Religion and free speech
’Protecting religion‘ has been the justification for policing free speech in Britain, argues Claire Fox. Is the charge of blasphemy making a comeback?
When growing up, my Irish Catholic mother would have reprimanded me for taking God’s name in vain. But – thank Christ! – getting upset about blaspheming seems like a relic of a bygone era. It’s 30 years since Mary Whitehouse successfully used the blasphemy laws against the editor of Gay News. In 1977, Denis Lemon was found guilty, fined £500 and sentenced to a nine-month suspended sentence for publishing James Kirkup’s poem ‘The Love that Dares to Speak its Name’ about a Roman soldier’s homosexual love for Christ. Contrast that with the response to a reading of the poem on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square in 2002 – the forces of law and order looked on indifferently. ‘We have won an important victory for free speech,’ said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. ‘The blasphemy law is now a dead letter.’
In some ways, Tatchell was right. Whitehouse’s heir apparent, Stephen Green, national director of the evangelical group Christian Voice, knows to his cost that using the blasphemy law these days is a thankless task. His persistent attempts at stopping the ‘ blasphemous’ depiction of Jesus in the musical ‘Jerry Springer: the Opera’, have so far been rejected by the courts.
But in some ways, Tatchell was wrong. While the law itself is rarely used, people are far more nervous about being accused of blasphemy today than any time in recent history. Being accused of insulting religion has had a chilling effect on free speech. Only three years ago, angry Sikhs forced Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s ‘blasphemous’ play ‘Bezhti’ off the Birmingham Rep’s stage. Peter Whittle, director of The New Culture Forum – a centre-right association ‘to challenge the liberal-left cultural orthodoxy’ – recently compiled a dossier of examples, many from the London arts scene, when nervousness about Islam has led to self-censorship. The Royal Court Theatre cancelled a reading of an adaptation of Aristophanes’ ‘Lysistrata’ set in Muslim heaven, the Barbican cut pieces out of its production of ‘Tamburlaine the Great’ for fear of offending Muslims and Tate Britain decided against displaying John Latham’s ‘God is Great No 2’, which consisted of a Koran, a Bible and a Talmud that had been embedded in glass.
It looks like blasphemy is making a comeback. The much-publicised recent overreaction by the Sudanese authorities to the teddy bear affair may have had commentators railing against the intolerance of Islamic states but ‘protecting religion’ has been the justification for policing free speech here in Britain, too. New laws against ‘incitement to religious hatred’ are designed to limit the extent to which we can ridicule religion. You won’t get 40 lashes but those who break these laws can be punished by a prison term of up to seven years and an unlimited fine. It was precisely this contemporary ‘crime’ with which British teacher Gillian Gibbons was charged.
The drivers for today’s cries of blasphemy are political rather than religious: a lethal cocktail of government-sponsored victim culture, identity politics and an acceptance of the idea that people need to be protected from hurtful, offensive ‘hate speech’. Creating a special category of
religious offence has led to the unsavoury spectacle of competing victimhoods. Sikhs claim to have been hurt by the ‘deeply offensive’ ‘Bezhti’, Muslims by the film of Monica Ali’s novel ‘Brick Lane’, et cetera. When Catholics lobbied BBC director-general Mark Thompson against showing ‘Popetown’ in 2004, the then-BBC3 controller Stuart Murphy took the almost unprecedented step of pulling the plug, citing ‘the potential offence it will cause’. This atmosphere creates a hierarchy of hurt feeling. The accusation of Islamophobia levelled at anyone who criticises Islam is now countered by Christians trying the same thing. Conservative MP Mark Pritchard has called for a debate on rising ‘Christianophobia’.
For those of us who cherish secular values and a free society, it is galling to see religion affecting what can be discussed in the public sphere. But it’s too easy to sign up to a Richard Dawkins-style inquisition or to indulge in religion bashing. Often opponents of religious fundamentalism seem no less zealous or narrow-minded than their enemies. Elton John says he would like to ‘ban religion completely’ because it’s homophobic.
It is not religion per se that poses the real challenge to freedom, but a political culture that too happily sidelines free speech. ‘Thou shalt not offend’ is a commandment that is now widely applied by the most ardent secularists. Peter Tatchell may have opposed traditional blasphemy but he has campaigned to silence ragga artists because their lyrics are offensive to women and gays. A growing number of issues are declared off-limits for debate, modern heresies. A new secular priestly caste points the finger at anyone who blasphemes against the new conformism. Dare you challenge the sacred script of global warming and watch everyone from the Royal Society to environmentalists scream ‘blasphemy’? Being denounced as a denier is as sharp an instrument as any blasphemy law. Modern-day witch hunts against those who have blasphemed on race have recently taken the scalps of Tory Nigel Hastilow and eminent scientist James Watson.
Whether being sacked or drummed out of London, humiliated or gagged, secular blasphemy is punished with a viciousness that would impress the most ardent of Sudanese clerics. So let’s have a lot more blasphemy. If it insults religion or offends secular taboos, who cares? It’s called freedom and, once we sacrifice that, we might as well live in a theocracy.
Claire Fox is the director of the Institute for Ideas (www.instituteofideas.com).
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