Letter to the Prime Minister & Cabinet

Rt. Hon. Tony Blair

Prime Minister

10 Downing Street

London

SW1A 2AA

Wednesday, 19 January 2005

Dear Tony Blair,

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 profoundly concerned that the government’s proposed new law, in spite of good intentions, will seriously undermine not only freedom of speech but also the long-standing climate of tolerance which has historically allowed so many diverse cultural and religious groups to co-exist peacefully in this country.

Recent events – the riot in Birmingham last December that forced the closure of Gurpreet Bhatti’s play Behzti, the orchestrated reaction by Christian evangelists against the BBC’s screening of Jerry Springer: the Opera – are already showing a connection between the government’s well-publicised proposal and a worsening climate of tolerance. This legislation will leave writers – and artists, cartoonists, comedians, publishers, theatre managements and others – in fear not only of legal action by those acting in the name of religion or of religious groupings, but of violence by those ready to exploit this new climate of oppression.

We are writing to you as the Bill returns to standing committee this week to provide further evidence of opposition to the proposed new offence:

• English PEN now has 300 signatories of writers of many creeds and none to the letter it sent to the Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Home Secretary, last week

• 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 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”

• several leading lawyers who work with publishers and other media organisations have told PEN they are deeply opposed to the legislation, in particular the attorney general’s power of discretion which means that all lawyers asked for advice will say they do not know whether a book, script, sketch or film might be prosecuted. Thus self-censorship will set in, leading to less debate of every kind

• a similar law in Australia covering “religious vilification” has resulted in religions attacking each other in the courts, and it seems possible that the British law will equally backfire on exactly the groups this government is trying to protect

• Kenan Malik in this month’s Prospect (February) 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, who is 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”

Opposition to the proposed legislation is strong, and growing. 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”.

English PEN does not encourage the giving of offence. But if free expression is to mean anything, it must include the right to criticise and take to task. Offence is an easy emotion: one can feel offended many times a day, sometimes by politicians, sometimes by religious leaders. But we would not choose to silence them by legislation. Turning the radio off will do, or choosing not to see a given play. It’s worth remembering that if religious leaders had their way, we would have little art and less literature. In this respect, the Papal Index makes salutary reading: it has banned every great offender from Voltaire to Flaubert to James Joyce. On their side, some Jews have objected to Philip Roth and Joseph Heller, while some Muslim clerics have been so severely offended by the fictions of Salman Rushdie and Naguib Mahfouz as to issue fatwas against them, to the distress of other Muslims.

Freedom of expression is a right balanced in this country by an equal right to peaceful protest. Interfere with this balance, and it will quickly be replaced with a dangerous imbalance of self-censorship on the one hand and violence on the other. What every citizen of this country needs – Muslims and non-Muslims alike, writers and non-writers – is not more legislation to curtail free speech but the clearest signal from government that it remains ready to defend democracy and its many virtues, including freedom of faith and freedom of expression.

Yours sincerely

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

Julian Evans, English PEN “Offence” campaign

Hanif Kureishi

Ian McEwan

Salman Rushdie

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

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