NSS warns council on free speech after ‘Islamophobia’ allegations
Posted: Fri, 26th May 2023
The National Secular Society has warned members of Boston Council against characterising criticism of religion as 'hate speech'.
In a letter, the NSS expressed concern at comments made in relation to Councillor Mike Gilbert at the council's AGM on May 22.
In accordance with the council's tradition, as the longest serving member of the council Cllr Gilbert had been due to be appointed Mayor of Boston.
However, he was denied the role following accusations that a number of Facebook posts made in 2022 constituted 'hateful speech' towards Muslims.
The comments relating to Islam were made during the football World Cup hosted by Qatar, and raised concerns about aspects of Islamic doctrine which criminalise homosexuality and severely restrict the rights of women.
At the council meeting (pictured), Cllr Gilbert said: "I hold no prejudice against anyone on any inappropriate basis, but I do have specific views on politics, ideology, and religion that I am not willing to suppress in my political position".
Councillor Anne Dorrian, who was serving as mayor at the time, said that councillors had a political and moral obligation to "refrain from using hate speech". Failure to condemn such speech, Cllr Dorrian warned, could be interpreted as expressions of "approval or support".
Following the meeting, Cllr Dorrian said that Cllr Gilbert had been denied the mayoralty due to social media posts that people "just couldn't accept" with phrases that people found "offensive."
Other councillors spoke out in support of Cllr Gilbert.
The NSS said that by characterising this "legitimate criticism of Islamic doctrine" as hate speech the councillors had "unfairly smeared" Cllr Gilbert, whilst simultaneously undermining efforts to challenge religiously-based suppression of women's and LGBT rights.
It said that whilst individuals should be afforded respect and protection, ideas must be "open to scrutiny and debate", including "religious beliefs and practices".
NSS: Public debate must include ability to criticise religious doctrine
Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society said: "Holding a critical view of Islam, or any other ideology, is not in itself 'hateful'.
"In a free and open society, religious beliefs and practices must remain open to scrutiny and debate. By characterising Councillor Gilbert's legitimate criticism of Islamic doctrine as 'hate speech', councillors have unfairly smeared a fellow councillor – and at the same time, made it more difficult to challenge the religiously motivated suppression of women's rights and LGBT equality.
"Councillor Gilbert has merely expressed an unfavourable view of religious doctrine he disagrees with. Free speech and social cohesion are harmed if this is considered beyond the bounds of reasonable public debate."