Policy and Politics: War of words on Religious Hatred Bill

The British Muslim Council is defending the controversial Bill, writes Francois Le Goff.

The British Muslim Council has denounced as "ridiculous" and "dishonest" claims by Liberty and the British Humanist Association that the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill would undermine freedom of speech.

Liberty argues that the term "incitement to religious hatred" could be taken to include all criticism of religious ideas and practices rather than specifically targeting incitement to hatred against believers.

But the British Muslim Council claimed that the Bill, which entered its second reading in the House of Lords yesterday, aims to protect believers and not beliefs. "This was clearly reiterated by the Attorney General a few days ago," said spokesman Imayat Vunglawala. He dismissed Liberty's claim that the proposed law could be used to prosecute Islamic clerics.

"This is ridiculous because it implies that Muslims should be exempt," said Vunglawala. "We believe that anyone who makes religious hatred comments should be prosecuted, whatever their religion."

He also accused Liberty of making a dishonest comparison between the Bill and a new law in Australia that has prompted a series of prosecutions between religious groups. He said that, unlike in Australia, the UK Bill does not prohibit comments ridiculing religion. In his view, the Bill is essential because it ensures equality between groups such as Jews and Sikhs, which are already protected by law, and Muslims.

But the British Humanist Association argues that the wording of the Bill needs to be tightened up so that it protects people rather than beliefs.

"Religions have powerful organisations that exercise power far outside the realm of religion, influencing social attitudes and policies," said Hanne Stinson, executive director of the British Humanist Association.

"This controversial influence must be open to uninhibited criticism where necessary." The charity says that in order to prevent religious organisations using the Bill to deflect criticism, the words "religious hatred" should be replaced by "hatred against persons based on their membership of a religious group".

The association proposed a number of amendments that it says the Government has repeatedly rejected. "If the amendments we have proposed, including the abolition of the blasphemy law, are not accepted, then we shall oppose the Bill most vigorously and urge humanists and others in both Houses of Parliament to do so," said Stinson.

The Bill is likely to be massively opposed by Conservatives and Liberal Democrat peers, who warn that it would create a climate of censorship.

The Government first tried to introduce laws banning religious discrimination in 2001, but the House of Lords blocked the proposals. The offence created by the present Bill carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail.

FACT FILE

The British Humanist Association wants to:

- Clarify the Religious Hatred Bill by changing the phrase 'religious hatred' to instead read 'hatred against persons based on their membership of a religious group'

- Define a religious group to include followers of non-religious beliefs

- Increase safeguards where the incitement is not intended.

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