Does Free Expression Of Religious Belief Provide A Licence For Hate Crime?
By Joseph Newton
The face of British society and culture has changed much in recent years, as the nation deals with the inclusion of new cultures, different religions and a shift away from the traditional Christianity that had been part and parcel of British culture for hundreds of years. These changes have led to new questions with regards to the United Kingdom’s identity in the modern world. What does it mean to be British? Is Britain still a Christian nation, or has it become a secular society? Has the shift to a multi-cultural society affected British society in a positive or negative way, if at all?
Dealing with these question has led to a great deal of confusion and conflict in Britain today. For example, far-right groups such as the English Defence League and Britain First have emerged in response to the increase in adherents to the Islamic faith in Britain. These groups perceive the Islamic faith as one inextricably linked to violence, and fear a “takeover” of British society by Muslims, whom they think would try to impose a Sharia law-style justice system on the UK. Groups such as Britain First have been responsible for many instances of hate speech towards Muslims, and there have been several cases of violence towards Muslims, mainly carried out by individuals with alleged links to these groups, the most notable recent example being the Finsbury Park attack, carried out by a man who reportedly shouted phrases such as “I want to kill all Muslims” whilst driving a van into a crowd of people who had been attending a mosque.
A justification that groups such as Britain First use for inciting violence through hate speech is that freedom of expression is a right afforded to citizens of the UK, via the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates freedom of speech as defined by the European Convention. However, the right to freedom of speech is a negative right, which in other words means no-one is allowed to force or coerce a citizen into talking if they do not wish to do so. The Act which provides for freedom of speech also provides for the removal of that freedom if it is used to incite hatred, offend or otherwise harm an individual or group. Indeed, special dispensations are included in the article which prohibit specifically the incitement of racial or religious hatred. The law, therefore, denies the freedom to incite hatred and the argument that “Freedom of speech allows me to incite religious hatred” is invalid.
Issues pertaining to religious hatred are not limited to Britain First, Muslims, or indeed Britain. There are many incidences globally where religious violence is taking place, and fighting about religion has been common in the world for millennia. However, the abuse of freedom of speech laws to justify racial hatred is a problem that is causing more violence in British society, and the use of violent methods to deal with issues that can be resolved through interaction and discourse will lead to more problems in years to come.