|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): I oppose the Bill because I think it could amount to an almost mediaeval repression of free speech. I speak as a politician and a journalist who is accustomed to saying things that some people find inflammatory and offensive. I have been accused of offending whole cities in this country. I hope that that will prove to have been a chastening experience. I also hope that if I say anything inflammatory this evening, I will secure some protection from the fact that I am the first Member of Parliament for Henley whose paternal grandfather was a Muslim, or at least born a Muslim. How about that? I bet hon. Members did not know that.
It is hard to know where to begin my condemnation of the Bill, but I will begin with the motives behind it. We have heard that it is intended to combat the scourge of Islamophobia and the attacks on Muslims mentioned by Labour Members, which are said to have increased since 11 September 2001. The problem was taken so seriously by the European Commission that it commissioned a report. It discovered that in the four months following 11 September, there had been 12 serious attacks on British Muslims. Of course that is 12 attacks too many, but in the words of the excellent Asian-British journalist Kenan Malik, it does not in itself amount to a climate of vicious Islamophobia. According to the report's author, Chris Allen,
I do not want to minimise the problem, but I want the House to accept that we have come a long way since 1978, when violence against Asians was so alarming that 10,000 Bengalis marched from Whitechapel to Whitehall to protest about the murder of Altab Ali near Brick lane. There were 49 more such murders during the decade that followed. I believe that the problem of Islamophobia is in danger of being exaggerated, and that insofar as there is a real problem there is already plenty on the statute book to combat it.
21 Jun 2005 : Column 732
Throughout the debate, Members in all parts of the House have asked Ministers to produce a single example of something that would be banned under the Bill. Not a single example has been given, apart from one very feeble one. I hope that I was able to deal with that by pointing out that the amendment of the Public Order Act 1986 already prevents the commission of an offence of religious aggravation. There is already plenty of draconian stuff on the statute book.
Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): My hon. Friend may wish to consider a specific case. During the recent election campaign, a parliamentary candidate was attacked by a radical Islamic group, was decried for being a false prophet and was jostled and assaulted. That candidate is now the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway). Under the Bill, would the hon. Gentlemanwhom I do not understand to be of the Islamic faith, but who is very litigiousbe deemed to be a victim of incited religious hatred? Clearly that incident included hatred, religion and incitement. Would the hon. Gentleman be defended by the new law?
Mr. Johnson: It is obvious that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) already had plenty of protection under common law, if indeed he was jostled and attacked. The existing provisions are already draconian; why on earth are we producing a new Bill to outlaw incitement to religious hatred, thus eliding two notoriously foggy concepts, religion and hate, into a great cloud of muddle and misunderstanding? It has nothing to do with the needs of criminal justice and everything to do with politics, as Members throughout the House have already said. The Bill is the price that the country is paying in civil liberties for going to war in Iraq. It is of a piece with control orders and identity cards and is intended partly as a sop to communities that feel particularly oppressed by measures such as those. As the Solicitor-General recently wrote in The Muslim News, Muslims feel "betrayed" by the Iraq war. In the run-up to the last election, Labour decided that it needed to do something to appease those feelings. He went on:
"Iqbal Sacranie, general secretary of the Muslim council, asked Tony Blair to declare that the government would introduce a new law banning religious discrimination. Two weeks later, in his speech to the Labour party conference, Tony Blair promised that the next Labour government would ban religious discrimination. It was a . . . victory for the Muslim Community in Britain."
It was not a victory for common sense or free speech. It is not good enough to pretend, as Ministers do, that this is somehow the logical extension of laws against incitement to racial hatred. We have thrashed this out exhaustively in the Chamber today. It is obvious that there is a category difference between one's race, which is a question of nature, and one's religion, which is a matter of choice, conscience and belief.
If a religion is worth believing in, it ought to be strong enough to withstand the most scurrilous and monstrous attacks. If a religion is worth believing in, those assaults should diminish the critics and not the religion itself. Whether or not a religion is worth believing in, it is the sovereign right of every human being to say what exactly he or she thinks of it. No Labour Member has even begun properly to define a religion. One hon. Member stood up for the Jedi and said that he was a Jedi knight.
21 Jun 2005 : Column 733
No one was sure whether to take him seriously. There were embarrassed grins on the faces of Labour Members. How do they know that he is not in earnest when he says that he is a Jedi knight and that his faith deserves respect? If religion is a nebulous idea, so too is hatred.
I go back to the comments by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson). Suppose I were to say in the security of the Chamber that I believe that some interpretations of Islam have a barbaric penal code and that the treatment of women in many parts of the Muslim world is shameful? Am I thereby inciting hatred of that religion, or extreme dislike? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, it depends entirely on the perception of the listener. This is the key point: in the post-Macpherson world, we all know that, in determining whether or not an offence has been committed, the police and the courts are bound to place ever more weight on the perceptions of those who take offence.
Let me put this as tactfully as I can. Despite the best efforts of the ecumenists, we live in a world of mutually antagonistic faiths. We have heard representatives of various faiths in the Chamber this evening. They do not merely advertise the exclusive benefits of their own paths to salvation. They also indulge in a great deal of negative campaigning, in the manner of soap brands, or indeed political parties, against their main rivals.
This Bill explicitly interdicts the incitement of religious hatred, where that means hatred of a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief. Since the Bill is intended primarily, according to Labour Members, to offer protection to Muslims, let me now read certain excerpts from the Koran. I invite the Minister to intervene, to help me out and to guide my faltering footsteps in this matter. I invite him to imagine that I am an imam or a mullah. I must apologise to any Muslims who may be listening or watching. I hope that it will be obvious that the quotations I am about to give are intended not in any way to be disrespectful to the holy Koran but to make a point about the logic, or absence of logic, of the Bill. Here is the Koran on those with a lack of correct religious belief:
"As for the unbelievers, for them garments of fire shall be cut and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatever is in their bowels and skins shall be dissolved and they will be punished with hooked iron rods."
On Jews, it says[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) agree that this amounts to incitement to hatred against certain people on the grounds of their religious belief? I take it from her silence that she does. On the subject of the Jews, the Koran says:
"Because of the wickedness of certain Jews, and because they turn many from the way of god we have forbidden them good and wholesome foods which were formerly allowed them; and because they have taken to usury, though they were forbidden it; and have cheated others of their possessions, we have prepared a grievous punishment for the infidels amongst them."
"Why don't their rabbis and doctors of law forbid them from uttering sinful words and eating unlawful food? Evil indeed are their works. The hand of god is chained up cry the Jews. Their own hands shall be chained up and they shall be cursed for saying such a thing.
I think that you will agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that is pretty strong stuff. I see the Minister scratching his head. I do not see him leaping to his feet to elucidate whether he believes that that is inflammatory and inspirational of hatred against the believers of those religions. I would like him to explain to us all here and now why and how he thinks the repetition of those words in a public or private place does not amount to incitement to religious hatred of exactly the kind that the Bill is supposed to ban. If this Bill is to make any sense at all, it must mean the banning of the reading of such things in public or in private, which is absurd and paradoxical, given that it is intended to be a protection against xenophobia. If it does not mean the banning of the repetition of such phrases, it is nonsensical and should be scrapped.
Let us be clear about the implications. If the Bill is to have any force at all against such blatant incitements, if we will be able to continue to insult other people's religions, and if the Attorney-General will never be able to use this law in the way that some in this House have continually suggested, that in itself will be counter-productive, because this law's very existence on the statute book will provoke disorder and unrest. In other words, this Bill would encourage censorship
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|