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Fri 17 September 2021

Constructed fears around the return of blasphemy laws enable Islamophobia and distract from a reactionary recasting of British values, says Dr Richard McNeil-Willson

Reactionary-right publications have recently been filled with alarm over the prospect of ‘blasphemy laws’ re-entering the UK penal code.

In a statement in the House of Commons by Labour MP Naz Shah on the implications of measures contained in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – which proposes increasing the maximum penalty for criminal damage to memorials to 10 years in prison – she spoke of what she termed the “emotional harm” that could be caused by attacks against images of national identity, upon which these new measures are predicated. 

Whether or not one agrees on whether “emotional harm” is caused by damaging such symbols, it is certainly true that the bill would significantly differentiate, in law, between attacks carried out against a stone or iron statue, and those against a stone wall or an iron gate. Therefore, the bill seeks to tackle not the act of vandalism in and of itself, but the symbolism of such an attack. 

Shah noted the contradiction that currently exists in discussions over British values and identity: if the Government can impose draconian legal measures on the basis of the “strength of British feeling when it comes to our history, our culture and identity“, why is it so difficult for it to understand the strength of feeling that religious groups and communities feel when their beliefs come under attack?

Of course, no one is suggesting the return of blasphemy laws – an ancient relic in the legal system dispensed with far too recently. Such manufactured fears exist only in the fever-dreams of writers for more incendiary publications.

The Spectator magazine described the “fears” of a “restoration of blasphemy laws”; while Spiked Online‘s deputy editor Tom Slater accused Naz Shah of “laying the intellectual foundations for blasphemy laws in Parliament” – a charge far more likely to lie at the door of such publications, with their consistent bemoaning of the decline of the West, attacks on anti-racism, and cheerleading of clampdowns on protest.

Shah was not “wondering out loud if people should be punished for disrespecting gods, messiahs, gurus and prophets”, as Slater simplistically interpreted it. Nor was she sporting “intolerance” in highlighting the disconnect between the way in which the effigies of national historical figures are beatified by the current Government. Rather, Shah articulated the hypocrisy shown by the Conservatives towards Britain’s diverse set of ideas and communities. 

The charge of laying the “intellectual foundations for blasphemy laws’, meanwhile, is

Within the context of huge concern amongst Muslim groups over Islamophobic hate speech and attacks, such measures show that the Government only recognises “emotional harm” when it is done to their own. In doing so, it is creating a ‘hierarchy of sentiments’, in which the concerns of minority groups who face daily threats of violence on the basis of their beliefs are relegated below the perceived importance of a restrictive and often hostile British identity. 


‘Culture War’ Jingoism

Muslims have borne the brunt of racism in recent years. The ongoing ‘War on Terror’ has conflated Muslim practice with violence, pitting much of the security structures of the state – sometimes as bedfellows of a resurgent far-right – against Western Muslim communities.

Islam is often framed by the media and politicians as comprising a set of inherently anti-Western beliefs; a fifth column in liberal democracies to be considered suspect, monitored and tested for their loyalty

This is clearly evident in the framing of controversies around cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed, for instance. In France, Denmark, the UK, and all across Europe, the right to mock and belittle core Muslim beliefs is seen as a central component of democratic liberal free speech and a demonstration of European values. The reaction by some Muslims against this purposeful bating is held up as evidence of the intolerance of Islam. 

The same framing occurs in the discussion on ‘blasphemy laws’. Despite no mention of such concepts in Naz Shah’s speech, a Muslim woman MP is attacked as displaying “intolerance”, for being an “identarian”, and creating a situation where “freedom is in real trouble“. Attempts to demonstrate that Muslims are subject to abuse are often met by framing them as a problem and a threat. 

When discussion on blasphemy laws rears its head in Britain, it is almost ubiquitously used as a stick to beat Muslim communities with. It is an argument conducted in bad faith, drenched in longstanding tropes and articulations of Islamophobia, Orientalism, and racism. 

It also highlights the ‘culture wars’ this Government is waging. Statues of slave traders, war generals, and national leaders such as Oliver Cromwell (who was responsible for the death of one-fifth of Ireland’s population) and Sir Winston Churchill (an arch imperialist who believed that Britain’s “Aryan stock is bound to triumph” in the world), are triumphed as demigods; creating a pantheon of militarised Anglo-Saxonism at odds with the varied communities that shape and stretch these islands’ rich politics and beliefs. 

Those offering any challenge to such a narrow rendering of British identity – critical of the stale imagery of a long-lost England comprised of teacloths and cricket whites – are attacked as a threat to free speech and tolerance. 

The so-called debate around blasphemy laws and freedom of speech has become irreparably warped in the current political climate, used to further nationalistic sentiment and further problematise Muslims and minority religious beliefs.

The main beliefs sacred to the Government appear to be jingoistic and exclusionary nationalism. When the next outrage happens, against concerns voiced by those from minority communities, we would be wise to remember this.

Dr Richard McNeil-Willson is a critical extremism and counter-extremism researcher at The Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at The European University Institute

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