IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Free speech: In Britain, it’s no laughing matter

Heated debate over a religious speech bill and protests over cartoons of Mohammed highlight struggle in Britain between religious sensitivity and freedom of expression. MSNBC’s Alex Johnson reports.
Bill Announced On Racial And Religious Hatred
Rowan Atkinson, the comic actor best known as Mr. Bean and Blackadder, led a coalition of actors, writers and representatives of civil liberties groups working to weaken the religious hate speech bill.Graeme Robertson / Getty Images

It seemed like a good, broad-minded thing to do: strike a blow for religious liberty by taking a stand against religious hate speech. But it led last week to one of Tony Blair’s biggest defeats in the nearly 10 years that he has been prime minister of Great Britain.

The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill ran into loud opposition almost from the moment it was introduced last June. It would have made limited but crucial changes in a 1988 law that made it a crime to “stir up religious hatred” by use of “threatening, insulting and abusive” language.

No one had a problem with outlawing threatening language. But in a nation shaped by its split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, banning religious insults and abuse was going too far. A broad coalition of activists, writers and artists, ranging from Muslims to evangelical Christians to secular humanists, signed a letter urging the bill’s defeat.

The public face of the opposition was that of Rowan Atkinson, the comic actor (Mr. Bean, “Blackadder”), who once delivered mock sermons on the television comedy show “Not the Nine O’Clock News.” Through a spokeswoman, Atkinson declined a request for an interview, but he has been widely quoted as warning that the bill would have outlawed satire and jokes about religion.

Many religious leaders saw it as an intolerable restriction on religious expression. By the time the House of Lords began its debate, in October, Christian Voice, an evangelical group, announced that if the bill were passed, it would seek charges against bookstores that sold the Koran, which it said incited religious hatred and would therefore be illegal.

As opponents organized protests outside their door, the Lords amended the bill by stripping out the prohibitions against insult or abuse. Only directly threatening language could be prosecuted, and then only if the clear intention to cause offense could be proven. The amended version was approved in the House of Commons last week, over the strenuous opposition of the government, and it will likely become law next year.

An exercise in politics
The original bill failed because it was a cynical political exercise, said Caspar Melville, editor of The New Humanist, a 121-year-old British magazine that has written extensively about the issue.

The bill was promoted as an enshrinement of fairness, but “what the government has done is kind of thrown a sop to Islam,” Melville said.

“This is a political issue, because Muslims are concentrated in the cities in Britain, the Labor heartland,” he said. “The Iraq war seriously threatened their support in Muslim communities. And so this was imagined, I think, as a palliative to that.”

In reality, he said, lawyers “nearly always say the laws are in place,” Melville said. “Threatening speech, calling for people to effect violence on other people or being really vile or nasty, there are laws which cover this already. It’s just a waste of time, and it really is P.R.”

Melville pointed to the conviction this week of Abu Hamza al-Masri, leader of a radical mosque in north London, for inciting murder in his statements and sermons. Prosecuted under current law, “Abu Hamza did go to prison,” Melville said.

Atkinson and many opponents of the original bill welcomed passage of the watered-down version, but others said it was pointless.

“It’s going to be incredibly hard to prove,” Melville said. “... What you’ve got now is a law which has to prove a). that your language was threatening and b). that you intended it to be offensive, which is, as lawyers and people who watch police procedurals know, a very hard thing to prove.”

Cartoons put measure in stark relief
The debate came to a head as British Muslims took to the streets to protest the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in European newspapers. Islam forbids any depiction of the image of Mohammed, favorable or not, as blasphemy.

No British newspaper has yet reproduced the cartoons. Protesters have demonstrated outside the Danish Embassy in London calling for the death of the cartoonists, extolling the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and promising a repeat of the bombings that killed 52 people July 7 in London. As many as 50,000 people are expected at a protest Feb. 18 being organized by the Muslim Action Committee, it said after a meeting of 300 Muslim clerics Wednesday in Birmingham.

As the protests have continued, many British politicians and commentators have complained that the protesters have not been arrested for inciting religious hatred. Police said that they did not want to inflame the situation and that detectives were reviewing video evidence for possible prosecutions.

In the United States, where freedom of the press is guaranteed in the Constitution, a small number of newspapers have published the cartoons, most notably The Philadelphia Inquirer, meeting with scattered demonstrations.

( also published a photograph of the cartoons. “After considerable discussion, our editors decided that our readers should have the opportunity to view the cartoons so that they could make their own judgments,” said Mike Brunker,’s West Coast news editor. “We elected to run a photo of the cartoons as they appeared in the French daily France Soir and required readers wishing to view them to click through a box warning that they were about to view content that might be offensive.”)

Finding the middle ground
The confrontations encapsulate the struggle of British society to reconcile a reverence for freedom of expression with the reality of a religiously polarized population, whose largest minority religion is Islam.

It is a struggle being fought within the Muslim community itself. Leading Muslim figures were on both sides of the religious hatred bill, while the protests threatening violence have been met with vigorous denunciations from many Muslim leaders; the Muslim Council of Britain has organized a rally for Saturday in Trafalgar Square to protest both the publication of the cartoons and “the disgraceful actions of a tiny group of extremists,” its secretary-general said.

As for his magazine, Melville said, his initial impulse was to join the backlash against the backlash and run the offending cartoons. But he did not do so because they had little news value months after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten first published them.

“One doesn’t want to be bullied,” he said, but the cartoons were old news, and editors who gave in to the urge to make a political statement by reprinting them had allowed their editorial judgment to be “twisted.”

At the same time, he said, he has no hesitation to publish material he thinks will offend people.

“It’s a challenge to a very British sense of liberal tolerance, but also, we quite like a certain amount of being offensive ... laughing at institutions and powerful people,” Melville said.

“The question becomes: Does that also apply to anyone, or does it actually matter who you’re laughing at and how powerful they are under any given circumstance? It should be aimed at the powerful.”