‘Religious hate’ should not be a crime

Why are civil libertarians so vocal on ID cards - yet so quiet about extending the law on 'hate crimes'?

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

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.

But every now and then, an issue surfaces that civil libertarians feel comfortable campaigning against. And this time, the issue was identity cards.

In the flurry of ‘do something!’ activity that followed 11 September, the possibility of introducing ID cards into the UK quickly raised its ugly, and familiar, head. Exactly what the proposal was remains unclear. At first, it seemed that UK home secretary David Blunkett raised thoughts about a ‘voluntary’ ID card; then it seemed that the proposal was for a compulsory ID card. Now Blunkett has come up with the phrase ‘entitlement card’ which, by some bizarre form of political wizardry, is supposed to benefit illegal asylum seekers, by legitimising their (illegal?) presence in the UK.

The specifics of the proposal do not really matter, however – because at the first whiff of ID cards, civil liberties campaigners were off. John Wadham, director of the UK campaign group Liberty, warned that a scheme that introduced ID cards as ‘a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to counter terrorism’ could be used for ‘less benign purposes in the future’ (1). Privacy International, which successfully campaigned against the introduction of ID cards in Australia in the 1980s, presented a vocal attack on Blunkett’s proposals for Britain (2).

Even some people for whom ‘civil liberties’ are often dirty words spoke out against ID cards – including that great anti-authoritarian, Home Office Minister Lord Rooker, and former Home Office minister Mike O’Brian, who claimed that terrorists would claim such measures ‘as a victory’.

In the event, the victory, it seems, has come to civil liberties campaigners. David Blunkett stated on 1 October that ‘the first emergency measure which will deal with the question of tackling terrorism head-on will not include legislation on identity or entitlement cards’ (3). Headlines proclaimed that ‘Blunkett rules out identity card laws’ – although he actually said that the government has not ruled out the issue, and that it may launch a consultation around it. Lord Rooker bent over backwards to stress how informal the government’s discussion of the issue has been. ‘There is no secret bill and no secret agenda’, he said (as though secret bills and agendas are what we should normally expect from this government) (4).

For now, it seems, we are safe from voluntary/compulsory/ identity/entitlement cards. But for those who are concerned about liberty, how much should we really be celebrating? While civil liberties campaigners were working themselves into a frenzy about this time-honoured threat, the laboratory in David Blunkett’s brain was busy concocting various other restrictions on liberty, which are newer and have further-reaching implications.

No sooner had Blunkett conceded on the issue of ID cards than he announced the government’s intention to expand UK race hate laws to cover religion, in order to help ‘those who are faced with that form of hatred and bigotry’ (5). Slipped into a broader speech, the specifics of this proposal, too, are unclear. But this is the kind of measure that is much more New Labour than ID cards – and the kind of measure that civil liberties organisations find much harder to challenge.

While I welcome the campaigners’ victory on ID cards, it has to be said that the idea did not carry much conviction even with the government. Blunkett’s attempt to justify the idea in terms of ‘entitlement’ to more efficient services indicated his lack of faith in any positive arguments for ID cards; and the day after his celebrated climbdown, it was reported that he tried to distance himself from the issue altogether, blaming media speculation about ID cards for his failure to rule them out sooner. But a law against ‘hate crime’ that covers religious extremism as well as racism – what can anybody say against that?

Many of those who worry about ID cards either welcomed the existing hate crime laws, or emitted a resounding silence on the issue. These laws, which gained impetus in the wake of the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, make racially motivated crimes subject to greater punishment than other crimes.

Hate crime law is deeply problematic, because it introduces the notion of ‘thought crime’. If somebody is to be punished more severely for a racist murder than any other murder, it has to be shown that they were motivated by racist thoughts. Not only is it questionable whether a racist murder actually is worse than a murder committed out of misogyny, homophobia or just hatred – determining what has gone on in somebody’s head before a murder is, necessarily, quite arbitrary. The arbitrary character of this process is made even more so by the fact that, as has previously been argued on spiked, racism today is seen to be ‘everywhere’ – among black people and Asians as much as among whites (See spiked issues: The race card).

The preoccupation with ‘hate crime’ has also had a major impact on freedom of speech. In today’s society, to say anything negative about any culture or ethnic group is to be accused of inciting prejudice – leading to a frightening censoriousness among politicians, the media and within institutions. So it was that two reports into race relations in Bradford, the scene of riots earlier this year, were suppressed by local government officials because they contained criticisms of aspects of the Asian community (6). And so it was that when former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher told The Times (London) that Muslim leaders had not done enough to condemn the terrorist attacks on the USA, she was not dismissed as an isolated has-been uttering another of her lunatic untruths, but accused of inciting racism (7).

Yet 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 6000 people in the World Trade Centre 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 (8).

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’ (9). 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 11 September 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 11 September to give up liberties in order to gain safety. All of this rhetoric, it appears, is not worth challenging – provided that nobody mentions ID cards.

Read on:

Defend liberty – especially now, by Jennie Bristow

No laughing matter, by Jennie Bristow

‘We can never be safe – but at least we can be free’, by Jennie Bristow

Terrorising liberty, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issues: Attack on USA

Read more:

For a useful presentation of facts and arguments about ID cards, read Privacy International’s ID card FAQ.

(1) Statement by Liberty director John Wadham on 24 September 2001 on the Liberty website

(2) Privacy International campaign against ID cards

(3) Blunkett rules out identity card laws, epolitix, 1 October 2001

(4) Compulsory ID cards ‘ruled out’, BBC News Online, 1 October 2001

(5) Asylum and hate law to be overhauled, BBC News Online, 3 October 2001

(6) Bradford ‘hid truth about racism’, Observer, 16 September 2001

(7) Thatcher speaks out on terror, The Times, 4 October 2001

(8) ‘Ulster’s bigots to get longer in jail’, Sun, 4 October

(9) Statement by director of Liberty John Wadham on 3 October 2001 on the Liberty website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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