NS Essay - 'Religious radicals want to limit our freedoms, so to curb free speech is to give them exactly what they want'

After the events of 7 July, the proposed law to criminalise incitement to racial hatred is even more

Government efforts to reduce the risk of terrorist atrocities such as the London bombings of 7 July have two aspects. One is about enhanced security, the other is about reassuring Britain's 1.6 million Muslims that they are welcome here. The government's hearts-and-minds strategy includes funding moderate Islamic news media, encouraging the setting up of Muslim interest-exempt banking facilities, and persuading companies to set aside prayer rooms for Muslim employees. It also, much more controversially, includes the bill, currently before parliament, to criminalise incitement to religious hatred.

Because Muslims are an ethnically diverse group, they are not protected by the race laws, and yet they have been made to feel the need for something analogous by anti-Islamic sentiment after terrorist attacks. This is what the proposed incitement law is designed to provide. But the law is a serious mistake. Intended as a positive gesture towards a small minority of the British population, it represents a drastic step towards limiting freedom of expression for the entire population - and that is far too high a cost to pay.

Most countries, apart from the United States, have laws criminalising offences against religion. In the west, such laws have been dead letters for the past century and more, because the opposing value of free speech has been regarded as far outweighing them. However, there are sudden danger signals in secular Europe now, warning of a reversal of this arrangement. One indication is that just as the British government puts forward its religious hatred law, so a magistrate in Bergamo, Italy, is invoking an old statute criminalising vilification of religion to indict his country's most celebrated journalist - who stands charged with defaming Islam.

The threat to free speech from religion-protecting laws is so obvious that advocates of Britain's proposed statute are careful to insist that it has inbuilt free-speech safeguards. They claim that satire and criticism directed at religion will not result in prison sentences, because the law is aimed at protecting people not beliefs, and because the Director of Public Prosecutions will have a veto over proposed indictments to ensure that the law is not abused.

Are such reassurances satisfactory? Laws can change in the light of circumstance, so in harsher times this one could easily be refocused to protect against much vaguer provocations, such as offence or derogatory remarks. Consider the similarity of certain laws in present-day Pakistan to those in the not-too-distant history of Europe. A Pakistani statute of 1984 specifies life imprisonment or death for derogatory remarks about the Koran. The country's federal sharia court additionally ruled in 1990 that the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet was death and nothing else. These uncompromising laws resemble those protecting Christianity in earlier phases of European history, when cognate crimes of heresy and blasphemy were capital offences. As this shows, history has a bad habit of repeating itself in different places and guises, especially if a door is left ajar for it to do so.

The Italian journalist currently in trouble is Oriana Fallaci, one of her country's most distinguished writers. If found guilty, she faces two years in prison. Since 11 September 2001 she has assumed the role of defender of western values against Islamic assaults upon them. The occasion for her indictment is a book called The Force of Reason, in which among other things she laments what she sees as a deliberate invasion of Europe by Muslim immigrants, who she says intend to conquer Europe and efface its culture and identity. In support of these claims, she cites a speech allegedly made by the then Algerian president Houari Boumedienne in 1974: "One day millions of men will leave the southern hemisphere to go to the northern hemisphere. And they will not go there as friends. Because they will go there to conquer it. And they will conquer it with their sons. The wombs of our women will give us victory." She quotes a Catholic bishop who allegedly heard a Muslim cleric tell westerners at an interfaith meeting in Turkey: "Thanks to your democratic laws we will invade you; thanks to our Islamic laws we will conquer you."

Most of Fallaci's anger is reserved for the failure of Europe to recognise what she sees as the currency of these threats. Her impassioned response to the events of 11 September, the blunt language she uses in criticising the sons of Allah and asserting the superiority of European liberalism over Islamic culture, has provoked an Islamist activist in Italy, one Adel Smith (an Egyptian-Scottish immigrant), to lay a complaint against her under the vilification of religion law. Ironically, Smith is himself on indictment under the same law, for abusing Catholicism; and he is well known in Italy for provocative activities, demanding that crucifixes be removed from schools and hospitals, and allegedly calling for Fallaci to be exterminated.

In circumstances where tensions are provoked by assertive identity politics based on faith affiliation, such laws provide ready weapons for all sides to attack each other in the courtroom. It is a short step from there to riots in the streets outside. Rhetoric matters in such cases; if someone is indicted for disturbing the peace rather than specifically for causing religious offence, there is far less rationale for faith groups to gather outside courthouses and brandish sticks.

Britain already has laws protecting its citizens from verbal or physical attack, no matter how motivated. A Metropolitan Police leaflet, printed in no fewer than 11 languages, asks: "Have you ever been abused or attacked because of your race, your religion, the colour of your skin, or your sexual orientation?" And it tells readers that the police can protect anyone thus abused, if appropriate by arresting those responsible. That is unequivocal: threatening behaviour, assault and battery have always been crimes, whatever provokes them. No new crime need be invented.

The Oriana Fallaci case shows why inventing a crime would be profoundly misguided, because it illustrates the danger posed by laws that specifically protect faiths and their votaries. Fallaci's book is very blunt in its criticisms of Islam, so both its manner and its matter are controversial. The point at issue, however, is not her views; it is her right to express them.

At this juncture in history, when a new clash is occurring - or rather, being deliberately engineered - between the secular arrangements of European liberal democracies and some increasingly assertive religious groups operating within them, the need for free speech, however abrasive and challenging, is greater than ever. Religious radicals want to limit our freedoms; to curb free speech is to give them exactly what they want. The worst-case scenario is that what will come from limiting free speech is, in the end, silence.

No one is a Christian or Muslim at birth; people are made so by the community they are born into, or which they later join. They can choose not to be Christian or Muslim, and can convert to another faith or none. But they cannot choose to be other than ethnically white or black. Ultimately, membership of a religious group is a voluntary matter - even if the coercive effects of brainwashing in childhood and social pressure to conform can make opting out of it difficult. This puts all religions on the same footing as political parties and other voluntary organisations: they are self-selected interest groups, defined by belief, aim and personal conviction. No one would tolerate the idea that members of a political party should be protected by law against criticism or satire; by the same token neither should a religion and its members.

This especially matters now, because the major religions are busily engaged in pushing themselves further into the public domain, demanding more privileges and protections there than they have enjoyed for a long time. The vacuum left by the end of the cold war has been filled by increasing Islamist militancy, premised on hostility to a materialist west, which militant leaders blame for their problems. The other major religions, not wishing to be left behind in the assertiveness stakes, make common cause with them, demanding public money for faith-based schools (the dreadful consequences of which can be seen to this day in Northern Ireland), faith representation in the House of Lords, new laws protecting believers qua believers, and much besides.

This common cause adopted by different religious groups can only be temporary, because each faith lays claim to the final truth and so by their nature they blaspheme one another. Deep, traditional conflicts are merely waiting for their time to re-emerge, something far more likely to happen if religions have been given a larger slice of the public domain and protection for their special-interest activities there.

In this climate, whether or not one agrees with Fallaci's views, her indictment is a portent for Britain and all of Europe. It represents secularism and free speech under pressure, indeed under threat: and passing laws to give self-described believers protection from both secularism and free speech increases that pressure, and promises ultimately to turn the threat into reality.