A win for the left in Great Britain?

050319 n114So speech and actions that “glorify” terror are now illegal in England, which represents a kind of victory for Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The bottom line: This is the kind of news event that is shredding old definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” right now. You can sense that in Alan Cowell’s report in the New York Times. It was a showdown, for the most part, between Labor and the Conservative and Liberal Democratic opposition.

Mr. Blair’s critics said the vote, one of three crucial parliamentary tests in as many days, was as much a display of political maneuvering as a strengthening of British laws, which already include prohibitions like those used last week to prosecute Abu Hamza al-Masri, a firebrand Muslim cleric. He was sentenced to seven years in prison for soliciting to murder and promoting racial hatred.

Opponents had said the term “glorification” was legally vague and unnecessary. “The existing law is quite adequate to the problem,” said Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats.

So is soliciting murder the same thing as praising jihad?

By the way, who gets to define “jihad”? If a radical Islamist defines “jihad” one way — waving a sword — and gets arrested, does that mean you then have to arrest a moderate Muslim for using a more spiritual definition of the word? Wait, sorry about that. Who gets to define what is dangerous spiritual language and what is not?

And, while we’re at it, does that mean that opposing this law means one is soft on terrorism? That’s the precisely the kind of logic that, once upon a time, “liberals” used to accuse “conservatives” of using. Didn’t free-speech liberals here in America oppose that kind of thing when President Bush and Co. started down that path? Wait, there’s more:

A proposal to close mosques used by radical imams has been dropped, and a plan to extend the permitted period of detention without charge or trial to 90 days from 14 has been abandoned in favor of 28 days. Speaking after the vote, Mr. Blair said the new law “will allow us to deal with those people and say: Look, we have free speech in this country, but don’t abuse it.”

So what is the line between offensive speech and dangerous offensive speech and who gets to draw it? Didn’t the old law — with that “murder” language — go far enough?

Meanwhile, you just know that now there is going to have to be some kind of law that leans the other way.

If you legislate on one side of this clash in order to fight terror, you will now need to legislate on the other side in order to fight, well, Islamophobia. This is where talk of new British laws against “religious hatred” enter the picture. I dug into this a bit this week in my Scripps Howard News Service column, which included some interesting remarks in the House of Lords from the brilliant scholar and bishop N.T. Wright. If you wish, click here to read my column and then you can click here for Wright’s text. Here is a piece of summary language from the column:

Wright stressed that it will be dangerous to pass laws that attempt to replace, amend or edit religious doctrines that have shaped the lives of believers for centuries. But politicians seem determined to try.

Thus, Birmingham University forced the Evangelical Christian Union off campus and seized the group’s funds because it refused to amend its bylaws to allow non-Christians or atheists to become voting members. Thus, Wright noted that police have shut down protests in Parliament Square against British policies in Iraq. Comedians — facing vague laws against hate speech — are suddenly afraid to joke about religion. And was there any justification for government investigations of the Anglican bishop of Chester and the chairman of the Muslim Council of Great Britain because they made statements critical of homosexuality?

Public officials, said the bishop, are trying to control the beliefs that are in people’s hearts and the thoughts that are in their heads. The tolerance police are becoming intolerant, which is a strange way to promote tolerance.

Now, is what the bishop is saying “liberal” or “conservative”?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Daniel

    I would say the bishop is a “British conservative” and the actions of Blair are those of a “British Liberal.” Since free speech has an entirely different meaning and context in the U.K. than it does in the U.S., they are very location-specific.

    As your example proved, Blair is pulling a very Bush-like stunt when it comes to squelching speech, and Bush is very clearly an “American conservative” when it comes to free speech and terrorism.

  • BluesDaddy

    I’m curious, exactly what speech has Bush squelched in this country? Specific examples, please, no generalities. I’m truly curious.

  • http://www.newpantagruel.com dk

    Wright is a conservative liberal pointing out the self-deconstruction of liberal liberals who take the liberal creed to its extreme logical conc-lunacy. I doubt Wright or any other conservative liberal has a prescriptive response about what is to be done. He is simply making open witness of the truth of what is happening—the long process of the self-destruction of western liberal states reaching its end. The only imaginable alternative is practically impossible: the general consolidation of a liberal polity around a common set of cultural prejudices which have been typically supplied in the past by religion. This situation in England was well theorized and discussed by public intellectuals, primarily Catholics and Anglo-Catholics, between the World Wars. It is now easier to imagine English society consolidating in a liberal liberal faith whose prejudices are against any premodern theism than the tenuous old almagamated Christian-liberal civic religion. This scenario would put a dwindling secular liberal-liberal English culture against two groups that constitute sizeable and growing majority minorities: Muslims and Roman Catholics. There are many ways these groups might negotiate a coexistence over the course of the century, but the example of the Anglican absorption of a diverse array of protestants and a majority population of disenfranchises Catholics may be instructive. Faithful English Catholics forced to choose between a national, cultural loyalty and their foreign religious authorities mad the natural, local choice when Catholic Spain and (mostly in popular imagination) the Jesuits were seen as military and terroristic threats to English interests, security, and independence.

  • Daniel

    I didn’t say speech has been “squelched” but there has been a chilling effect on speech. Are you familiar with phone calls from abroad and overseas being tapped without a court order? How about library searches being subpoenaed under the Patriot Act. Or forcing journalists to testify about their confidential sources?

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  • http://www.psonnets.org/ Michael Rew

    I once read a story about a man who was preaching against either homosexuality or Islam. After he was accosted and beaten by those offended by his message, the police arrested the preacher for inciting violence.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    I’m curious, exactly what speech has Bush squelched in this country?

    The Bush administration has an established record of not allowing anyone into pro-Bush rallies — or even ostensibly neutral events like the State of the Union address — who they think might be a protester. Examples include this year’s State of the Union, where Cindy Sheehan and Beverly Young (wife of a Republican congressman) were ejected for the t-shirts they were wearing, and a trio of women who were ejected from a Bush rally in 2004 for wearing shirts saying “Protect our civil liberties”, and more cases if you feel like googling for them. There was even a case of a woman who was denied tickets to a Bush rally because she got a ride with a co-worker to pick the tickets up, and the co-worker had a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker on her car.