Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 175-179)




  175. In parliamentary terms, good morning to you. Thank you very much for coming. I appreciate that we have asked you an awful lot of questions. I want to give both of you time to address any of them, but if, when we finish at half-past one, we have not reached things or you have not finished telling us everything you want to about a topic, please will you write it down and send it to us because we will then incorporate it as part of the submissions. I just do not want you to feel that you are frustrated by lack of time, too many questions and everybody chipping in. We really do want to hear what you have to say on all this, so feel free to write. I think it might be helpful if you would very briefly introduce yourselves for the record.

  (Revd Gorsky) I am Jonathan Gorsky. I am an orthodox Jew and I work for the Council of Christians and Jews as Educational Adviser. A brief note of introduction about the CCJ: it was set up in 1942 to promote better relations between Christians and Jews and that is obviously of great relevance to the subjects to be discussed today.
  (Mr Pearce) My name is Brian Pearce. I worked for a number of years in the civil service. I now work as Director of the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom, a body that I was involved in helping to bring into being, which came into formal existence in 1987. We are an organisation which links member bodies; we have no individual membership. We ave organisations in membership which are representative bodies of the main faiths in the United Kingdom; of national inter faith organisations, including the Council of Christians and Jews; local inter faith groups and councils in different parts of the UK (which are not branches of the Network but belong to us in their own right); and a variety of educational and academic bodies. We take care not to purport to speak on behalf of the faith communities but rather to facilitate their involvement in public life as well as working to promote mutual understanding and respect. We did not submit a piece of written evidence to the Committee but I was very glad to respond to the invitation to attend this hearing. The Network has been interested in these issues for quite some time. It was only a couple of years after the Network was established when there was the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses, and that led us to hold two joint seminars with the Commission for Racial Equality, looking at the blasphemy law and other related issues.

  176. As you probably will understand all too well, the set of questions has been divided up in accordance really with the two entirely separate aspects of Lord Avebury's Bill that got to second reading: first of all, the common law on blasphemy and blasphemous libel and, secondly, a list of statutory offences which were proposed for appeal, and then we will come on to incitement of religious hatred. The first group—and it may well be that you could combine these: Do you think the distinction between the dictionary definition of blasphemy and Lord Scarman's definition in the only recent case in the House of Lords is well understood? Is there any justification for a law which protects the sacred entities of Christianity and probably the Church of England only but no other religion? Is there any demand for the offence of blasphemy to be extended so that it applies to the sacred entities of all religions? It dose not matter if you deal with those questions together, but your views respectively on those would be very welcome.
  (Revd Gorsky) I will try to be very brief on the questions about blasphemy. I am not at all sure that the different definitions are well understood but, on surveying some of the material, I am struck by the changing definition over time of the notion of blasphemy which no doubt makes matters somewhat complicated. It seems to me that initially the notion was framed against the background of a fundamentally religious society, of a society that was possessed of a single faith, that that faith was the root of its political and moral behaviour, and, therefore, to challenge that faith or to offend against it was to strike a very serious blow against the fabric of political and moral society. Clearly, if we move to the present, that is no longer the case. Some of us might regret that it is no longer the case, but nevertheless that is so. The concerns that one reads of currently are matters of the preservation of the peace of the realm, which is a very different matter indeed from the early concerns. The concern, in other words, is not so much with our views of God as with the satisfactory state of society, which is reasonable but nevertheless a very different matter, and clearly Lord Scarman was operating out of the second sort of concern rather than the first. I think that is very important to note the great sociological change that has taken place in society over the centuries that this law has been in operation and that that might not be well understood, especially perhaps among certain religious communities. Very traditional communities continue inhabit the world of definition one—this is certainly true of some of my co-religionists and also, I gather, true of many in the Moslem community—and here we have a simple problem of perception. In terms of matters being well understood, that is a very profound problem, because it really depends where you are coming from as to how you perceive it. I think that is very important to pay attention to. With regard to other matters, it is very difficult, to have a law which protects what the question describes as the "sacred entities of Christianity" but does not offer similar protection to other faiths. One of the problems, of the law as it stands is that it is not only the law in question but its symbolic importance. It makes statements to different communities and someone of non-Christian community reading it might, rightly or wrongly, draw certain conclusions about the role of his or her faith in society by comparison with that of Christianity. A law that protects only Christianity, albeit understandable in terms of the history of this country and indeed its culture, nevertheless, is going to have certain consequences with respect to the composition of society today, a multi-faith society, so I think it would be very difficult to provide a justification for maintaining protection for Christianity alone. In terms of a demand for the offence to be extended, undoubtedly there have been requests that the offence of blasphemy be extended. One of the Chief Rabbis, I gather, made such a request—I do not think it would be stated as a demand—and I have heard from people in the Moslem community, likewise, that they feel the offence should be extended to include all faiths. Personally, I must say—and this is speaking for me personally and not on behalf of the entire Council of Christians and Jews, which is a little difficult because our 4,000 members are probably in considerable disagreement about those matters—that I am extremely dubious about the offence of blasphemy in the modern world. I feel rather more affinity, if you like, with the notion of religious hatred; that is, hatred directed against a particular group of people distinguished by their religion. Blasphemy seems to me to make sense within the ambit of a religious society. People who make certain observations about God do so within the context of a religious society, and, again, for better or for worse we no longer inhabit such a society and I do not see even an extension of the law of blasphemy really protecting the various communities today with respect to either the discrimination or hatred or whatever that they are suffering. I do not think a law of blasphemy would be of assistance. I would admit one exception to that; that is, of course, the case of Salman Rushdie, who might have been touched - and, again, that is debatable—but who presumably would not have been affected by a law of religious incitement or religious hatred. It would be very difficult to maintain that his book was an endeavour to incite religious hatred and it would fall rather more simply into the category of blasphemy. But I think that is a highly exceptional case and that the notions of discrimination with which I am familiar or the feelings of the religious communities when they are offended would not be alleviated, I think, by an extended law of blasphemy. With respect to the final question—again I can only speak from very limited knowledge—I personally am not aware of the law on blasphemy exercising a restraining influence on anyone at all, I am afraid, but that might be a deficiency in knowledge on my part.

