I have written several times about the distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism, most recently in my ConservativeHome piece “Critics of the IHRA definition of antisemitism are wrong.”
Similar issues arise regarding the boundary between freedom to criticise other religions, and the promotion of hatred against their adherents. To make the writing simpler, I will focus on Islam, but essentially the same issues arise for all religions.
In my view, there are three separate boundaries that need to be determined. Not double standards, but triple standards!
What is criminal?
Stirring up racial hatred has been an offense since at least the Public Order Act 1986 (POA 1986). For example, see POA 1986 s.19 regarding publishing or distributing written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, to stir up racial hatred.
However, for many years there was no equivalent offence of stirring up religious hatred. This was remedied by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. This inserted equivalent religion related offences into POA 1986. For example the newly inserted POA 1986 s. 29C(1) “A person who publishes or distributes written material which is threatening is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.”
Parliament had understandable concern about freedom of speech, so the newly inserted POA 1986 s. 29J makes it clear that nothing in the new legislation “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.”
Those setting out to incite religious hatred often seek shelter behind the above words.
The legal dividing line is normally relatively clear. Indeed, despite having received some pretty offensive stuff over the years via electronic means, it was only very recently that I first reported an item to the police as being prima facie criminal.
What is socially unacceptable but not criminal?
Ultimately what is socially acceptable depends on you, your background, the groups you mingle with, and your environment.
For example, some Humanists regularly attend events organised by the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. On Facebook they can be pretty dismissive of all religions, not just Islam. For me, it is water off a duck’s back. Conversely, one of my Muslim friends found the same Facebook postings deeply offensive, because people react differently based on their life experiences.
What is unacceptable amongst politicians, even if it may be acceptable in some social circles?
Politicians must operate to a still higher standard than mere social acceptability within their own circles.
Not only do they need citizens to vote for them, they also serve as the representative of all the citizens in their constituency. That becomes problematical if they are seen or heard criticising the religious beliefs of those citizens. Furthermore, what a politician says affects not only the attitude of voters towards him or her; it reflects on their party nationally.
At the same time, no politician can be expected to deny whatever religious beliefs, or non-beliefs, that he or she may hold. This can make it difficult to answer questions about the politician’s religious beliefs, as Tim Farron found during the 2017 General Election campaign when asked about his religious beliefs regarding homosexuality. There is no easy solution, but it does help to have a prepared standard answer to such questions.
Some illustrative examples
Tom Holland’s book In the Shadow of the Sword and the related TV documentary proposes that the founding of Islam did not take place in Mecca, but further north, possibly near the Dead Sea. While I have no problems with him proposing this (though my book review disagrees with his conclusions), some Muslims I know consider that he went beyond social acceptability. I haven’t seen any allegations that his book was criminal.
I personally don’t care if someone burns a copy of the Quran, provided they bought it and do so without creating a fire or smoke hazard. Derision is the best response to someone foolishly trying to anger you with such behaviour. However public burning of the Quran outrages many Muslims, and empirically risks creating breaches of the peace around the world as we saw in 2010 with Pastor Terry Jones of the USA. As Andrew Ryan found in 2011, it is illegal in the UK as constituting religiously aggravated harassment.
While Thomas Carlyle lectured on the Prophet Muhammad as a hero, no non-Muslim has to admire Muhammad. Scholarly opinions vary from doubting his existence (a minority perspective) to a mainstream one of considering that Muhammad composed the Quran from widely extant Jewish and Christian stories. However, if someone “bangs on” (to use David Cameron’s wonderful phrase about a different obsession) about Muhammad and the number of his wives, and other aspects of his sexual behaviour, one can reasonably conclude that this person hates Muslims.
A Conservative Councillor shares on Facebook an image of a woman wearing a black niqab, with a similarly dressed daughter. They are standing on the pavement between two black bin bags full of rubbish. The caption is “I congratulated her on her three lovely daughters.” BBC Radio Nottingham consulted me about precisely this example. Sharing such an offensive cartoon is clearly unacceptable for a politician, as it will drive Muslim voters away from the Conservative Party, not just locally, but nationally. It may not transgress social acceptability in the company he keeps, but most people would regard it as offensive.