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Saturday, 10 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie?

In Defence of Secularism and the Right to Criticise Religion

Not surprisingly the news this week has been dominated by one story, the murder of 8 journalists on Charlie Hebdo.  The two assassins have in turn been killed after a siege.

However those racists who attribute what happened in Paris or Pakistan today to something peculiar to Muslims or Islam should bear in mind that it was only in 2008 that the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in Britain.  I can remember the Whitehouse v Lemon blasphemy trial, presided over by that incorrigible reactionary, Justice Alan King Hamilton.  What became known as the Gay News trial for blasphemy in 1977, arose after Mary Whitehouse brought a private prosecution against the magazine over James Kirkup's poem The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name.
Blasphemy only applied to the Christian religion and when the move to secure the abolition of the blasphemy laws gathered pace, many liberals sought to give equal status to other religions!  King-Hamilton himself was Jewish and the poem described homosexual acts between a Roman centurion and Christ after the Crucifixion.
Street where journalists were murdered
The Gay News case aroused enormous public interest, both in this country and overseas. At the outset, John Mortimer, QC, for Denis Lemon, the editor of Gay News, moved to quash the indictment on the ground that since England had become a multi-religious society, there could no longer be an offence of blasphemy. King-Hamilton rejected this argument, saying that he would be prepared to extend the definition to cover similar attacks on some other religion.

After the defendants were convicted, he fined the magazine £1,000 and Denis Lemon £500. He also gave Lemon a suspended sentence of nine months' imprisonment, a term which he later conceded was wrong and which was overturned on appeal. The verdict was upheld by a majority of 3:2.
But this is of scant comfort to the relatives of the murdered journalists of Charlie Hebdo.  Socialists and progressives should be quite clear that    secularism, the separation of state and religion, is a fundamental principle, and the fascist trash who carried out these murders deserve to be shot like the rats they were.  It is no surprise that those lovely creatures of US foreign policy – Al Quaeda and ISIS – are the ones who have come out in support of the murder of the journalists.

However it should not be imagined for one moment that the murders that took place represent anything but a tiny minority of disenfranchised Muslim youth.  Every community, religious or otherwise, has its share of bigots.  If the prophet Mohammed is all he is cracked up to be then I find it difficult to believe that a few cartoons are more hurtful than the slaughter of innocents by ISIS or the starvation of millions in the world today.
Many liberals, including some on the left, supported replacing Britain’s blasphemy laws with an incitement to religious hatred act which came close to outlawing some criticism of religion.  We should be clear that the criticism of religion is a fundamental right of any free society, be it by Pussy Riot and the Orthodox Church in Russia or the Danish cartoons.  Of course the motivation may on occasion be racist but the way to deal with that is the way that all forms of racism are dealt with, not by acts of murdering those who are deemed to have been excessively critical.

Tony Greenstein

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