Dated 11th May 2005.
Dear Charles Clarke,
May we, first of all, extend our congratulations to you on your re-election to Norwich South and to your re-appointment as Home Secretary.
Your response to our letter asking you to reconsider the matter of the proposed legislation on incitement to religious hatred has by some vagary of the postal system just reached us.
We take great heart from your last paragraph which says that you will continue the dialogue with faith groups and groups of no faith. We trust that this means that there will be no rush to legislation and that the ongoing dialogue will include writers and members of the creative industries.
The legislation, whatever the government’s intent, touches us nearly. This is clear not only from religious protests about Jerry Springer: The Opera, Behzti and indeed the continuing mention from your own benches of The Satanic Verses. It is also evident in the many public discussions we have held and participated in on the subject of religious sensitivity and free expression. Passions are running high and the reach of the legislation is misunderstood.
Many within the Muslim communities really do think of it as an extension of the blasphemy law which could be used to gag any representation of Islam in literature. Given this, the legislation would inevitably be tested in the courts and would end up fanning hatreds and illiberality. This would be to move backwards rather than forwards. A religious incitement clause could easily exacerbate tensions and pit the faiths against each other as similar legislation has done in Australia. Indeed, the experience of other countries has shown ‘that censoring hate from public discourse only banishes it to more deadly fora.’
We hope you understand that PEN’s is a no knee-jerk secularist reaction to religious sensitivities, no movement of ‘spoiled by free-speech writers who want absolute freedom to offend’. Many amongst us are deeply taxed by anti-muslim sentiment and expression. A good number of our members are themselves Muslim and well understand the need of believing Muslims to feel included in a society which still contains an antiquated blasphemy law.
Respected legal opinion has argued that there are enough laws on the statute books to cover ‘religiously aggravated’ crimes. Our 800 strong membership feels that there are far better ways to promote inclusion and respect than by tossing away our liberty of expression, which is one of our most cherished and long fought-for liberties.
Given that your constituency contains the premier creative writing programme in the country, that your speech to the first New Writing Partnerships conference last year evoked the importance of the creative industries, we very much hope that you will include English PEN (which numbers amongst its 800 members many of UEA’s star graduates) in the ongoing dialogue you propose; and that the incitement legislation will not find its way into the Queen’s Speech before this dialogue has taken place.
Lisa Appignanesi (Deputy President English PEN)
And the members of English PEN.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/aboutenglishpen/campaigns/offence/archiveofnews/letterfromlisaappignanesideput/