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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 February 2006, 15:06 GMT
Arts world hails hate law defeat
Rowan Atkinson
Comedian Rowan Atkinson led the arts world's opposition to the law
Leading British writers and comedians have welcomed the defeat of a proposed religious hatred law, which they say would have stifled freedom of speech.

Comedian Rowan Atkinson said he was pleased the right to "criticise and ridicule" religions was not banned.

Authors Salman Rushdie, Philip Pullman and Hanif Kureishi also celebrated the government's narrow defeat.

The law will still come into effect, but will be a watered-down version of the bill the government had wanted.

It will be illegal to intentionally use "threatening" words and behaviour to stir up hatred, but saying things that are merely critical, abusive or insulting will not be an offence.

With it, it seems to me, everybody wins
Rowan Atkinson on the final Racial and Religious Hatred Bill
Blackadder star Atkinson said: "I could not be more pleased with the final version of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill that has now passed through Parliament.

'Right to criticise'

"With it, it seems to me, everybody wins. Those who seek to threaten religious communities will know that such behaviour has now been outlawed.

"And those who have sought to retain the right to criticise and ridicule religious beliefs and practices now have those rights enshrined in legislation in a manner never previously achieved."

Atkinson previously said he would no longer be able to write sketches such as one set in a mosque that he wrote for Not the Nine O'Clock News.

It showed Muslims at prayer, bowing to the ground with a voiceover saying: "And the search goes on for the Ayatollah Khomeini's contact lens."

The episode shows that if we want to guard freedom of expression, we can't relax our vigilance for a minute
Philip Pullman
Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding when Iran imposed a death sentence, believing he insulted the prophet Mohammed in his 1989 book The Satanic Verses.

"There are moments when one is profoundly grateful for, and proud of, British parliamentary democracy," he said. "This is one of them."

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials novels tell of a battle against the church and a fight to overthrow God.

The House of Commons vote showed "thoughtful argument, skilfully deployed in the service of a good cause, can still beat arrogant short-term political jerry-building", Pullman said.

"The episode also shows that if we want to guard freedom of expression, we can't relax our vigilance for a minute.

'Soft luxury'

"Those who think such freedom is a soft luxury, and well worth giving up in order to curry favour with whatever group has the votes they want, will come back another day and from another direction in order to destroy it.

"Those of us who know it's a hard necessity must be ready for them."

The Buddha of Suburbia author Hanif Kureishi added: "This is an amazing result and a great achievement for writers and intellectuals when they unite."

And National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner, who staged controversial musical Jerry Springer - The Opera, said the government had been "too ready to sacrifice" freedom of expression.


"The government should now rise to the occasion and demonstrate its stated opposition to religious discrimination by repealing the blasphemy laws," he said.

But Labour MP John Denham, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said the defeat meant Christians and Muslims would not be protected in the way Jews and Sikhs are through current race laws.

Britain's first Muslim MP, Labour's Mohammed Sarwar, said the result would be a disappointment to those of all faiths.

He said: "It would have been beneficial not only to Muslims but to those of other faiths and of none. It is very unfortunate."


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