Friday, February 25, 2005


The Pope’s new book stirred controversy in Germany as Jewish groups condemned passages in which he draws parallels between abortion and the Holocaust. Paul Spiegel, the president of the Central Council for Jews in Germany, said yesterday that “the Catholic Church does not understand, or does not want to understand, that there is an enormous difference between mass genocide and what women do with their bodies”.

The Vatican rushed to the Pope’s defence, saying that he had been misinterpreted. But the German Greens, who are part of the ruling coalition, said that they were taking court action to ban Memory and Identity, an autobiographical summation of the 84-year-old pontiff’s life.

German law forbids any “offence to the memory of Holocaust victims”. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that in the offending passage the Pope had discussed the failings of parliamentary democracy and sought to make clear that “a course of action is not necessarily right because the majority have chosen to take it”.

The Pope observes that Hitler rose to power by democratic means and yet proceeded to exterminate millions of Jews. He adds that it follows that parliamentary majorities do not always make “morally just” decisions. “The example which springs to mind is abortion,” he says. “Whoever interrupts a pregnancy commits a grave act of tyranny against an innocent human being.”


The British Inquisition

This afternoon, I attended a meeting called by organisations supporting the government's proposed new law against incitement to religious hatred, which I believe threatens to suppress legitimate debate and criminalise people for simply telling the truth. Lined up in support of this bill were the Commission for Racial Equality, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), Justice, the British Humanist Association and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). Interestingly, they were very much on the defensive, as they felt that the attack on the bill, mounted by the comedian Rowan Atkinson and many others on the grounds that it would criminalise legitimate speech, had already done serious damage to the government's case.

Their arguments ranged from the confused to the disingenuous to the alarming. Confused, because even they couldn't agree with each other about what the bill meant or how it would work. Disingenuous, because they argued that the only reason people feared that the bill would criminalise insult and the giving of offence was because the blasphemy law -- which only protects Christians -- was still on the statute book.

Not only was this a non sequitur,but it ignored the real reasons why people have this anxiety -- some of which were promptly illustrated by some alarming comments that were made. For example, Robert Beckley, the ACPO faith officer, related how he had once wanted to launch a prosecution against people who had argued that Hindus and Muslims in Britain would enact a re-run of the violent Ayodhya dispute in northern India, but had been told he could not do so because the issue was religious rather than race hatred (which is covered by the present law). So now we know what kind of remark the police think they will now be able to prosecute on the grounds that it incites religious hatred.

Then I asked Iqbal Sacranie, general secretary of the MCB,whether he thought that any public statements about Islamic terrorism, or any speculation about the number of Muslims in Britain who might support Islamic terrorism, would constitute incitement to religious hatred. He said: 'There is no such thing as an Islamic terrorist. This is deeply offensive. Saying Muslims are terrorists would be covered by this provision'. So now we know what the MCB wants to prosecute under this proposed new law.

There was much emphasis that the aim was not to bring prosecutions. The aim was to change the climate and prevent such sentiments from being uttered in the first place. The result will undoubtedly be intimidation, self-censorship and grossly curtailed public debate. If this bill's supporters think they have allayed anxiety about this measure, they must be living on a different planet.


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