Letter to Members of the House of Lords

The text of a letter sent to Members of the House of Lords

Friday 28th January 2005

The proposed offence of “incitement to religious hatred” in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

As Britain’s most senior writers’ organisation, English PEN is writing to state its profound opposition to the proposed new law of incitement to religious hatred. On behalf of PEN’s members and other writers for book, screen and stage, we are deeply concerned that the proposed legislation will gravely undermine both freedom of speech and the long-standing climate of tolerance which has historically allowed so many diverse cultural and religious groups to coexist peacefully in Britain.

Recent events – last December’s riot by Sikhs in Birmingham that forced the closure of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti, the orchestrated outrage of Christian evangelists against the BBC’s screening of Jerry Springer: the Opera – already show a connection between the government’s well-publicised proposal and a worsening climate of tolerance. We are promised by the Home Office that it expects “very few” prosecutions under the new law and that ordinary citizens will be safeguarded because prosecution will be at the attorney-general’s discretion. We are also promised that “creative endeavours” are not the target. But once this legislation enshrines the right not to be offended as a moral principle, there will be no way to maintain freedom of expression, particularly since, as leading lawyers have pointed out, they will be unable to advise clients because they will not be able to know whether a book, script, sketch or film might be prosecuted. Many writers – and artists, cartoonists, comedians, publishers, theatre managements and others – will then feel forced into self-censorship. The proposed law states that an offence will have been committed if written material incites “religious hatred” in “any person”, and although the Home Office claims that authors will not be prosecuted if they did not clearly intend to incite religious hatred, those who do not censor themselves will still have to work in fear not only of legal action by anyone acting in the name of religion, but of violence by all those ready to exploit this new principle.

English PEN speaks for writers, and the world is not only composed of writers. But opposition to this legislation also comes from many other quarters. Apart from 300 signatories, of many creeds and none, to a letter sent by PEN to the Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Home Secretary a fortnight ago

  • in the past month 3 senior lawyers have expressed serious objections to the law’s content and possibility of enforcement: David Pannick QC in an article in The Times on January 11 (attached) describes the Bill as based on a “false premise” that race and religion should be treated in the same way and writes that “there is no case for further restricting the freedom of expression”

  • Helena Kennedy QC has stated that the proposed law is misconceived and she has warned the Islamic Human Rights Commission that they might be the first to suffer from the existence of such a law, since it could also be used against them in attacks against their own teaching

  • Robin Bynoe of Charles Russell writes that “the message is not in the least clear. More importantly, as we have seen in the few weeks since this legislation was mooted, the message has the effect of raising expectations among the paranoid and is therefore inflammatory. In other words, the Bill itself will stir up racial and religious hatred”

  • many moderate Muslims are against the law, seeing it as divisive and likely to cause or legitimise intolerance in certain Muslim quarters for the non-Muslim world

  • Kenan Malik in the February issue of Prospect magazine writes that “in practice the law could be a nightmare to enforce. Every Muslim leader I have spoken to wants to use the law to ban The Satanic Verses. Malik, a Muslim, also writes that “Having encouraged exaggerated fears about anti-Muslim prejudice, and led Muslims to believe that the new law has been designed to meet their concerns, ministers might find it difficult to dampen Muslim demands. The current view of the courts is that any material that encourages public disorder can be seen as inciting racial or religious hatred. So the new law may actually establish an incentive to create public disorder as disgruntled groups attempt to censor what they regard as offensive. The scenes in Birmingham outside the Sikh play Behzti may be repeated many times.”

The new law is also unnecessary. Its objectives are already met by the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which contain specific offences comprising harassing or putting people in fear of violence that are “racially or religiously aggravated”. The proof that the existing legislation has teeth lies in the conviction 4 years ago of the BNP member Mark Norwood after he placed a poster in his window with a picture of the World Trade Center in flames and the words “Islam out of Britain”.

It is clear from our meeting with Fiona MacTaggart of the Home Office that she does not consider that Gurpreet Bhatti could be charged under this proposed Bill, nor that the composer and librettist of Jerry Springer the Opera or the BBC could be found guilty of incitement to religious hatred. But laws outlive governments; and we also feel that this government’s failure unequivocally to support these artists is of itself a disturbing sign that those who are advocating this Bill have not made the defence of free speech a priority.

There are religious groups in this country which believe that this law will offer the same protection to religions other than Christianity as those afforded by the blasphemy law. We support unreservedly the right of all the citizens of England and Wales to be protected by the law from hostile behaviour. But we do not believe that this Bill offers this protection, and believe that instead it will curtail free speech, encourage self-censorship and create more tension among the religious and non-religious communities of this country, not less.

Yours sincerely,

Lisa Appignanesi, Deputy President English PEN, Chair “Offence” campaign

Julian Evans, English PEN “Offence” campaign

And the PEN “Offence” Campaign including Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and 300 other leading writers

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/aboutenglishpen/campaigns/offence/archiveofnews/lettertomembersofthehouseoflor/

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