There is a looming risk the Government will soon subscribe to a definition of Islamophobia that will function as a backdoor blasphemy law shielding one religion from valid criticism, even by fellow believers. At worst, the proposed definition of Islamophobia could pave the way to a police state in which none of us can be sure when we might be arrested.
Until 28 January, the Home Affairs Committee is calling for evidence on Islamophobia. It is considering the definition proposed recently by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on British Muslims, co-chaired by Anna Soubry and Wes Streeting. It has proposed the following definition:
‘Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.’
If this definition becomes law, no one would be sure which forms of words could land them in court. It is precisely such uncertainty that makes the difference between a police state and a free society. Historically the term ‘rule of law’ was used to describe the political system in which everyone knew when the law could be used against them and when they were free to act as each believed best. As John Locke put it, in England there was a ‘standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society’ which meant ‘a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another’.
But this definition would provide a profoundly uncertain rule to live by. At present there is a legal defence of freedom of speech when criticising religions. It was a hard-won amendment to the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 following a campaign by comedians such as Rowan Atkinson. The Act amended the Public Order Act 1986 by adding the following:
‘A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.’
However, section 29J under the heading ‘protection of freedom of expression’ says:
‘Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.’
Using words with the intention of stirring up racial hatred is not protected and – no doubt for this reason – the APPG definition claims that criticising Islam is a form of racism. But race and religion are very different. We intuitively dislike being criticised for the things we can’t change about ourselves, such as skin colour. In a free society, however, we expect to be criticised for things we can change. Once we are adults, we can change our religion and whether or not we accept all or some of the tenets of the faith to which we belong.
We have here a clash between two very different ways of viewing a society: broadly individualism and collectivism. Individualism sees the primary aim of the state as being to facilitate development of our personal qualities. It is not the doctrine of an elite fortunate enough to have been born with talents. It has always been egalitarian: the vitally important personal qualities that have been so highly valued belong to everyone. We can all choose between being honest or dishonest; hard working or lazy; kind or unkind; public spirited or self-centred; and brave or cowardly. And we all must decide whether or not to approach others in a spirit of reciprocity or in the hope of gaining one-sided advantage, or to value criticism and engage in self-criticism rather than hold fixed opinions and adopt a righteous stance. These choices make the difference between a good society and a bad one.
In a collectivist society the aim is for the rulers to determine how individuals should behave. Individuality is not denied. Each must choose between right and wrong, but those in power lay down a detailed code and threaten punishment for non-compliance. And they do not welcome criticism as a device for mutual learning and holding power to account.
We have encountered these authoritarian ideas throughout the history of Europe and thought we had advanced beyond them. Until modern times no sharp division was made between sin and holding incorrect factual beliefs, such as whether the Sun goes round the Earth. Religious authorities were once seen as the guardians of correct opinions and challenging their doctrines called into doubt their authority. Open societies in which we try to settle our differences without violence have been a great human achievement and we must be alert to the risk that our precious heritage will be undermined.
The APPG definition is an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the past. Of course, the group does not want to burn anyone at the stake but they do plan to lock people up.
In 2009, Christian hotel owners Benjamin and Sharon Vogelenzang were falsely accused of religious hate crime. Ericka Tazi, a convert to Islam and a guest at the couple's B&B, had come down to breakfast wearing traditional Muslim clothes. In the foyer, she had taken part in a discussion with the Vogelenzangs about the respective merits of their religions. Subsequently, she contacted police over allegedly offensive remarks made by the Vogelenzangs about the Muslim prophet Muhammad and Tazi’s outfit. When the case came to court, it transpired that a Muslim doctor had also been eating breakfast in the hotel and found nothing objectionable about the Vogelenzang’s conduct. In his letter, which was read to the court, he had nothing but praise for the Vogelenzangs:
‘I am a Muslim and I know they are devout Christians but… I have never found them to be at all judgemental. They were as friendly with me as with any other guest… Should I need to [stay in Liverpool again] I would not hesitate in again stopping at the Bounty House Hotel.’
His integrity and courage saved the day. The case was thrown out.
The definition of Islamophobia proposed by the APPG and now being taken seriously by the Home Affairs Select Committee emerges from the same mentality that put two innocent hotel owners in the dock in 2009. There is wide public support for freedom of speech and it is unlikely to be officially ended by an act of parliament, but it can be chipped away bit by bit. Giving official recognition to the APPG definition of Islamophobia will be a giant step towards an arbitrary police state.
David Green is Director of Civitas