I never thought I would find myself agreeing with Nick Griffin of the British National Party, but he should never have been prosecuted for what he said about Islam. The trial has been a massive propaganda victory for the BNP; it has turned Griffin into the people’s fascist, the acceptable face of racism.
Griffin’s comments were vile, inflammatory, unthinking and stupid. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have been allowed to express them. The test of freedom is the extent to which you can tolerate the expression of ideas which you despise.
George Orwell said that if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. And I’m afraid that there are passages in the Qur’an which could be construed as evidence that Islam is a “vicious, wicked faith” as Griffin put it. Women and homosexuals get a particularly rough deal, and non-Muslims are considered sub human. But you can find similar sentiments in the Old Testament of the Bible, which advocates genocide as a means of destroying rival religions.
It would be absurd to prosecute preachers of either holy book for stirring up religious or racial hatred; the hatred comes with the faith. It is similarly absurd to try to prosecute someone for emulating or replicating this discourse of intolerance, which is what Griffin was accused of. Indeed, the BNP’s romantic, English racialism is itself a kind of religion.
Griffin’s remarks about black paedophiles and Asian rapists were also offensive, and wrong, as was his colleague, Mark Collett's description of asylum seekers as “cockroaches”. However, these were not all that different from the kind of sentiments you find in the tabloid press during its frequent bouts of moral panic. Calling people names is nasty, but it shouldn’t be illegal. There are other ways of dealing with racial prejudice than throwing the law at them.
The dangers of the new censorship regime being promoted by this government are now plain to see. By trying to impose correct thinking, laws against religious hatred simply end up turning bigots into moral champions, martyrs to free speech. If Tony Blair’s Religious Hatred Bill had been passed last week unamended by the Commons, Griffin would almost certainly be facing a prison sentence, which would have made him even more of a popular hero.
The new law would have made it illegal, not just to incite religious hatred - which is already illegal - but to abuse or ridicule religion. It would probably have made it illegal to reproduce in Britain those Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad which have aroused the wrath of muslim fundamentalists across the globe. It would have made Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” illegal too, at least that is the view of Iqbal Sacranie of the British Council of Muslims who campaigned for the bill.
This constituted as serious an assault on freedom of speech as we have seen in Britain, outside wartime, in the last hundred and fifty years. We should all be glad that the original Religious Hatred Bill is dust, and aware of our debt to the House of Lords for destroying it. As amended by the Lords it is now only illegal under the act to abuse religion if you can show that it was intended to threaten people.
The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, wasted no time in accepting the new bill, to the evident relief of many Labour MPs. But what was a secular party like Labour doing in the first place trying to suppress freedom of speech? Why is Tony Blair so keen on censorship? Why does a social democratic government want to insulate religion from criticism or satire? How is it left to the BNP and the unelected Lords to defend free speech?
Had it not been for the farce of Tony Blair failing to turn up for his own vote, we would have found ourselves with legislation more typical of Bahrain than Britain. Not so much a chilling of free speech as a deep freeze.
We need more freedom to criticise religion not less. We need the right to abuse, traduce, slander and lampoon religion - all religion - just as we require the right to abuse and slander atheists, communists, creationists, Darwinists, saints and Bob Geldoff.
Nor should it be an offence to poke fun at different races. It’s not nice to hear Scots accused of being mean, dour drunks - but it shouldn’t be illegal. Yet under the existing laws, a Scottish councillor was fined for calling someone a “Welsh boyo”. That’s thought control.
Yet, it was disturbing to see commentators in the supposedly free-thinking Guardian last week suggesting that Westerners didn’t have the right to attack Islam. It was even more alarming to hear Stewart Lee, the stand up comedian and author of “Gerry Springer the Opera”, saying on BBC’s Today that comedians did not have the right to make fun of the Prophet because “they don’t understand Islam”. I don’t understand Orange Protestantism, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t laugh at Mason Boyne.
The Independent newspaper said the Danish Prophet cartoons were disrespectful to Muslims and that responsible media should avoid insulting peoples' beliefs. Well, papers like the Indie and the Guardian make fun of democracy every day by portraying George Bush as a chimp and Tony Blair as demented, but no one would suggest that Steve Bell should be gagged because he is insulting democracy. The Independent made things worse by advising its readers to look the cartoons on the internet, as if in some way, they were cleansed by the web.
I’m afraid that the hysterical and blood curdling response of much of the Muslim world does indicate that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark - and it isn’t the Danish cartoons. For so many Muslims to take such grievous offence betrays a profound insecurity. A great religion, which Islam undoubtedly is, should be above satire. Threatening death to cartoonists, burning flags and threatening Danish citizens abroad, is childish emotionalism, out of all proportion to the alleged insult to the faith.
And I know that it is considered sacrilege to depict the Prophet, let alone show him with a bomb as a skull. Fair enough. It might be wrong to give such offence were Westerners to publish the cartoons in Iran or Saudi Arabia. But religious people simply have to accept that there are people in the world who don’t share their faith, don’t have their irrational sensibilities and consider liberty to be more important than the risk of giving insult.
I’m afraid that the forecasts of a class of civilisations my be coming coming true. There are some issues on which it is simply impossible to compromise, and freedom of speech is one of them. A handful of indifferent cartoons has forced Europe and the Muslim world to confront a profound philosophical difference between their respective cultures. I’m not sure where this goes now.
But one thing is certain, it won’t be resolved in the courts. I don’t know what is worse, the historian David Irving being charged in Austria with Holocaust denial for a speech he made 17 years ago; the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza on trial in London for inciting racial hatred; or the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision to retry the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, on the same charges. This way madness lies