  177. Could we come back perhaps later to the question of whether freedom of speech in the Salman Rushdie type of case is compatible with the offence of incitement of religious hatred, because that comes later in the list and I would like to hear you on that. Mr Pearce, would you like to deal with these together or would you rather deal with them separately.
  (Mr Pearce) I would be happy to deal with the questions collectively in relation to blasphemy, my Lord Chairman.

  178. The fourth one was: Is there a restraining influence from having the law?
  (Mr Pearce) Indeed. I would agree with a good deal of what Jonathan Gorsky has said. I think it might be worth saying that one of the roles which the Inter Faith Network tries to play is to encourage organisations in membership of the Network, including various representative bodies of the faith communities, to respond to situations such as the setting up of your Select Committee by offering evidence to help the Committee's deliberations. I know that some faith communities have already submitted evidence and that other communities are in the process of preparing that evidence. But, as Jonathan Gorsky said, of course there will be divergent views, not only between faith communities but among faith communities, but the evidence that you will be receiving will give you some broad sense, I would hope, of the position in different faith communities. At the time we were looking with the Commission for Racial Equality at the situation created by the controversy over The Satanic Verses, and looking at a variety of aspects of that, we looked at the work of the Law Commission looking at religious offences. Not surprisingly, the Muslim community at that time had been looking to see whether there were legal remedies to which they could resort in relation to that publication and therefore tried to use the law of blasphemy but unsuccessfully. It would be fair to say that among member organisations of the Network there were divergent views about the proper role of legislation in that area and the effectiveness of that legislation. I think it would also be fair to say that in broad terms there was a recognition that in a more religiously diverse society there was a case for saying that there should, as it were, be a level playing field in terms of the protection given to members of different faiths. I think also there was a recognition, which I think Jonathan Gorsky has already brought out in what he has said, that if one was seeking to frame legislation in this area to deal with the sensitivities of a variety of different faith traditions, it would be unlikely that one could achieve that by seeking, as it were, if one would like to use a simplistic phrase, to protect God rather than the godly; and that the issue was whether there was protection for the followers of different faiths and, of course, whether there was a wider social interest in that protection being offered of the kind to which Lord Scarman pointed. It might just be worth quoting from a summary of where we reached in our seminars: "There is now an increased recognition, partly as a result of recent controversies, of the importance of religious identity in a multi faith society. There is clearly a need for us to show respect for one another's most deeply held values, otherwise we shall undermine the possibility of our building a cohesive community with one another within our plural society. Whether through the law or by other means, we need to find the right balance between freedom and restraint in this vital aspect of our common life." I think that remains the issue, although, as has been said, the context has actually moved on since 1985, and we can perhaps come back to that when discussing incitement of religious hatred. I would just like to add one or two points. One is that, when in that seminar we were looking at whether there were options that might be followed in order to introduce some new legislative provision rather than simply abolishing the blasphemy law, a variety of possibilities were under consideration. It is true that incitement of religious hatred was one of those, but I would myself feel that the option of legislating, if you like, against vilification of different religious traditions, which was considered in those seminars, is perhaps a closer match to that which the blasphemy law is directed towards. I would also want to pick up the point which emerged from what Jonathan Gorsky said about the origins of the law. I think what was very interesting in the seminar discussion was the reflection on the extent to which the common law of blasphemy had developed almost as an extension of the law of treason, at a time when to be heretical was to be treasonable, and that was what the law was concerned with. So when the power of the monarch and the religious position which the monarch upheld became less closely intertwined, then the law of blasphemy became relatively less important. I think that is interesting when one looks at the Islamic tradition, where there is not the same concept of blasphemy although there is the concept of apostasy, which is in a sense treason in relation to the Islamic community. I am putting that in very simple terms and obviously it would be much better expressed by representatives from the Muslim community, but therefore the context when the law of blasphemy was developed is not the context that we have now. I think there are issues to consider, in terms of whether it is appropriate simply to abolish the blasphemy law without any replacement other than incitement of religious hatred. I would not want to offer a view one way or the other because I think it is a finely balanced argument. What I would just add—and it is relevant to the issue of incitement of religious hatred and other aspects of your area of study—is that I am aware that both governments and parliament are sometimes not attracted to the notion of what one might call declaratory law but I think that there is a very important role which law has in setting the framework for society and the way in which one hopes that people will interact with one another within society. I think that was the point behind Lord Scarman's often quoted observation.

  179. Just before I offer the opportunity to other members of the Committee to ask questions, did you ever formulate the vilification point which you have just mentioned?
  (Mr Pearce) There were various formulations which were discussed and considered and I would be very happy, if they are not already available to the Committee, to make available copies of our two seminar reports because I think they still contain a lot of useful material even though the context is somewhat different. I think the likelihood is that some faith communities at least will want to argue in favour of some additional protection, going beyond simply incitement of religious hatred, in the area of vilification and contempt.

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