– Freedom of expression is a defining ideal, but it also carries great responsibility. I believe we all have this obligation upon us: to think of what we are really saying, for we are living in a dark time. Karen Armstrong
Should incitement to religious hatred be deemed an offence, or is offence an inevitable part of living in a democratic society?
Together with the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), this month English PEN organised a panel discussion with six prominent contemporary thinkers to attempt to shed some light on the issues related to this most topical controversy. The British Government’s proposed legislation on incitement to religious hatred has been thrown into sharp relief by the recent protests and closure of the Bezhti play at Birmingham Rep in December 2004 and the furore surrounding the BBC’s January 2005 transmission of Jerry Springer the Opera.
The panel, made up of author Hari Kunzru, author and expert on Christianity and Islam Karen Armstrong, sociologist and writer Richard Sennett, Sher Khan, in charge of public affairs at the Muslim Council of Great Britain and writer and documentary maker Kenan Malik. Writer and English PEN Deputy President Lisa Appignanesi chaired the event.
I do not speak in favour of this legislation, because we cannot put breaks on the imaginations of writers, said Karen Armstrong. Furthermore, she cautioned that we are living in a dark time; the prejudice that blossomed in Europe in the 1930s could unfold today too.
Armstrong’s distancing of true religious feeling from religious hatred put her right at the centre of the panel and its deliberations: Self-assertive doctrinal statements come from the ego, not the heart, of the religion. Armstrong has found in her studies that radical extremisms grow where secular liberalism is also pushing to extremes: It is vital that we do not get too engrossed with “speaking our mind”, without learning to listen, was her urge to the audience.
Richard Sennett saw the proposed bill as a signal of civil society’s failure: We have to create a social milieu where people who incite to religious hatred feel shame. Sennett also pointed out that the roots of the racial hatred legislation, of which the religious hatred clause is billed as an extension, come from World War II: But when you look around in Europe, you see that in countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, there are real problems related to incitement and spread of racial hatred. These countries are at the same time the ones with some of the clearest anti-racial hatred laws.
Sennett sustained that laws are ineffectual and that the only way to deal with racial hatred is through the creation and upholding of a civil society. He added that by banning religious hatred, those inciting it would end up seeing themselves as victims instead of feeling ashamed.
To this, Sher Khan quoted Martin Luther King: “Laws don’t change the hearts of people, but it may restrain the heartless”: Numerous human rights bodies have demanded such legislation against incitement to religious hatred. Also, enforcement agencies support this, he said. He further argued that not having such legislation was in breach of Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The latter secures human rights for all peoples without discrimination, and the first defends freedom of expression while acknowledging the need for limitations to this freedom “in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.
The legislation’s aim will not be a high number of prosecutions, but to send a signal to society about what’s acceptable and what’s not, said Khan. He also pointed out the safeguards of the law: first a report to the police must be made, then the police, after conducting their investigations, must decide whether or not to pass it on to the Crown Prosecution Service, after which the CPS do an analysis. In the end, it might or might not get passed on to the Attorney General and end up in court with a random jury: It’s not like anybody can just pick up a phone and call their lawyer every time they feel a bit offended.
Kenan Malik argued that the proposed law made it seem like diversity needed special policing. Also, he stated that religion was a set of beliefs, like any other ideology, such as communism or conservatism, and thus: If beliefs that are open to rationality can be without protection, so should religion, said Malik. The writer and documentary maker also defended the right to lie, as he saw this as incorporated in the freedom of expression.
However, Karen Armstrong and Sher Khan argued against this, Armstrong saying that lies about, for instance, Muslims, made the whole debate muddier and darker, while Khan went further, asserting that there wasn’t an equality of access to the media in the UK: It’s like being in a cage. Nobody talks with you, but everybody talks about you. Lies are being circulated and we can’t counteract.
Malik maintained his position by saying that with a rule stating that “you can only tell the truth”, there would be no public discourse at all: When there are lies in the public debate, they should be exposed and the truth defended.
Hari Kunzru disputed the whole intention behind the proposed legislation, and said the proposition seemed like a carrot to the Muslim communities after 9/11 and the injustices perpetrated at Guantanamo Bay: It’s like they’re saying, ‘Sorry about the orange suits, guys. Here, have some respect’. Kunzru also pointed out how multiculturalism used to be a progressive set of ideas: Now it’s at risk of becoming a way to let cultural conservatives define culture. That’s what this legislation is about too; we let the loudest voices get a forum to be heard.
Our thanks to all the esteemed speakers on the panel as well as James Harkin and the ICA for making this fascinating evening possible.
In January 2005 English PEN initiated a campaign against the proposed legislation to ban incitement to religious hatred, backed by over 300 writers including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Monica Ali. Please click on OFFENCE to read more.
Report by Hadia Tajik
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/shouldreligioushatredbeanoffen/