January 2006

Reckless about religion

Today is the day that MPs debate the much maligned Religious and Racial Hatred Bill which, following a defeat in the House of Lords, the government has amended - seperating it from existing race hate laws but introducing a worrying clause about recklessness regarding religious hatred.

Monsters and Critics reports that a coalition of Muslims, Christians, secularists and humanists are calling for the Lords amendments to be accepted.

The Lords want to restrict the definition of religious hatred to threatening rather than insulting and abusive language, and insert a clause specifically outlining the right to freedom of speech.

The coalition said: As people with strong views on religion, we know how easy it is to offend those with whom you disagree and how easy it is to resent what others say, and see insult in it.

But we also recognise that a free society must have the scope to debate, criticise, proselytise, insult and even to ridicule belief and religious practices in order to ensure that there is full scope - short of violence or inciting violence or other criminal offences - to tackle these issues.

The amendments that we hope will be supported will deliver the government its election pledge of a new law, but one that would cover only threatening words or behaviour, would be restricted to intentional offences only and would have a clear statement in law that protects legitimate free expression.

However, according to The Times, government ministers have tabled a series of amendments deleting the changes. Under the law, as it is currently proposed, anyone convicted of being reckless about religion can face up to seven years in prison.

They also note that thousands of protesters have converged on Paliament (The Guardian puts this figure at 200) to oppose the bill and quote Rowan Atkinson who said yesterday that artists should be free to insult, abue and ridicule religion if they want to because religious belief is essentially irrational (he does go on to assert that the most important and most sustaining things in life are essentially irrational - you can read the full speech here).

Asked whether he would be prepared to go to prison over the bill, he said: Freedom of expression is established by its assertion. If the Lords amendments are thrown out, there would have to be a process in which comedians, performers, playwrights and authors embarked on a period of assertion.

Mr Atkinson said: I am deeply concerned for all performers and entertainers, because the climate in which we work will be very different if the Government gets its way in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

He predicted that the Government’s attempt to distinguish between attacks on beliefs, which will be allowed, and attacks on believers, which will not, was doomed to failure.

Mr Atkinson said: From a comedian’s point of view, you cannot make a joke about a belief or a practice without characterising it in human form. Every joke has a victim and with a religious joke it is bound to be a practitioner, even if the target is the practice.

But, as the BBC reports, the government seems to be determined to overturn the changes despite the rising tide of opposition which has seen groups including the National Secular Society, the Christian Institute, the Muslim Parliament and the Muslim Forum asking for a compromise that would only ban threatening words or behaviour.

Of course, threatening words and behaviour are already banned under the Public Order Act.

These groups have signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph, in which they state:

We recognise that a free society must have the scope to debate, criticise, proselytise, insult and even to ridicule belief and religious practices in order to ensure that there is full scope - short of violence, or inciting violence, or other criminal offences - to tackle these issues.

The Tories and Lib Dems are opposing this law. We are now waiting to see how many Labour MPs are honourable enough to stand up for fundamental freedoms in the UK.

Gaza gunmen join the the artificial outrage while the EU starts standing up for its citizens

The BBC reports that maksed gunmen in Gaza stormed the local office of the EU, demanding an apology from Denmark and Norway over the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy.

One of the gunmen said citizens of both countries should not enter Gaza until the apology is made.

The Danish government has expressed regret over the furore over the cartoons, but refused to get involved, citing freedom of expression and ponting out that the government can in no way influence the media.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said they carried out the raid.

In related news, AFP (via MediaWatchWatch) reports that

With fiery sermons and raucous demonstrations, Iraqis called for an investigation into Danish and Norwegian publications carrying cartoons deemed offensive to the Prophet Mohammed.

Ranting from the pulpit of his mosque in the Shiite Kadhimiya neighborhood of Baghdad, Sheikh Hazem al-Aaraji - a follower of Moqtada al-Sadr - claimed:

They want to disfigure Islam and this we cannot accept. These cartoons directly attack the personality of the messenger of God. We say to them: they cannot attack Mohammed, nor any of the prophets.

