JUSTICE – ABOLITION OF BLASPHEMY LAWS – 6 May 2008

[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): [...] The House will be aware that in 2001 the Government introduced legislation that specifically affords protection, in the form of religiously aggravated offences, to religious as well as racial groups. We have also brought in legislation to protect people from discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. Perhaps most importantly, we introduced a new offence of incitement to religious hatred in the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. I know that there was controversy about some if not all of those provisions, but they show that we have introduced protection for people expressing their religious views that we believe is fair.]

Dr Julian Lewis: I am a member of a minority religious group, and I have no doubt that if something insulting were to be said about the religious community to which I belong – however indifferently – I could appeal to the new laws to which the Minister has referred. However, if I were a member of the majority Christian religion, I am not clear that I would get anywhere by appealing to those new laws once the law of blasphemy was abolished.

[Maria Eagle: A person in that position would of course gain as much as a member of any other religion. The legislation to which I referred does not exclude members of the Jewish faith, the Church of England or the Catholic Church – or members of any other faith or religion – from the equal protection that it offers.]

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[David Howarth: ... We are faced – not just internationally – with people who also have a theocratic view, which we find it difficult to argue against because of the vestiges of the admixture of Church and state in our own arrangements. If we are arguing against the use of blasphemy laws, for example, in Pakistan or in Iran, it is difficult for us to do that while we maintain in vestigial form, a form that is not used very often, the same sort of law in this country.]

Dr  Lewis: Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that for the sort of people who run Pakistan or Iran, it would make the slightest difference to the way they run their countries if we sent such a signal in the way that we run our democratic country?

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[David Howarth: ... For the state to operate on the basis of consent – another important Liberal principle – it does not need the population to have uniform ideas or exactly the same religious practices; all it needs is an overlapping consensus about basic structures and values. In our society, there are fundamental differences about religion – not only between different religions, but between those who believe and those who do not. In such a society, an overlapping consensus is the best that we can hope for. If we do not work for that, we will end up with something worse. The problem with laws such as those against blasphemy, which favour particular religions, is that they make more difficult that overlapping consensus, in which people come from different directions to the same conclusions about value. Such laws imply that more virtue lies with the favoured religion than with others.]

Dr Lewis: I come back to the point that I made in my first intervention. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is an “overlapping consensus” – to use his phrase – that it is wrong deliberately to insult people's most cherished religious beliefs? However, does he also believe that insults to the beliefs of the Jewish or Muslim faiths would be treated the same as insults to the beliefs of the Christian majority faith? I do not believe that there would be equality of treatment under the secular laws. I was originally going to abstain, but I am now inclined to support my Christian colleagues on this issue. I feel that they need extra protection, because their faith is particularly vulnerable in the current political environment.

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[Dr Evan Harris: ... The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) asked whether it was wrong to insult religious views. I have to say that I do not think it is wrong, although it may be inadvisable, impolite or offensive. The hon. Gentleman said that if his religion was insulted he would expect that to be covered by the religious hatred laws, and expressed concern about the possibility that Christianity would not be covered. However, the whole point of what we struggled for during the passage of the religious hatred laws – I think he was on my side in that instance – was that it did not cover offence, insult and abuse. The behaviour in question had to be threatening, and be intended to stir up religious hatred. I find it regrettable that Members who in the past have stood up for freedom of expression and freedom to insult, and against the creation of a right not to be offended, are sliding back into the lazy view that something ought to be illegal simply because it is offensive.]

Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, but I do not think he has addressed the concern felt by many of us about the issue of double standards. The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Ann Widdecombe) was that if people were to insult the minority religions as Christianity is insulted, they would be dragged before the courts. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that that will not happen, or simply that it is wrong when it does happen? How is Christianity to be given equivalent protection?

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[Dr Harris: ... The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Ann Widdecombe) spoke of an unlevel playing field. In an intervention, I tried to suggest that we should ensure that our law and its policing enabled people, if they so chose, to make remarks opposing the religion of another group of people, while not inciting hatred or using threatening language against the people themselves. I believe that the right hon. Lady – and I would be right behind her, figuratively – should be entitled to demonstrate opposite a mosque in the way that she described, and that the police should protect her right to do so. If there is an onslaught against her – a term used earlier, either by her or by someone else – that is the offence. The offence is not her expression of her view, but the fact that people are far too sensitive and willing to take to the streets. We saw the same situation with the Danish cartoons. The prosecutions, when they eventually came, were rightly for the unlawful overreaction of the people who had taken offence. I have no doubt that they were offended, but they have no right in that regard, and their reactions must be within the law of the land. I believe that we can achieve a level playing field with maximum freedom of expression.]

Dr Lewis: Is the hon. Gentleman's case not the opposite to that made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) from his party's Front Bench? The hon. Member for Cambridge said that it would send a bad signal to society if we stood up for a continuing law of blasphemy, and that it would send a bad signal to certain members of society if we said that it was not a good idea to have extreme theocracies in countries such as Iran, whereas the hon. Gentleman is saying that it would somehow aid social cohesion for my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Ann Widdecombe) to stand outside mosques carrying placards bearing insulting messages. I detect a certain tension between the Front and Back Benches of the Liberal Democrat Party.

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[Dr Harris: ... The hon. Member for New Forest, East asked whether our having a blasphemy law prevented us from making points to other countries that had far stricter laws on blasphemy and apostasy; he used the example of Pakistan. I think it does. It is more difficult for this country and our diplomats when we have a Christian-only blasphemy law to say to the now democratic Pakistan that their Islamic blasphemy laws or Islamic laws on apostasy are misplaced. That was accepted by the co-signatories to the letter that I organised to The Daily Telegraph – they included many religious people – to argue to the Sudan Government in relation to the “teddy bear” case that their having a law against blasphemy was misplaced. We have our own version. Whether or not it is used, that undermined our case.]

Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman has been very generous in giving way. Surely the problem with countries such as Sudan or Iran is not that they have blasphemy laws, but that they attach such extreme penalties to them.