Religious Hate = Thought Crime
Jennie Bristow has has no time for pic 'n' mix liberterians. And the non-reaction to the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill is a prime example.
It's hard being a libertarian in the new Millennium. Attacks on liberty often come from unexpected quarters, dressed up in the most convoluted phraseology and accompanied by a delicate social etiquette that demands you spend so much time defending your anti-racist/anti-sexist/anti-bigotry/anti-terrorist credentials that you lose track of the thing you are attacking. Despite the far-reaching character of hate crime laws, civil libertarians have not put up an effective campaign against them. Rather, they often seem to have accepted the politicians' argument that these laws are designed to protect vulnerable groups against specific problems in society. Not wanting to run the risk of appearing not to care about racism, or insensitive about terrible cases like the murder of Stephen Lawrence, such laws have been cautiously welcomed. The idea that free speech is divisible that you can ban some forms of speech without impacting on others has been tacitly accepted.
The UK home secretary's proposal to expand the hate crime laws to guard against religious hate crime indicates just how wrong such an acceptance is. Once society accepts the principle that one form of speech or thought is worse than any other, and therefore should be banned, this lays any speech or thought open to censorship and restriction. How can racist hatred be viewed as more of a problem than religious hatred when religious hatred is suspected to have caused the deaths of 6,000 people in the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and to have provoked a small number of revenge attacks on Muslims in Britain and America? According to Labour Party logic, if the Government is to protect society from one form of extremism, it is failing in its duty if it does not provide similar forms of protection from another form of extremism.
The key word here is 'extremism'. If racial extremism and religious extremism are seen as so dangerous that we should sacrifice our liberties to contain them, why not have laws against political extremism, cultural extremism, educational extremism, every-other-kind-of-extremism? If it is to be accepted that people's thoughts, when they stray from the accepted etiquette, can immediately trigger murderous reactions, why not ban everybody from thinking outside of the norm?
You can bet your bottom dollar that laws against religious hate crime will not just be used to prevent terrorists from blowing up buildings in the name of Islam. So keen is the UK government to boast its 'Islam is not the enemy' credentials that Blunkett's proposal has been widely reported as a move to protect Muslims from suffering reprisals at the hands of white religious bigots. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland secretary John Reid told delegates at the last day of the Labour Party conference that jail terms for 'sectarian' crimes in Northern Ireland are to be increased by up to 50 percent.
But civil libertarians seem to be struggling to find an objection to this dangerous law. Liberty, who did sterling work on the ID cards issue, has come up with a rather weaker criticism of the proposals on religious hatred. Director John Wadham calls for the strengthening of existing anti-discrimination laws, not more criminal offences; and argues that, "In the current climate it is more likely that Moslems will be prosecuted than those who vilify them." Given that the Muslim community is widely reported as having welcomed Blunkett's proposals as a means to their own protection, this argument seems unconvincing.
Meanwhile, the extraordinary pronouncements that have come out of politicians' mouths since September 11th to justify such restrictions on liberty have gone all but unremarked upon by civil libertarians. We have been told that the 'most important freedom' is freedom from 'hate' or 'fear', that 'the most important right' is the right to life, that the police need greater powers to 'prevent us from becoming a police state', and that 'we owe it to the victims' of September 11th to give up liberties in order to gain safety. All of this rhetoric, it appears, is not worth challenging.
(This is an edited version of an article that first appeared at spiked-online.)