No decent person would deny that a rise across Europe of various forms of religious and racial prejudice, including anti-Semitism, was a serious concern. But in his recently adopted role as chairman of a body that sets out to tackle that problem, Tony Blair has already ignited some controversy, and reopened hard arguments about free speech. He has taken on a fresh mission after bowing out of his job as a peace envoy to the Middle East, although he promised to remain engaged with the region.
As one his first actions on taking the helm of the “European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation”, the former prime minister co-authored an article (link with pay wall) in yesterday’s Times along with Moshe Kantor, the Russian-born businessman who is the NGO’s prime mover. It recalled that the Council was encouraging European governments to fight prejudice with a package of legal and administrative measures. Specifically: «The [proposed] legislation includes giving greater power to judiciaries to prosecute hate speech, lowering the barriers to what constitutes incitement to violence, making Holocaust denial illegal, entrenching state funding for religious institutions into law, creating clearer definitions of what is racist and anti-Semitic, and securing educational programmes about tolerance in national legislation».
However good the intentions, that wish-list immediately raised some hackles among secularists and libertarians. In most liberal democracies, open incitement to violence is already a criminal offence, whereas robust religious and ideological debate is more or less protected, albeit not quite enough in some cases. It’s true that drawing the line can be difficult, given that appeals to violence can be coded or subliminal. But it is far from clear that any “lowering of barriers” is needed. As Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the London-based National Secular Society, pointed out, existing laws in Mr Blair’s country prescribe rather severe punishments for hate speech, especially if it is deemed to be “religiously aggravated”: «Britain already has draconian legislation on religious insults—a possible seven-year jail term with a low prosecution threshold. Politicians have already called for the outlawing of Islamophobia, playing into the hands of those intent on closing down honest debate about and within Islam. There is no need for more laws, and the ones we already have failed to adequately protect freedom of expression. A robust civil society with a deep commitment to free expression is our best hope for challenging and countering bigoted narratives and misguided views. Driving extremist views underground will only allow them to fester and allow their proponents to present themselves as martyrs».
As for Holocaust denial, for all its absurdity and offensiveness, criminal penalties are the wrong way to combat it, as The Economist has always argued. “In civilised countries, the truth is best policed by scholars, not criminal prosecutors,” we wrote when the British writer David Irving was convicted by an Austrian court.
In our confusing times, freedom of speech, including edgy and offensive speech, needs sophisticated defenders, as well as an intelligent drawing of lines at the point where incitement to violence begins. At last week’s Oslo Freedom Forum, a gathering of human-rights defenders with an irreverently libertarian ethos, the British writer Kenan Malik put the case in a trenchant way. “The idea that you censor free speech in order to challenge bigotry raises two questions: who decides what is to be censored, and who most benefits from the censorship,” he said. “If we want to defend freedom of religion, we have to defend the right to offend…” His words were well received in an audience that included many varieties of religious and non-religious belief.
This much is clearly true: rising racial and religious antagonisms are a threat to the social peace of Europe. But the legalistic solutions proposed by Mr Blair and Mr Kantor are not the cleverest way of responding.