If a proposed legislation can be both well-meant and ill-conceived, then the proposed new law against 'incitement to religious hatred' is both. The government's main motivation seems to be a concern about community relations post-9/11 (a position articulated by the Guardian's Mad Bunting), and some Muslim leaders have strongly advocated for it. The Home Office's aim is to "attack extremism and hatred wherever it occurs" (Blunkett), but I reckon this law would be as a sledgehammer to a nut, with blowback. It may even protect the extremists while criminalizing the truthtellers.
Charles Moore in the Telegraph writes challengingly, and Matthew Parris, in the Times, thought-provokingly, on the proposal. Parris points out that the more cultic the group, the more it will seek this law's protection.
There is a huge danger at the centre of the thinking which grounds this measure. What counts as hateful depends very much on the sensitivities and tolerances of the complainant. As we never tire of reminding ourselves, you can get away with verbal aggression towards Christianity which would be considered unacceptable if directed towards Islam. It follows that the less tolerant any religious group is of criticism or mockery, the greater the protection the proposed new law will offer them. But these may be the very faiths or sects which ought to be confronted — confronted and attacked for the very intolerance and self-righteousness which, if this measure becomes law, will be adduced as evidence of their “sensitivity”. [...]
Religion can bully, it can cow, it can coerce. One of the ways it does so is by impressing upon its adherents the idea that none dare offend it, twit it or tweak its tail. Such sects or faiths cast a spell — cultural, even political, as well as theological — over their adherents. Such spells must be broken. A necessary weapon in the hands of those who would do so is ridicule, contempt and the power of real anger. Ask Voltaire: scorn, laughter, calumny and abuse are vital to those who confront bullies.
There are existing laws to protect people from defamation, and incitement to violence is a crime, etc. The Home Office's explanations for the new law's necessity aren't at all convincing.
- The HO argues that there's already a law against inciting racial hatred, which protects Jews and Sikhs, and the new law would expand protection to Muslims, Christians, etc. But why should Jews and Sikhs be protected by race-hatred laws? Some Sikhs are Westerners (e.g.), those followers of the late Yogi Bhajan. And isn't Judaism a religion? And Madonna (sorry, Esther) now considers herself to be Jewish - should she be protected by race-hatred laws? (No.)
- The HO says that it's criminalizing incitement to hatred of believers, not their beliefs. But believers embody and act out their beliefs. Some quasi-religious groups teach their members to lie, deceive, steal, even kill, all for a higher purpose, of course. Their beliefs aren't really a problem until they get acted out and when others get hurt. The HO's distinction is artificial and unhelpful.
- The HO doesn't define what a religion is, which means that rapacious cults which style themselves as religions will have more protection under the new law than before, while their critics will get even less.
Anyway, I hope the legislation gets voted down.