UK AMENDED RELIGIOUS HATRED LAW: PROSECUTION OF SALMAN RUSHDIE’S “SATANIC VERSES” NOW UNLIKELY?

The
British Labour government’s controversial ‘incitement to religious hatred’ bill
is now law, as of yesterday, 1 February 2006. However, the final House of
Commons vote kept in place a series of vital amendments tabled by the House of
Lords. This vote has been seen as a defeat for the government, with over a score
of Labour MPs voting in favour of the amendments despite instructions to the
contrary.

**

See
‘The Guardian’, 2 February 2006,

http://www.guardian.co.uk/religion/Story/0,,1699342,00.html

‘Government
suffers chaotic double defeat over bill to combat religious
hatred’

(Guardian
International print edn. p. 18)

**

‘The Guardian’
writes:

‘Changes made in the Lords now
mean that someone charged with an offence would have to be shown to have used
"threatening" language – rather than "threatening, insulting and abusive" the
test in race cases. It will also mean that the prosecution will have to show
"intention" to foment such hatred by the accused rather than intention or
"recklessness" (..)

Whitehall officials [i.e. civil
servants]  argued that the bill
remains viable, but that the Lords has raised the bar to successful prosecution
– which carries up to seven years in prison’.

**

A prosecution under the new law
can only go ahead with the approval of the Attorney-General (the public
prosecutor, who in the UK is a member
of the government). The obvious question is now, will someone try to take out a
case against Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’? Had the text stayed as the
government wished, this would have been all too likely. After yesterday’s vote
and the removal of the words ‘insulting’, ‘abusive’ and ‘reckless’ (I maintain
none of those apply to Rushdie’s book, but I realise that the uninformed and the
authoritarian might disagree), it now seems improbable that such a prosecution
would succeed or even be approved. ‘The Satanic Verses’ is hardly the only
likely target (Jews and Catholics might object to Harold Pinter’s play ‘The
Birthday Party’, and even Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Tamburlaine the Great’ was
recently staged in London in a censored version), but it would certainly be the
most high-profile and the most loadedly symbolic case. For the moment, students
of postcolonial literature and Indian Writing in English can carry on their work
without the fear of a huge no-go area being created in their field of study by
the 21st-century heirs of Torquemada.

**

Full details of the second (and
most significant) House of Commons vote -including the names of the Labour MPs
who voted against the government’s position – can be found on the BBC site
at:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/4668266.stm

**

Explanation: ‘MPs voted either
for or against government attempts to overturn a Lords amendment to the bill
that said "abusive and insulting" behaviour should not be criminalised, merely
"threatening" behaviour; and that people should not be prosecuted for
"recklessly" stirring up religious hatred – that is, without
intent.’

 

 

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