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Incitement of Religious Hatred Speech to Lords by Keith Porteous
Incitement of Religious Hatred Speech to Lords by Rowan Atkinson
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Rowan Atkinson Speaks to
the Lords 25.1.05
I am here to plead the case in opposition to a law of Incitement of
Religious Hatred on behalf of those who make a living from creativity:
those whose job it is to analyse, to criticise and to satirise. Authors,
journalists, academics, actors, politicians and comedians. All of whom,
the government claim, need have no concerns about the legislation but
as the arguments both for and against the measure have evolved, I believe
that these reassurances are a politically motivated fiction.
I question the legislation and the thoughts behind it for the following
Firstly, the governmentís belief that the measure will promote racial
tolerance. Now racial tolerance may sound a pretty inarguable notion.
Unfortunately, what is very arguable is the definition of the term -
the definition of a tolerant society. Is a tolerant society one in which
you tolerate absurdities, iniquities and injustices simply because they
are being perpetrated by or in the name of a religion and out of a desire
not to rock the boat you pass no comment or criticism? Or is a tolerant
society one where, in the name of freedom, the tolerance that is promoted
is the tolerance of occasionally hearing things you donít want to hear.
Of reading things you donít want to read. Where it is encouraged to
question, to criticise and if necessary to ridicule any ideas and ideals
and then the holders of those ideals have an equal right to counter-criticise,
to counter-argue and to make their case. That is my idea of a tolerant
society - an open and vigorous one, not one that is closed and stifled
in some contrived notion of correctness.
I question also the ease with which the existing race hatred legislation
is going to be extended simply by the scoring out of the word "racial"
and the insertion of "racial or religious hatred" as if
race and religion are very similar ideas and we can just bundle them
together in one big lump. When it seems clear to me and to most people
that race and religion are fundamentally different concepts, requiring
completely different treatment under the law. To criticise people for
their race is manifestly irrational but to criticise their religion,
that is a right. That is a freedom. The freedom to criticise ideas -
any ideas - even if they are sincerely held beliefs - is one of the
fundamental freedoms of society and a law which attempts to say you
can criticise or ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas
is a very peculiar law indeed. It promotes the idea that there should
be a right not to be offended, when in my view, the right to offend
is far more important than any right not to be offended, simply because
one represents openness, the other represents oppression.
Thirdly, I question the inarguable nature of the phrase "religious
hatred", afforded by the use of the highly emotive word "hatred".
So I thought I would modify the name of the proposed measure, by changing
the terminology but retaining the meaning and use the dictionary definition
of the word hatred, which is: intense dislike. Incitment of Religious
Intense Dislike. Isnít it strange how that small change makes it seem
a much less desirable or necessary measure? I then found my self asking
a strange question. What is wrong with encouraging intense dislike of
a religion? Why shouldnít you do that, if the beliefs of that religion
or the activities perpetrated in its name deserve to be intensely disliked?
What if the teaching or beliefs of the religion are so out-moded, hypocritical
and hateful that not expressing criticism of them would be perverse?
The government claim that one would be allowed to say what you like
about beliefs because the measure is not intended to defend beliefs
but believers. But I donít see how you can distinguish between them.
Beliefs are only invested with life and meaning by believers. If you
attack beliefs, you are automatically attacking those who believe the
beliefs. You wouldnít need to criticise the beliefs if no-one believed
I also take issue with the consultation process. After the initial failure
to get the law passed in 2001, the government then engaged in a consultation
process, involving a House of Lords Select committee and I believe another
forum in which it was discussed, to arrive at a new version of the measure
that was launched last autumn. And what I find extraordinary is that
the government is so wedded to the notion that nobody other then the
most rabid fascists could possibly fall foul of this legislation, that
the consultation process didnít include anyone from the creative community.
Many organizations were consulted in the drafting of this legislation,
religious organizations, civil liberties groups, law enforcement people
but not one writer, not one journalist, not one academic, not one television
producer, theatrical producer, no actor, no comedian, basically nobody
whose work might be affected by it. How weird this denial of those concerns,
when the incident that most inspired those who have been seeking the
introduction of this legislation was the publication of a book. And
the most vociferous religious protests we have seen in Britain in the
last few months have been against a Sikh play and a televised opera.
Again, the government will say that these creative works are not the
intended targets of this legislation but that raises two issues. Firstly,
that many religious organizations think they are and they look forward
to wielding their influence to bring prosecutions. And if their ambitions
are thwarted, there is a high risk of a violent reaction. Secondly,
the government are unable to say that creative endeavours could not
possibly be targets. And the reason they canít give that degree of reassurance
is because creative endeavours clearly could. Comedy could. Newspaper
articles could. Theatrical plays could. The legislation is very simple,
very clear and very broad.
The government are relying entirely on the wisdom of the Attorney General
to protect people like me. It is this discretionary nature of the legislation
which is arguably the most disturbing thing about it. It allows the
government to rubbish the concerns of the creative community "You
have nothing to worry about" without offering any concrete reassurances
other than that the Attorney General will look after you. What kind
of reassurance is that? The Attorney General is not an independent adjudicator.
He is an instrument of government: what is politically expedient will
be his guide. As the 9/11 attacks in the United States showed, the political
agenda in any country can change in a matter of hours. Whoís to say
what his priorities are going to be in five days time, or five hours
time, or in five years time? The governmentís belief that religious
hatred legislation will work just like that of racial hatred is optimistic
in the extreme: the pressures in relation to religious hatred are going
to be on a completely different scale to that for race - the spread
of fundamentalism across a whole range of religions is going to make
the issue politically far more highly charged. And even if I had faith
that the Attorney General would bail me out in the end, what would I
have to go through first?
I donít particularly want to discover that my comedy revue has not,
after all, fallen foul of the legislation sitting in an interview room
in Paddington Green police station. I would like to know that I could
not possibly be put in that situation because of my criticism or ridicule
of religious ideas and by implication, those who follow those ideas.
And we now know that even the Attorney Generalís judgments can be subjected
to judicial review. Where would it end?
I question also the notion that someone like me would have nothing to
worry about because of the wording in the measure that intent would
have to be proved: you would have to intend to incite intense dislike
to fall foul of the law. It may be that in some creative writing one
could claim a lack of intention "I didnít mean to offend, its
just that people took offence" but the very nature of a joke
is that it is not an accident. Itís a construct, a contrivance, it is
intended to hit home, to strike a nerve. A joke is a deliberate act.
Is it an unacceptable joke - an illegal joke - simply because you know
that people are going to be offended by it and potentially more disliked
as a result? .
However, we have to address the issues that have driven the government
to their current position. We have to sympathise and empathise with
the most conspicuous promoters of this legislation, certain British
Muslims and I appreciate that this measure is an attempt to provide
comfort and protection to them but unfortunately it is a wholly inappropriate
response far more likely to promote tension between communities than
tolerance. Because there is a bigger picture. The defence of intellectual
curiosity, the right to criticise ideas, whatever form they have and
the right to ridicule the ridiculous, in whatever context it lies. These
ramifications are being denied by the government because it is politically
expedient for them to do so but I have been reassured by nothing I have
seen, heard and read.
I donít doubt the sincerity of those who are seeking this legislation
but I do question the governmentís enthusiasm for it so close to a General
Election, an enthusiasm that must be rooted in their belief that this
measure could help their cause in some marginal constituencies with
large religious populations, many of whom are critical of the governmentís
prosecution of the war in Iraq. It seems a shame we have to be robbed
permanently of one of the pillars of freedom of expression because itís
needed temporarily to shore up a wobbling edifice elsewhere.