LONDON - On July 7, the Home Secretary David Blunkett revealed the plan for a new religious hatred law. The new law has been tightened, making it a crime to incite religious hatred. This is the second time there has been a religious hatred law amendment since the first in 2002 when the government imposed tougher penalties and outlawed racially aggravated violence, harassment and criminal damage.
Blunkett gave a keynote address to the Institute of Public Policy Research. He emphasized that the government values Britain’s diversity rather than a single common culture. Blunkett also appreciated the enormous contributions made by Britain's ethnic minority communities. There was a need to stop people from being abused or targeted just for the fact that they held a particular religious faith.
Under the new religious hatred law, even incitement of religious hatred will be an offense, therefore any provoking languages or jokes preaching a message against other religions are likely to create problems. Some worry that it may hurt the freedom of speech on religion. Comedians such as Rowan Atkinson raised fears the law change could outlaw jokes about religion.
Blunkett, however, responded on a BBC radio program, “The issue is not whether you have an argument or discussion or whether you are criticizing someone’s religion. It’s whether you incite hatred on the basis of it.”
The proposal has been designed with particular thought for tackling discrimination against the Muslims. Since the September 11 terrorist attack in the U.S., much violence has occurred around the world which has raised public suspicion of Muslim extremists.
A report published by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia in April said, “Since the September 11 attacks, communities had experienced greater hostility, including increased attacks against individuals and mosques.” Moreover, it warned “exclusion from public life perpetuated a feeling among some Muslims, particularly the young, that they did not belong in Britain.”
Even worse, religious discrimination is usually associated with ethnic stereotyping. As Labour peer Lord Desai said, “When people insult Muslims they are not attacking the religion, they are attacking Muslims as a racial group.”
Recently, concern has been raised on the increasing figures of police inquiries towards Black and minority ethnic communities on the streets. This concern was raised by the Churches’ Commission for Racial Justice (CCRJ) of the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. The police are accused of treating the Black and minority ethnic communities unjustly, possibly from fear of terrorism.
Labor peer Lord Desai believes there is no need for the proposed measures because of the close relationship between religious discrimination and racial prejudice. He claimed that, “The protection required is already covered in law. Mr Blunkett would have a ‘very tough time’ getting the proposed measures through the House of Lords.”
Last month, the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia think tank warned that persistent and untackled Islamophobia in the UK could lead to “time-bombs” of backlash and bitterness.
On the other hand, the conservative new religious hatred law can be a good way to switch off the “time-bombs,” harmonizing interfaith relationships and stabilizing public security in the UK.
Internationally, Britain is well-known for its rich cultural heritage which is closely connected with its long-standing religious background in Christianity. However, globalization has been drawing all religions and colors closer to each other. The British government and religious groups will have to take further steps in interfaith dialogue to cope with the changes.