LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
The Hindu, 25 December
Two pieces of legislation currently wending their way through Britain’s Parliament illustrate how the war on terror is being used to dismantle the very freedoms it’s supposed to secure. Both criminalise the expression of ideas and neither is likely to deal effectively with the problem it purports to address. They are opportunistic gambits, characteristic of a government whose moralistic bombast is in inverse proportion to the morality of its behaviour.
In the wake of the July 7th London bombings, the Labour government introduced yet another anti-terror bill (its third in five years). So extreme were its provisions that even normally supine backbench Labour MPs rebelled. A proposal to allow police to detain terrorist suspects without charge for up to 90 days was defeated – though the compromise measure allowing 28 days detention still represented a doubling of the existing limit.
Even in its amended form, the bill contains an insidious clause creating a new offence of “encouragement of terrorism” which will outlaw any statement that “glorifies” terrorism. Speeches, books, films, DVDs, CDs, websites, “images” as well as words, will all be subject to the new ban, which will apply to the “glorification” of either specific terrorrist acts or “acts of terrorism in general”, “whether in the past, in the future or generally”, and whether or not the “glorification” was intentional or inadvertent. Those who publish or disseminate offensive statements are as liable as those who make them.
Given the government’s murky definition of terrorism (the use or threat of violence “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause”, whether in the UK or abroad), the range of statements that could theoretically fall foul of the new law is alarming. Verbal support for the Iraqi resistance or for the Palestinian intifada. Any laudatory account of the Zionist bombing campaign against the British in the 1940s or of Nelson Mandela’s courtroom defence of his right to use violence against the apartheid regime in the 1960s. A poster of Malcolm X with his slogan “by any means necessary”. A Che Guevara tee-shirt. Celebrations of Bhagat Singh, whose birth centenary falls in 2007. A film, song or work of fiction that offers a sympathetic portrait of a suicide bomber.
In reality, the most likely targets of the legislation are Muslim extremists, the “preachers of hate” highlighted by the British media. The rhetoric deployed by these people is loathsome, but it has as much right to protection as other offensive, irresponsible or idiotic discourses. If the law is passed and clerics who praise suicide bombers are arrested, Muslims will rightly ask why it is that those who “encourage” or “glorify” the slaughter of their co-religionists in Iraq and Palestine are not likewise charged.
The new clause will add nothing useful to the police’s armory. It is already a criminal offence to incite terrorism (incitement, unlike glorification, is an established and relatively well-defined legal concept). In fact, the bill is likely to feed the extremists, who will be able to portray themselves as martyrs to Western double-standards. The government knows all this but could care less. It is desperate to deny or obfuscate the connection between Britain’s participation in the Iraq war and the targeting of London. As is clear from the comments made by the bombers and people in their circle, the perpetrators were moved to mass murder not by anything they heard in a mosque but by what they saw on mainstream television.
While the government takes with one hand, it gives with the other, or so it would like the Muslim community to believe. In an attempt to stop the haemorrhage of Muslim voters alienated by war and attacks on civil liberties, New Labour is pushing, concurrently with its anti-terrorism package, a bill to outlaw “incitement to religious hatred”. Under this proposal, it will be an offence to utter or publish “threatening, abusive or insulting” statements (in any media) “likely to stir up religious hatred”. The offence would be committed regardless of the intent of the alleged perpetrator – so long as it could be shown that religious hatred was “likely in all the circumstances” to be stirred up.
While no one has the right to threaten or abuse individuals because of their religious affiliation, people do have the right to to criticise, even to mock or insult, any and all belief-systems. The proposed law fails to make that critical distinction. Under its provisions, it would be possible to make a case for the prosecution of a disturbingly wide array of books or films, from Tom Paine’s Age of Reason to Monty Python’s Life of Brian to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses to the Bible or indeed the Quran, both of which contain denunciations of non-believers. Periyar’s attacks on Hinduism would make him a serial violator. Self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy in any number of faiths could use the legislation to harass dissidents within their own communities. And it’s easy to see how it could be deployed against critics of Israel, who are routinely accused of fomenting anti-semitism.
No one should underestimate the hatred, violence and injustice poured on Muslims in the UK. They are subject to verbal and physical assaults. Their mosques are defaced. They are harassed by police. Members of their community are arbitrarily searched, arrested and detained. Their religion is distorted and vilified, not only in the right-wing anti-immigrant press, but also in more liberal organs. Routinely, the entire Muslim population is placed on trial and considered guilty until it proves itself innocent; Muslims are asked again and again to demonstrate their willingness to “integrate” and their commitment to “British values”.
It’s not surprising therefore that many within the Muslim community have welcomed the government’s religious hatred bill. Sadly, however, it will do nothing to relieve their distress. It will not curb the most powerful fomenters of Islamophobia – the state and the mainstream media. It will not increase anyone’s security from assault by bigots. There is already sufficient legislation on the books to enable police to act against anyone threatening or harassing people because they are Muslims or attacking Muslims as a group. What’s missing in most cases is the will to take action under the law. And what’s really needed to establish legal equality among believers and non-believers of every stripe is the abolition of the blasphemy laws – which protect only Christianity – and the disestablishment of the Church of England.
Both these bills use the pretext of real traumas – terrorist attack and religious hatred – to circumscribe the freedom of opinion with which the government is so evidently uncomfortable. They are attempts at managing appearances, ploys through which Blair and his cabinet seek to evade responsibility for the violence and bigotry spawned by their own policies.