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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 June 2005, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Head to head: Religious hatred
Plans to make incitement to racial hatred a criminal offence are causing controversy.

The Muslim Council of Britain supports the government's plans, but the National Secular Society opposes them. Both groups tell us why.

INAYAT BUNGLAWALA, MUSLIM COUNCIL OF BRITAIN

We very much welcome the government's re-introduced legislation. We believe stirring up hatred against people simply because of their religious beliefs or lack of them should be regarded as a social evil.

Muslim people praying
The MCB says attacks against UK Muslims show the need for new laws

At the moment we have laws against those who are stirred up into committing offences, but we do not have laws against those who do the stirring. Quite often, the stirrers are the bigger problem.

There is a loophole in the law that allows extremists to stir up hatred of Muslims in a way that cannot be done with Sikh or Jewish people. We think this loophole needs to be shut.

We understand the concerns about freedom of speech, but we think that they are totally misplaced. Safeguards are built into the legislation to ensure that the law cannot be misused to silence debate.

For example, the attorney general has to personally authorise any prosecution under these laws.

The same safeguard is in place for racial hatred laws, and out of over 80 cases sent to the attorney general, only four have been sent to court. Only the most serious cases have been prosecuted.

It is not the prosecutions that are important, it is the symbolic value of the law itself and the culture that it creates.

The law will make it clear that discriminating against a person on the grounds of their religion is just as unacceptable as discriminating against them on the grounds of their race.

KEITH PORTEOUS WOOD, NATIONAL SECULAR SOCIETY

The law is unnecessary. It is already illegal to incite someone to commit a crime, and religiously aggravated behaviour is a criminal offence. So incitement to commit religiously aggravated behaviour is also a crime.

Keith Porteous Wood
The NSS says the proposals are 'desperately dangerous'

The main problem is that the government is trying to deal with extremist organisations using religion as a proxy for race.

But both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems proposed amendments to the current racial hatred laws that would have covered this.

The reason why there is such a breathtaking breadth of opposition is because there is concern about freedom of speech.

Similar laws have been tried elsewhere. In Australia the result of that was that Evangelical Christians and Muslims were going to each other's places of worship and taking down notes and trying to get the others into court. The law actually caused more divisions.

We fear that it will be religious extremists who will use the law to silence their critics. That would be desperately dangerous. If we subdue discussions, differences do not get resolved. They are allowed to fester.

We think the losers will be political and social commentators and moderate religious protagonists, who will be silenced by extremists.


SEE ALSO:
Religious hatred bill published
09 Jun 05 |  UK Politics


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