Thursday, March 17, 2005


Theocracy on the March Pt. 1

Is 'persons' the plural of 'person'; or does it include 'communities'? Are 'religious persons' 'persons who are religious', or not? Ask a stupid question:

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill was before the Lords on Tuesday. It includes the outlawing of incitement of "hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds".

It's worth pointing out that this is a massive improvement on the original incomprehensible abstration of of "racial or religious hatred". Now it supposedly refers to some harm done to a person.

However, as well as there still being no need for the accused to have intended that an individual be hated, note that noone that supports the Bill really believes its about people. Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale, introducing the Bill, refers to GROUPS and COMMUNITIES (my emphasis):

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, this Bill is an attempt to give everyone in the community the right to live in a safe and secure environment free from the fear of crime. I can deal in the time allowed with only a few points, but as a general comment, I should like to say that in a democratic society everyone has the right to voice their opinion and to demonstrate, but human rights and freedom of speech and assembly must be balanced by citizens' responsibilities to others. No one has the right to incite hatred against religious groups, to intimidate or harass others going about their lawful business, or indeed to disrupt the working of Parliament. All faith communities and those working in the bioscience industry deserve the full protection of the criminal law when their human rights are threatened.

Lord Mackay spots this: "... Practices are carried out by people and if you are criticising, and are entitled to criticise, religious practices, that would involve the people who practised them. The attempt to distinguish between practice and people is a thin distinction indeed."

Lord Lester of Herne Hill makes the point too: "..Although the Government say that the proposed offences are designed to protect people, the definition links people with their religious belief or lack of religious belief. "Religious belief" plainly includes belief in the teachings or practices of a religion or its followers. "Religious" means 'concerned with religion'.."

Baroness Ramsay tries to refute this concern: "I know from mail received that many Christians are concerned that in some way the provision on incitement to religious hatred will adversely affect them. I am sorry that they are so concerned, but I believe that when they look at this provision closely, as it has emerged from another place, they might be reassured that their fears are unfounded. This provision is about protecting people, not about protecting the religion itself."

However, the line between raising hatred against 'religion' and against 'people' is going to be very hard to draw: 'Groups' who are defined by, or define themselves by, their religion will expect it to protect 'them'. What criteria will be used to determine whether the person's identity as a member of a group is strong enough? Are more religious people more likely to be harmed?

This all amounts to a genuine, basic problem with the proposed law: There will be a lack of clarity about how it will be enforced in practice and what the intention of Parliament was when it enacted it. The supporters of the Bill cannot claim that the problem lies elsewhere, with those, like the Christians she mentions, and many other critics, who supposedly misunderstand. (Incidentally, are Christian proselytysers a group that we should be particularly concerned about? If the tragic Rushdie, Bezhti and Taslima Nasreen cases are anything to go by, it is critics from within 'communities' who need to watch out).

The Baroness restates the basic theocratic argument for the law:

"It removes a loophole where mono-ethnic faith groups, such as Sikhs and the Jewish community, are protected under the incitement to racial hatred provision; whereas multi-ethnic groups, such as Muslims and Christians among others, are not protected, as the right reverend Prelate has just explained. "

The bill does not, however, address the loophole whereby multi-ethnic groups like film makers and writers are not protected.

Or whereby I am not protected. The conclusion of the Baroness' line of argument is so obvious that it hardly need stating: If 'inciting hatred' is such an awful act then why don't they make that illegal? Why are people free to do so against me, an individual, who is part of no group?

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