversy "might be" regarded as "abusive or insulting". Worse, a home office minister recently issued a statement making it clear that "belief in the truth of your statement is no defence". It is easy to envisage how those engaged in religious debate might fall foul of such a widely drafted definition of "religious hatred" (www.christian.org.u-k.home.htm). The government has issued syrupy assurances that the legislation would not affect any criticisms of the "beliefs, teachings or practices of a religion or its followers". Eg, the claim can be made that this or that religion is "false or harmful". Nor would proselytising "one's own religion or urging followers of a different religion to cease practising theirs" fall outside of the law. Repeating some of the more religiously hateful, violent and even genocidal passages contained in texts such as the bible and the Koran is specifically ruled out as incitement. The home office also solemnly pledges that telling jokes about religions will still be permitted. However, all of that is thrown into doubt, given the following: "if a person were to use threatening, abusive or insulting words/actions with the intent or likely effect that hatred would be stirred up", that would constitute an offence (www.homeoffice.gov.uk/comrace/faith/crime/frq.html). Nevertheless, despite the hopelessly muddled legal clauses and sub-clauses, it is crystal clear that under the guise of combating hatred the government is engaged in a cynical flanking manoeuvre designed to undermine the gains the working class and progressive movement has historically made in terms of freedom of expression in Britain. The religious hatred legislation will serve to intimidate and help to instil a climate of freezing self-censorship. It also has the real potential to criminalise not only militant atheists, but many religious believers too. Some religious groups feel themselves obliged by god's holy command to denounce their opponents using fire and brimstone language. The religious hate law would leave them wide open to prosecution. True, the crown prosecution service and the attorney general would have to give the go-ahead. Section 27 of the 1986 act requires that. In Socialist Worker Inayat Bunglawala, media secretary for the Muslim Council of Britain, not only welcomes the bill, but naively claims that the attorney general and a "public interest test" provide a sure-fire safeguard (www.socialistworker.co.uk/article.php?article_6815). In reality, though, everything depends on political interest and the balance of class forces. If the law says that the crown has a duty to protect religious believers from hatred, that carries with it the ever present danger of politically motivated investigations, vengeful arrests and court cases designed to cow enemies of the government - first and foremost the left. The home office chivalrously promises that prosecutions would be few and far between. But, to put it mildly, the working class movement has no reason to trust either government ministers or the state bureaucracy. Let me give just one example to show why: Iraq. The invasion, occupation and non-existent weapons of mass destruction prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the business of government in the UK is the business of double-talk, falsification and systematic misinformation. With every justification the prime minister has been dubbed Tony Bliar. Nor should we trust unelected judges to decide what is hateful and what is not. Ominously the bill does not even include a definition of what constitutes "religious belief". Do scientologists, humanists, paganists and satanists fit the bill? Will they be protected from hatred? It will be left to judges to decide upon such matters. For this reason, if no other, everyone from atheists and animists to zen buddhists and zoroastrians should oppose this retrogressive bill. It is full of vagaries and within its numerous lacunas there is the imminent threat to further erode hard won democratic rights. Communists and authentic revolutionary socialists have no interest in handing the state yet another draconian weapon. On the contrary, we should champion free expression, fight to roll back state power and promote secularism. That is why we want the immediate abolition of the antiquated blasphemy law which protects the established Church of England alone. When it comes to the state, communists are unambiguously for a secular republic. Such a republic would be constitutionally committed to the right of believers to freely practise their religion as they see fit (as long as it does no harm to others). However, we also advocate the constitutional right of non-believers to make propaganda against religious institutions and religious superstition. Hence our approach is not designed to simply achieve equality between religions. We stand by a higher principle - equality between believers and non-believers. Naturally, we oppose and condemn fascist and chauvinist attacks on mosques and islamic centres. We would gladly unite with muslim activists to physically guard such buildings with whatever forces and whatever weapons we have at our disposal. Communists, let us stress, seek to build armed workers' militias. But when it comes to the law there is no need for new legislation to protect muslims or any other religious cult for that matter. Daubing vile slogans on the walls of mosques, arson and incitement are already criminal offences. Indeed since 2001 there have been laws on the statute books which specifically created religiously aggravated offences. The government introduced an amendment to the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act which extended the offence of causing alarm or distress to include cases that are racially or religiously aggravated. The intention was to impose tougher penalties where a crime has already been committed and there has been a proven religious or anti-religious motivation. In other words the 2001 law operates in tandem with a prosecution for an existing offence such as assault or harassment. The CPS prosecuted 44 cases of religiously aggravated crimes in the year April 2003-March 2004. Eg, Mark Norwood, a BNP activist in Shropshire, was convicted under this act for displaying a poster with the words 'Islam out of Britain' alongside a photograph of the burning World Trade Center from September 11. He was fined £300. The home office issued a statement on December 7 2004 which offered specific examples of what the new law is designed to cover. They included "suggesting that muslims are a threat to British people "¦ and that they should be urgently driven out of Britain." But, as the case of Mark Norwood just cited illustrates, this is already illegal. Perhaps the day will come when, if we communists displayed a poster which read, 'Capitalism out of Britain', we too could be prosecuted for causing 'alarm and distress' to the capitalists. There was a reported 650% increase in 'faith hate crimes' in London in the immediate aftermath of the July 7 bombings - mainly verbal abuse and minor assaults. There were 269 such crimes in the three weeks after July 7, compared with 40 in the same period of 2004. Here we have backward and ignorant lumpen elements frenziedly taking their cue from the government's own 'war on terror'. But the reason why these incidents are officially reported as 'faith hate crimes' is that they are already illegal. These are the 'aggravated offences' which carry harsher penalties because they are motivated by religious hostility. Since July 7 the government has also been claiming that the religious hatred law is needed in order to prosecute islamist preachers who supposedly support terrorism (a catch-all term which historically has included legitimate actions by the ANC, IRA, Palestinian guerrilla groups, etc). So muslim clerics are being targeted as well as courted. Tony Blair announced, meanwhile, a whole raft of oppressive laws and measures designed to gag, detain or deport ... and surely not only such men. Many religious believers feel it behoven upon themselves to take a firm stand against the bill. The Christian Institute has already been approvingly mentioned and extensively quoted. Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, knowingly argues that religious hatred laws will "not protect muslims". He warns that the law could prove a "dangerous double-edged sword". Evangelical christians, he fears, would soon be clamouring for the prosecution of muslims (www.socialistworker.co.uk/article.php?article_6815). Of course, in the Australian state of Victoria, it has been a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other. Muslims have successfully taken christians to court, where they have been found guilty of insulting islam. Both christians and muslims - who favoured the religious hatred law when first introduced - are now urging that it be scrapped. Worries about hostile court cases is certainly what has caused the Islamic Human Rights Commission to come out in opposition to the bill. It cautions that, rather than enjoying "additional protection from the law", religious minorities could find themselves the "targets of prosecutions under the proposed legislation" (IHRC press release, July 7 2004). Yet, despite many such statements and protests, left-speaking trade union leaders have not lifted a finger to halt the passage of the religious hatred bill. Indeed, criminally, the Socialist Workers Party has positively embraced this underhand attack on free speech, first in the National Union of Students and now in Respect. Perversely in the name of combating islamophobia the SWP lines up alongside Blair and his attempt to silence unwanted islamic preachers and further undermine the freedom of expression. The popular front politics of John Rees and Lindsey German are inexorably leading to the most reactionary conclusions.