Another preacher - Sheikh Salah al-Obeidi - in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, on friday, called for the editors of the magazines to be put on trial.

Meanwhile, the Brussels Journal, has gotten hold of the email written by Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, to the Norwegian embassies in response to the publication of the cartoons on Norway.

I am sorry that the publication of a few cartoons in the Norwegian paper Magazinet has caused unrest among Muslims. I fully understand that these drawings are seen to give offence by Muslims worldwide. Islam is a spiritual reference point for a large part of the world. Your faith has the right to be respected by us.

The cartoons in the Christian paper Magazinet are not constructive in building the
bridges which are necessary between people with different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Instead they contribute to suspicion and unnecessary conflict.

Let it be clear that the Norwegian government condemns every expression or act which expresses contempt for people on the basis of their religion or ethnic origin. Norway has always supported the fight of the UN against religious intolerance and racism, and believes that this fight is important in order to avoid suspicion and conflict. Tolerance, mutual respect and dialogue are the basis values of Norwegian society and of our foreign policy.

Freedom of expression is one of the pillars of Norwegian society. This includes tolerance for opinions that not everyone shares. At the same time our laws and our international obligations enforce restrictions for incitement to hatred or hateful expressions.

So much for defending a free society, then.

However, and more positively, the EU Observer reports that

Austrian foreign minister Ursula Plassnik said after the foreign ministers gathering in Brussels, that the EU strongly rejects these threats.

We have expressed a spirit of solidarity with our northern colleagues, as well as our belief and attachment to the freedom of press and the freedom of expression as part of our fundamental values, and the freedom of religious beliefs, she said, adding that she hoped that the matter would be solved through dialogue between the involved parties.

The Danish foreign minister Per Stig Moller said he is satisfied with the reaction from colleagues as expressed by Ms Plassnik.

His Estonian counterpart Urmas Paet, told Danish media, that the case had become a European case.

This is no longer a Danish case. It can hit us all, and may have far-going consequences for the relationship between Europe and the Muslim world. Therefore, we must seek to prevent it from escalating.

French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy announced that You can never put question marks around the freedom of speech in any European country, and therefore we have all declared our solidarity with the Danes.

And Peter Mandelson, the EU trade comissioner has warned governments who deliberately create a situation where EU goods are faced with unfair treatment that:

Any boycott of Danish goods would be seen as a boycott of European goods.

He also added that if any government was proven to have supported a boycott of EU goods, he would be forced to bring the case up before the WTO.

Way to go, Mandy!

Libya joins the boycott bandwagon

First Saudi Arabia and now, as the BBC reports, Libya has decided to close its embassy in Denmark over the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy.

As with the Saudis and the Jordanians, Tripoli appears to believe that the Danish government should abandon centuries old traditions of tolerance and freedom of speech because some lying imam says so.

Libya is also threatening to take economic measures against Denmark, but is unable to say what these would be.

In other news, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League are seeking a UN resolution, backed by possible sanctions, to protect religions. I very much doubt that theyve stopped to think what effect this resolution would have on a country led by a holocaust denier, such as Iran.

On a more rational note, although Afghan President Hamid Karzai considers the drawings to be a mistake, he has also said Prime Minister Rasmussen explained Denmarks position on that (the drawings), which was very satisfactory to me as a Muslim.

On a more craven note, Norway has advised its Middle East embassies to voice regret after Norwgian Christian magazine, Magazinet, published the cartoons and Jyllands-Posten reports that Danish Company, Arla Foods, is about to start printing adverts in Saudi newspapers in order to deflect the much threatened boycott.

Maybe they are reacting a little too quickly because, as Arab News observes:

Reaction by supermarket managers in Jeddah to the controversial cartoons published in the Danish and Norwegian media is patchy. In some supermarkets, gaps with labels in English and Arabic, indicate that Danish products have been withdrawn; in others shelves were fully stocked with familiar Danish products yesterday.

And finally, The Brussels Journal argues that appeasing demands from various Muslim groups simply encourages more extreme elements to push for more and more. As such, they claim that the best way to bring this argument to an end would be for as many websites, blogs and papers in Europe just to publish the cartoons in an act of defiance to extremists.

