An offensive reaction
Published in: Daily Mail
Whatever possessed the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, to agree to putting two activists of the British National Party on trial?
The BNP's chairman, Nick Griffin, and another activist, Mark Collett, were accused of stirring up racial hatred. Griffin was accused of describing Islam as a 'wicked, vicious faith' and saying Muslims were turning Britain into a ' multiracial hell-hole'.
Earlier this year, a jury cleared the pair of similar charges but failed to reach verdicts on others. Last Friday, the debacle was all-too predictably repeated when Griffin and Collett were acquitted for the second time. Griffin had run rings round the prosecution by turning the proceedings into a purported trial of Islam, selecting passages from the Koran which he claimed justified terrorist attacks.
There was never any chance of a conviction, for the simple reason that such statements were an attack on a religion rather than a race. It is perfectly legitimate, after all, to say that the enforcement of extreme Islamic precepts poses a threat to the lives of millions of Asians -- including, in fact, many Muslims.
It didn't take a genius to work out that this trial was a win-win situation for the BNP. If Griffin and Collett had been convicted, they would have posed as martyrs to free speech. Their acquittal, on the other hand, has provided a tremendous boost for their repellent platform.
The truly galling thing is that the BNP is indeed a rabidly racist and anti-semitic party, and its attacks on Islam are a fig-leaf for prejudice against all Muslims, Asians and minorities. Griffin is on record as saying that 'non-whites have no place here at all' and that he 'will not rest until every last one has left our land'. In 1997, after he co-authored a pamphlet alleging Jewish conspiracies to brainwash people in Britain, he was given a two-year suspended prison sentence for inciting racial hatred.
But racial hatred is entirely different from being offensive about a religion. Unlike racial hatred, which targets people, religious hatred is directed at an idea. And in a free society, there should be no place for criminalising the clash of ideas, however much upset this may cause.
Yet some ministers are now proposing to change the law so that such prosecutions would no longer fail. After the BNP acquittal, Gordon Brown took to the TV studios with remarkable alacrity to suggest that he would change the law, echoed only slightly more circumspectly by the Lord Chancellor and the Wales and Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain.
But the ink is hardly dry on precisely such a new law against incitement to religious hatred. After a campaign by the comedian Rowan Atkinson and Christian opponents who feared it would destroy legitimate freedom of speech, its scope was curtailed.
Yet even before it has come into effect, there are now calls to restore to that most contested legislation the teeth that were so bitterly drawn. Ministers are at odds over it, with the Home Secretary, John Reid -- Mr Brown's most likely rival as party leader -- resisting such pressure to change the law.
Mr Brown is doubtless keen to burnish his credentials as a Prime Minister-in-waiting by displaying his toughness against all extremism. Hence his further statement that, as Prime Minister, he would take personal charge of the fight against terrorism.
But he doesn't seem to realise that outlawing hatred of religion would undermine this fight, by shutting down crucial debate about Islam and its role in global terror.
Mr Brown said that most people would find some of Mr Griffin's words offensive. Undoubtedly true. But criminalising those who give offence is oppressive. Religious believers across all faiths are offended virtually every day. Mr Brown's view plays directly into the hands of those Muslims who try to stifle debate about Islamic terrorism on the grounds of 'Islamophobia'.
The call to change the law comes close to the outrageous belief that people like Nick Griffin should be prosecuted simply because they are odious. They are indeed odious. But the idea that if they haven't broken the law then the law must be changed to convict them represents the kind of targeting of individuals and suspension of justice associated with totalitarian societies.
By contrast, although a Muslim was convicted last week of stirring up racial hatred at last February's ugly demonstration against the Mohammed cartoons, others are still bafflingly allowed to continue preaching hatred of Jews, Americans or the West.
Now Griffin is milking this for all he is worth. The BNP already poses as a respectable party, alarmingly pulling the wool over the eyes of increasing numbers nof people. It exploits legitimate concerns that the public feel mainstream politicians are ignoring -- which currently include militant Islamism.
In fact, the BNP is not respectable, but remains a deeply racist party with abhorrent views, and no decent person should have anything to do with it. But it is making headway because voters feel betrayed and abandoned by the entire mainstream political class.
John Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham in Essex, where the BNP won 11 council seats in last May's local elections, has warned that it is 'beginning to establish itself as a rival to Labour in many of our traditional heartlands', drawing support not from hardcore racists but voters who have simply lost faith in mainstream politics.
This is undoubtedly true. But Mr Cruddas was surely wrong to say that the debate over the veil, talking tough on immigration or the language used in the 'war on terror' made the situation worse. The problem is rather that there is generally either silence or a carefully sanitised and unreal discussion about such issues.
What makes people vulnerable to the BNP is the enormous gulf between ministerial rhetoric and action. It is staggering, for example, that in deprived Newham, the Government is allowing the largest mosque in Europe to be built on the site of the Olympic village -- a piece of Islamist triumphalism to be funded by the Tablighi Jamaat, a group described by intelligence sources as an 'ante-chamber' to al Qaeda.
According to John Reid, racial hatred can be defeated only by 'rational argument, political opposition and the engagement of the whole community in opposition to such extremism'. Very true. But that has to apply across the board, to militant Islamists no less than to the BNP.
Now Dr Reid is proposing a new initiative to counter Islamist propaganda. About time. But his 'core script of British values' sounds like more of the usual feebleness. What's needed is not yet another statement of Britishness to which people can easily pay meaningless lip service, but an uncompromising approach towards those who are hostile to this country.
Ministers should take a leaf from Australia, whose Prime Minister John Howard regularly declares that people who are hostile to Australian values have no place in Australia and should depart. Can you imagine Tony Blair or Gordon Brown saying such a thing -- and following it up with action? Therein lies the problem.
The BNP is exploiting a deep weakness in our culture. Only if British society and its values are defended with the utmost vigour and their attackers given no quarter will the poisonous boil of the BNP finally be lanced, and bigotry of every kind shown the door.