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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Sleepers Awake!

Legislation is going through Parliament at the moment to make an offence of "Incitement to Religious Hatred." The sense of decency which usually characterises the British temperament in these matters might lead one to assume that this was a rather obvious and uncomplicated matter. However, TV cameras outside the Mother of All Parliaments reveal an unusual assembly of evangelical Christians, atheists, and comedians. All feel that their legitimate freedom of expression would be curtailed by this legislation. The way things look, they may be right.

That was the situation earlier in the day. However, as I write this the vote from the Commons has hit the news. The Government has failed to set the bar on incitement at its preferred lower level of abuse, insult and reckless comment. This is a great relief. There must be provable intent to incite hatred for the law to apply. For the moment we are free to utter offensive comments about beliefs AND the persons holding those beliefs ... so it's open season on Iain Paisley again!

Richard Dawkins recently shared his views with millions of people on TV that "religion is the root of all evil." This deeply offended me as a Christian yet I wouldn't dream of curtailing his right to insult my faith, even recklessly without intention, (were that possible!). Are some opinions to be favoured above others? Who will judge what is insulting and what is not? The person aggrieved? With some over sensitive souls that can be like asking a hypochondriac to judge his own health. Ought we not to have the right to expect a certain degree of robustness on behalf of those who views and beliefs are attacked in public? Are not our deeply cherished freedoms, so dearly won through times of oppression and conflict worth more than the sensibilities of those who have a democratic right of rebuttal and response? Must we really countenance self censorship because we don't want to upset anyone? I really do hope not.

If this was the only example of Government heavy handedness in relation to freedom of speech that would be bad enough, but it is not. It is now unlawful to demonstrate within one kilometre of Parliament and under that law a woman was arrested recently for simply reading out a list of British servicemen and women who had been killed in Iraq. Obviously she was a very dangerous terrorist! The poor woman had actually informed the police in advance. One can only conclude that the Government simply finds contrary opinions to its own policies unacceptable and once again terrorism is a useful cover for that.

The only possible response to this attempt of the State to crack down on our freedoms is to exercise them even more robustly and freely. That will require a sea change in the attitudes of many British people who, frankly, after the 1980's have become politically quite passive. There are signs that many ordinary people are waking up to the threats to our freedoms ranging from legislation such as this to the ever encroaching reach of surveillance technology. Increasingly it is people precisely with beliefs that are leading this reaction. Far from being the opium of the people religion is proving to be its smelling salts. 'Sleepers awake' indeed!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A bit on the prophet of Islam's call for tolerance and honesty--taken by the way from a UK Islamic site.

Volume 5, Book 59, Number 369:
Narrated Jabir bin 'Abdullah:
Allah's Apostle said, "Who is willing to kill Ka'b bin Al-Ashraf who has hurt Allah and His Apostle?" Thereupon Muhammad bin Maslama got up saying, "O Allah's Apostle! Would you like that I kill him?" The Prophet said, "Yes," Muhammad bin Maslama said, "Then allow me to say a (false) thing (i.e. to deceive Kab). "The Prophet said, "You may say it."

I'll keep this in mind when I hear the English objecting to German and Austrian opposition to Turkey's EU entry bid.

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