I find myself increasingly in agreement with this point of view, so heres my contibution

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Iran bans the beeb

Im a bit behind with this one, but the BBC are reporting that the Iranian authorities have started to block their Persian language website, for the first time.

The BBC says the level of traffic to the site from within Iran has dropped sharply over the last three days.

No official explanation has been given. The BBC has expressed concern at the action, saying it deprives many Iranians of a trusted source of news.

The BBC said it would be approaching the Iranian government at an official level about re-instating access.

BBC Persian.com is the most popular of the BBCs non-English language websites, receiving about 30 million page impressions a month - about half of which are from inside Iran.

Before adulthood comes The Sun

Kidulthood, which is due to be released on March 3rd, aspires to be a powerful and distubing film that takes you deep into Londons unseen underbelly and delivers a gritty, hard-hitting reflection of what life is really like for 21st century teenagers.

For 15-year-old Trife, a boy from West Londodn, life is a day-to-day struggle. Trapped between the worlds of his school friends, the girl he loves, and the draw of his powerful and dangerous uncle, Trife must choose between the path he knows is right and a life of guns, drugs and violence that he has come to know only too well.

When a class mates suicide leaves Trife and his crew, Mooney and Jay, with the day off school it seems as though circles of violence may have finally come to a tragic conclusion - but in a world where sex is currency, drugs are easy, and violence is a way of life, trouble can never be too far around the corner

Which all sounds very worthy and, according to The Melon Farmers, the film been compared by some critics to youth classics like Trainspotting and Quadrophenia.

But The Sun isnt happy and has decided to whip up another controversy.

Campaigners fear Kidulthood, which features scenes where yobs film attacks, glamorises teenage violence.

Lucy Cope, who founded Mothers Against Guns after her son was shot dead in 2002, last night led calls for Kidulthood to be banned.

She said: “I felt sick to the pit of my stomach when I heard about that man being killed by happy slappers. This film should be stopped — it glamorises violence. Youngsters will want to be like them.”

The low-budget movie features suicide, teenage pregnancy, bullying and drug use. It stars Noel Clarke, who played Billie Piper’s boyfriend in Dr Who, and is due for release on March 3.

Kidulthood has been rated 15

More Muhammed

Following Wednesdays completely out of proportion intervention by Saudi Arabia’s top cleric over the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, The Guardian reports that Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador to Denmark.

The Melon Farmers also note that, fearing a loss of business in the Muslim world, Denmarks main industry organisation - The Confederation of Danish Industries - has tried to distance itself from the paper.

Glorifying censorship

The Stage (via) reports that peers have voted to remove the sections of the Government’s controversial Terrorism Bill that the theatre industry had feared would threaten freedom of artistic expression.

Members of the House of Lords have agreed to take out parts of the bill referring to “glorification” of terrorist acts, which many in the industry believed would have led to artists being prosecuted for work dealing with controversial subjects. The recent Out of Joint production of Talking to Terrorists was one play that opponents to the legislation thought could have been affected. Campaigners will now lobby MPs to ensure the bill is accepted in its amended form in the Commons.

Speaking during the parliamentary debate, Lord Goodhart said: “The whole question of glorification is simply going to confuse and trouble the courts. The definition is amazingly wide… If one is looking at past acts of terrorism within the very wide definition of terrorism in the [Terrorism Act 2000], the War of American Independence is a terrorist act. When one then looks at glorification, it includes celebration, so that act of terrorism is celebrated every July 4 on Independence Day.”

The National Campaign for the Arts, one of the groups which lobbied for the change, said the wording of the bill was now clearer.

The National Campaign for the Arts had also campaigned for the concept of “recklessness” to be removed from the bill - which hasnt happened.

Religious Hatred Bill: The thoughtless rethink

The BBC reports that the UK government has responded to the defeat in the House of Lords of their Religious and Racial Hatred Bill by unveiling compromise plans to create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred.

