Religious hate law: A threat to free speech? Barnabas Fund launches new compagian. PCP Report.


UK. September 4, 2004.Barnabas Fund has today launched a major campaign raising concerns onlaws proposed by the British government to ban incitement to religioushatred. The Fund echoes the fears of many senior lawyers, MPs, peers, human rights groups and civil liberties organizations who believe such laws could pose a major threat to free speech. Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that the government is planning to introduce a new law banning incitement to religious hatred “as soon as possible” in a speech on 7 July. The intention is to extend existing legislation banning incitement to racial hatred to cover religious groups as well in order to prevent crimes such as extreme right-wing organizations stirring up hatred against Muslims. However, critics of the law point out that existing legislation banning incitement to violence and other criminal acts already provides protection if enforced properly. They argue that in reality this new law could end up being used to prevent all reasonable debate and criticism of another person’s religion. Barnabas Fund is calling on its supporters to write to the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and their MP in order to raise these concerns now in preparation for when a bill comes before parliament. AUSTRALIAN PASTORS ALREADY VICTIMISED Fears that the law could be a major blow to freedom of speech are not based on speculation alone, but from direct evidence from Victoria, Australia, where two Christian pastors have already found themselves in court under a similar law after raising human rights concerns about Islamic teaching on a website and at a seminar. They are accused of stirring up hatred against Muslims despite the fact that both repeatedly emphasised that Christians should show nothing but love to Muslims. Far from creating a more tolerant society the case has seriously damaged religious harmony and community relations. One former prominent supporter of the law, Amir Butler, executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee, has now come out strongly against it. “All these anti-vilification laws have achieved is to provide a legalistic weapon by which religious groups can silence their ideological opponents,” he wrote in a recent article. COULD THE SAME THING HAPPEN IN THE UK? In the UK as well there are hints that at least some supporters of the law intend to use it not only to prevent incitement to religious hatred, but also to stifle legitimate criticism and debate. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze on 14 July Iqbal Sacranie, Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain, indicated that in his view any “defamation in the character of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)” should be illegal under the new law. Similarly when Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi faced media criticism when he came to speak to British Muslims in July for his views that suicide bombers can target women and children, men can beat their wives and homosexuals should be executed, Mayor of London Ken Living stone said that “this legislation is necessary”, not to prevent Dr al-Qaradawi from preaching such views, but for silencing those who criticise him for doing so. Speaking from his office in Pewsey Barnabas Fund’s director Dr Patrick Sookhdeo warned “The potential impact of this law is very grave indeed. With the best of intentions and a noble aim the government may inadvertently open the door to a serious restriction of free speech in the UK.”

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