- December 2004 : A Sikh "Rushdie affair"
A conflict has developed between traditional Sikhs and secular ideals of free expression. On the evening of Saturday 18 December hundreds of Sikhs demonstrated outside a Birmingham theatre against a play, Behzti, that contains scenes of sexual abuse and murder in a gurdwara (Sikh temple). Several police officers were hurt and property was damaged. The theatre subsequently decided to cancel further performances of the play – whose author Gurpreet Bhatti is herself a Sikh – on the grounds that further protests posed a threat to public safety.
Other artists have condemned the actions as a form of censorship. There are proposals to stage the play at a different theatre.
- Autumn 2004 : Law on blasphemy
The Home Secretary has proposed the repeal of current law on blasphemy as part of a legislative programme to include the enactment of a law on incitement to religious hatred.
Government advisers believe that the current law on blasphemy achieves the worst of both worlds : for Muslims it appears to show that the English deck is stacked in Christianity’s favour, and yet the law is effectively a dead letter ; it is almost inconceivable that a case could even be brought today, much less successfully prosecuted.
- July 2004 : Incitement to religious hatred
The government has previously tried and failed to create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred, making it an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting language with the intention or likelihood that religious hatred would be stirred up. In July 2004, however, the Home Secretary announced that he would reintroduce a bill.
Existing law protects people from disadvantage based on race. The definition of ethnicity used, however, has been held to include certain religious group (Jews, Sikhs) but not others (Muslims, Rastafarians). "Blunkett wants incitement to religious hatred to be a criminal offence, as incitement to racial hatred – that is, inciting hatred of those defined by “colour, race, nationality or racial or ethnic origins” – already is. Unlike most other crimes, prosecutions for incitement to racial hatred can only be brought by the attorney-general, the British government’s most senior legal adviser, or with his consent. I dislike the injection of a political element into the decision to prosecute ; but if this were applied equally to religious incitement it would at least give some reassurance to those … who fear that free speech is endangered by David Blunkett’s proposals." (Geoffrey Bindman [a prominent lawyer]).
The proposal has been criticised on the grounds that it may lead to prosecution of serious criticism or humorous references to religion. The positions of different interest groups on this issue are not always what one might expect, however. For example, the following statement comes from a conservative Christian group : "It is still difficult to see how legislation could be framed in a way that would not restrict freedom of speech, criminalise those who critique religion, leave the Attorney General and the Courts to adjudicate on religious belief, and introduce a culture of malicious and trivial litigation. … It is crucial that in attempting to respond to the uncertainties caused by international terrorism governments do not trample on the basic civil and religious human rights enshrined in United Nations and European Convention declarations. In fact, there is much evidence to suggest the real threat to religious communities comes not from other religions but from militant secularists who wish to devalue and marginalise the contribution of religious groups to society. Before moving too far down the legislative road we urge Mr Blunkett to consider this vitally important issue in the broadest democratic context involving wide-ranging consultation, extensive legal and practical consideration and relevant open debate." (Don Horrocks, Evangelical Alliance, 7 July 2004).
- June 2004 : Regulation of animal slaughter
In June 2003 the Farm Animal Welfare Council (an independent advisory body funded by the government) produced a report on the slaughter of red meat animals (e.g. cattle, sheep, pigs). It recommended that the exemption under which kosher and halal butchers have been able to slaughter animals without stunning them first be removed. The Council argued that animals suffer significantly unless they are stunned, which is also the view taken by the Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and most other welfare groups. Jewish and Muslim organisations have protested that their methods of slaughter are humane and actually cause less suffering to animals.The government prepared a response to the report and put it out for consultation, with a closing date for responses of 24 June 2004. A final report is expected around the end of 2004.
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) ; response to recommendations
Recommendation 61 (Para 201) :
Council considers that slaughter without pre-stunning is unacceptable and that the Government should repeal the current exemption.
Response : Do not accept. The Government accepts the report’s conclusion that, on balance, animals (especially cattle) slaughtered without pre-stunning are likely to experience very significant pain and distress. We also recognise that certain religious groups in the UK are constrained from eating meat from animals that are stunned at the time of slaughter. If the UK were to ban the slaughter of animals without prior stunning, it will mean that these groups will need to import meat from other countries. There will thus be no improvement in total animal welfare.
Furthermore, the Government believes that a ban on religious slaughter would not be consistent with the provision of the Human Rights Act 1998 which implements the European Convention on Human Rights. However, it is clear from the public reaction following the publication of the FAWC report that there are strong feelings against slaughter without prior stunning, on the part of consumer and animal welfare groups. We are therefore concerned that meat from animals which have not been stunned before slaughter, and which is unsuitable for the halal and kosher markets, can find its way onto the ordinary meat market, and that consumers are not able to identify it at the point of sale. Government would wish consumer and industry groups to consider whether this problem could be successfully addressed through a voluntary system of labelling, bearing in mind that an early EU agreement on meat labelling according to slaughter method is unlikely.
Recommendation 62 (Para 203) :
Until the current exemption which permits slaughter without pre-stunning is repealed, Council recommends that any animal not stunned before slaughter should receive an immediate post-cut stun.
Response : Partially accept. The Government sees merit in this recommendation for cattle but not for sheep, as we would expect all sheep to have lost consciousness within 5 to 10 seconds. However, we are mindful of likely opposition to this from some religious groups and would intend to seek progress on a voluntary basis.