Ministers have agreed to inroduce seperate legislation to cover incitement to religious hatred, rather than link it to existing race hate laws. They have also introduced a clause to ensure that people could only be convicted of the new offence if they intended or were reckless about inciting hatred.

And there is a new clause in the legislation declaring that a person is not guilty of an offence if they debate issues, insult or ridicule a religion - unless they intend to stir up religious hatred.

The Home Office claims that the new plans offer an absolute guarantee that telling jokes about religions will not fall foul of this law.

However, Rowan Atkinson is not convinced, and is making a last-ditch call for MPs to reject a controversial bill.

Atkinson, an outspoken critic of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which goes before the Commons on Tuesday, says the move would stifle freedom of speech. The Mr Bean star is part of a vociferous alliance of thespians, atheists and Christians who are lobbying against the bill, which is also being opposed by the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.

Others opponents include Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre; Ian McEwan, a Booker prize-winning author; best-selling childrens writer Philip Pullman; and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey.

I am deeply concerned for all performers and entertainers, because the climate in which we work will be very different if the government gets its way, Atkinson said. If the wording of the revised bill is read carefully, it can be seen that the new freedoms the government provides with one hand it deftly removes with the other.

And, according to Dr Don Horrocks, head of public affairs at the Evangelical Alliance:

Our previous relative relief that the Lords had delivered a workable and less extreme bill has now turned to alarm. The practical effect will be to inhibit free speech and writing in such a way that people will worry about saying anything critical of religion.

And Keith Porteous-Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, has pointed out that the only people who will benefit from this legislation are lawyers:

There are an awful lot of litigious people around. Extremists are going to cow people into silence.

The vote is on Tuesday and it is estimated that between 20 and 30 Labour MPs may rebel, suggesting the vote will be very close.

Tuesdays vote will be the last and best chance for parliament to protect freedom of speech, said Lib Dem spokesman Evan Harris. Unless these safeguards are kept in place, the chilling effect of this new offence would be to stifle free expression and set community against community - each seeking to prosecute others for perceived insults.

Banning Manning

Chortle reports that the Miller Glasgow International Comedy Festival has been accused of censorship after refusing to allow Bernard Manning into its programme.

The deliberately offensive comedian is playing in the city’s Barrowland Ballroom on March 11 – three days into the 17-day comedy festival.

But when promoter Alan Anderson submitted the event to the organisers of the festival – which was established four years ago - he was refused entry to the programme.

Anderson, who is running 71 other gigs at the festival, said he believed the festival had an open-door policy for acts, but ‘I was told I could have all my shows in the programme, except Bernard Manning.

‘It may be that he’s offensive. But then the festival is happy to have both Jerry Sadowitz and Jim Bowen, who was sacked from the BBC for what was interpreted as a racist comment.

According to the festival organisers, all events in the programme are there by invitation only and they have the right to choose who played as part of the event.

Jon Thoday: Christian Voice are winning

The Guardian reports that the producers of Jerry Springer: The Opera believe that protests from fundamentalist pressure group, Christian Voice, have hit ticket sales for the tour which began on Friday.

Christian Voice, [incorrectly] credited with co-ordinating the biggest ever protest against the BBC when it screened the show, and the British National party will picket the first production at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth tonight amid tight security.

Other protests are planned at theatres during the five-month, 20-city tour of the show, although Christian Voice distanced itself from the BNP, accusing it of hijacking the protest.

Christian voice were planning to have more than 50 activists holding a vigil outside the Theatre Royal on Friday night, although, according to the BBC

A group of about 30 people, calling themselves committed Christians, gathered outside the theatre.

They also quote citys archdeacon whining about the play.

Sales for the play are lowere than expected and Jon Thoday, the shows producer, is blaming Christian Voice:

Despite having a show which has won all the best musical awards, it looks to me Christian Voice are winning the audience battle.

And, as noted by Reuters:

The Springer tour, which ends on July 8, was temporarily shelved last year after several theatres declined to put it on.

It was only rescued when producers Avalon decided they were determined not to let the protests sink a show that had filled London theatres.