Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill

My Lords

 

I wish to begin my brief intervention in this debate by identifying with the Government’s desire to oppose any form of hatred of others in British society. I echo the Government’s intention to strengthen social cohesion and deepen harmony among the different and rich communities that express multi-cultural Britain. This is an honourable aim and one, as I have said, with which I completely identify. 

However, I have to say that I am troubled by the Bill before us and feel that, rather than strengthening the social fabric of our society, it will lead to weakening it. Indeed, it has the potential to drive a wedge between Muslim communities and the rest of us. 

My Lords, my commitment and interest in inter-faith harmony and co-operation is well known. It began when, as an airman in Royal Air Force in Iraq in the 50’s, I encountered Islam for the first time. This interest has continued down the years and I have built up many friendships with Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and other faith leaders. I continue to be involved in inter-faith matters both in this country and abroad. I oppose this bill not out of any lack of sympathy or affection for those of other faiths – but because the bill is unclear, endangers civil liberties and raises unrealistic expectations. 

Central to law-making is clarity. A bill should explain what it is seeking to do; definitions should be clear and explicit and there should be no confusion concerning its outcomes. I read the account of the debate in the House of Commons on June 21st and was amazed that the Secretary of State and others were unable to illustrate what gaps in present legislation would be plugged by this bill. Now, the Government may complain that we have wilfully shut our ears to their arguments, but at the very least, my Lords, we should know what are the offences that the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill seeks to address. Failure to do so with precision and clarity runs the risk of misunderstanding at the least, and abuse at the most. 

I have also said that the bill threatens civil liberties. British society is far from perfect but our nation is renowned for values associated with freedom to speak our mind, freedom to worship and share our faith with others, freedom to argue, debate and challenge accepted conventions. From many sections of our society - from actors and comedians, from church groups, from community leaders and many others - fears have been raised that free speech and critical argument will be muffled if this bill is ever implemented. The Government has already said that the Bill is intended to protect the minority Muslim community, as well as other faith groups. This is entirely laudable and I do understand the concerns that many good Muslims have (although I do want to remind the House that Jews are far more vulnerable in this country and Europe, than Muslims, and they are supposed to be protected by existing legislation!) 

Let give a personal example of the kind of confusion that might be created by this bill. Last Spring, in Rome, I gave a lecture opposing the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis presented by Prof. Huntington. In the course of the lecture I was critical of my own church, America, Israel in relation to the Palestinians and also critical of Muslim societies. Concerning the latter, I expressed my worries about lack of democracy in many Muslim countries, restrictions on freedom, and the failure of many Muslim leaders to condemn the theology behind suicide bombings. Outrage greeted these remarks from many Muslim leaders. I have been told that under this present Bill complaints could have gone to the Attorney General on the grounds of inciting religious hatred. I have no doubt that any careful reading of the lecture by a person of an open-mind would have led to the immediate dismissal of the complaint – but nevertheless valuable police time would have been taken up by that kind of uninformed complaint. I was even named alongside others such as Polly Toynbee for the so-called Islamophobe of the Year Award by the Islamic Human Rights Commission. The defensive ‘seeking-out-of offence’ by such fringe groups illustrates the potential divisiveness of this bill. I could just as easily imagine fringe groups from other faiths and beliefs monitoring sermons in mosques and churches in order to try and mount a complaint under this law.

And one of the problems that may arise from such complaints, is that those of a less robust nature than myself could be cowed into silence, and be afraid to make any sort of legitimate criticism of another person’s faith and creeds.  

My Lords, we are all concerned to build a stronger, fairer and more tolerant Britain. We do want other faith groups and other communities to belong. But, surely, there is an obligation on their part to integrate with our way of life; to love this culture which values freedom set within the strong framework of laws which defend and protect us all. My Lords, there are those of us in this House who wish to identify with the Government’s concern to protect minorities and eliminate hatred. However, we feel strongly that this bill is not the way forward. In our view it will only lead to confusion, misunderstanding and further division.

© George Carey