Beware religious threats to free speech, NSS warns UN rapporteur

Posted: Thu, 26th Oct 2023

Attempts to impose de facto blasphemy laws must be resisted, says NSS.

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Allegations of religious hatred may be used to stifle free speech in the UK and abroad, the National Secular Society has told the United Nation's special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Special rapporteur Nazila Ghanea is accepting inputs to inform a thematic report, which will be delivered to the 55th session of the UN Human Rights Council next year.

In its response, the NSS said that while challenging hatred based on religion or belief is part of its mission, some strategies to combat hate "may be vulnerable to exploitation by those who wish to silence criticism or satire of religion".

The NSS said hate crime legislation in the UK has defined hate in an "ambiguous and circular" manner which could capture "robust criticism or ridicule of religion". This has led to the NSS and other groups to successfully lobby for explicit legal protections for criticism of religion. 'Blasphemy' and 'blasphemous libel' remain criminal offences in Northern Ireland.

Outside of the criminal law, the police's recording of Non-Crime Hate Incidents (NCHIs) may have a "chilling effect" on free expression. The NSS cited an incident earlier this year in which an NCHI was issued when a student pupil allegedly scuffed a copy of the Quran at Kettlethorpe High School.

The NSS also expressed concern over the widespread adoption of a definition of 'Islamophobia' which conflates "legitimate criticism of religion with anti-Muslim bigotry". The NSS recognised the "legitimate need to challenge bigotry of all kinds" but said this was "already provided for under existing hate crime and equality legislation".

Internationally, efforts at the UN by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to characterise destruction of religious texts as religious hatred also represent a threat to free speech. Denmark and Sweden are already considering introducing legislation to ban the public burning of religious texts.

Beyond free speech concerns, the NSS also warned that UK charity law is enabling the promotion of religious hatred by recognising "the advancement of religion" as a charitable purpose. For example, Christian charities have called Islam "demonic" and condoned the death penalty for Wiccans, while Islamic charities have promoted antisemitic tropes and said apostates should be executed.

The NSS recommended "the advancement of religion" be removed as a charitable purpose to prevent the charity sector being "exploited by fundamentalists who promote hatred and intolerance of other beliefs".

NSS: "criticism of ideologies and beliefs is important and necessary"

NSS campaigns officer Alejandro Sanchez said: "Our conception of secularism includes challenging hatred, bigotry and discrimination against individuals because of their religion or belief.

"Equally, secularism must also include the conviction that criticism of ideologies and beliefs, including religion, is important and necessary.

"It must be made clear that hate crime and equality laws protect nonreligious and religious people equally, and that they protect people – not ideas."

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Tags: Free speech