A bunch of racists. . .a band of thugs. . .a pack of hate-filled bigots. I agree with all such descriptions of the British National Party (BNP), and such opinions could only be reinforced by a BBC documentary a year or so ago that brought us some rather nasty undercover footage. Of course, for many people, making a documentary exposing racism and thuggery in the BNP was a little like making a documentary to expose elements of fundamentalist Islam in Saudi Arabia, but I think most of us were shocked at much of what we heard.

On the back of comments made in that documentary, the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, was arrested and has just recently been found not guilty of incitement to racial hatred. Griffin is the most high-profile figure to have been arrested and tried regarding incitement. Interestingly, in the course of the pre-trial investigation the police said that for a lengthy period of time a team of officers was working 10 hours a day, five days a week, watching videos handed to them by the BBC. Is there so little crime in West Yorkshire that they have nothing better to do with their time? Is this the future of policing under incitement laws? Will there be a bunch of Thought Police sitting reading every piece of literature and watching every film deemed to have a smidging of potentially offensive racist or religious comments?

Griffin landed himself in trouble with these comments about Islam: “This wicked, vicious faith has expanded through a handful of cranky lunatics about 1,300 years ago until it is now sweeping country after country.” Continuing, he added: “You will find verse after verse after verse [in the Qu’ran] which says that you can take any woman you want as long as they are not Muslim women; any woman that your right arm can own – that is the sword arm, the fighting arm, the arm you hit a white lad with a baseball bat. Any woman they can take by force or by guile is theirs.” After his arrest and during his trial Griffin repeated his belief that Islam was “wicked,” but added that this was not directed against Muslims: “I was talking about the menace of Islamic fundamentalism to this country and, thank God, that is still not against the law.”

Although the Government plans to extend incitement laws to cover religious hatred, it is currently not a crime to incite to religious hatred. So, any case against Griffin would need to show that he had behaved in a way likely or intended to stir up racial hatred. His comments above, however, were not racist at all. Islam is not a race – it’s a religion – and, as Griffin himself pointed out in an interview, there are also white British Muslims, who, presumably, would be just as offended by such remarks.

I studied Islam as part of my degree in philosophy and theology, and, admittedly, I have some sympathy for Griffin’s view that Islam expanded from “a handful of cranky lunatics.” At least he mentioned nothing of Mohammed having sex with a 9 year old girl, Aisha, when he was 53, right after she finished playing with all the other boys and girls. Anyhow, regardless of whether Griffin’s comments are right or wrong, true or false, accurate or misleading, edifying or offensive, I certainly find it downright dangerous that in our modern culture the expression of such comments could be made illegal. It would be most unfortunate if we reacted to the BNP’s views and comments by fleeing to another extreme which, although sounds more sanitised and civil, is highly dangerous and potentially disastrous. I refer of course to the mindset that refuses to level criticism at any religion, culture or life-style.

Iqbal Sacranie, of the Muslim Council of Britain, supports a new law against incitement to religious hatred because, “defamation of the character of the prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) is a direct insult and abuse of the Muslim community.” It is questionable whether a law against incitement to religious hatred would prevent defamation of the character of Mohammed, but the law itself would set a precedent that could plausibly lead to the banning of remarks taken to be offensive by religious folks. What Iqbal Sacranie seems to want is an extension of our libel laws, to make them effective beyond the grave, and for religious belief to be granted the sort of protection extended to no other creed or ideology. And, where do we draw the line on defamation of the character of Mohammed? I think Mohammed was a liar who filled the heads of gullible desert folk with tales of visitations from the angel Jibrail. Some scholars of Islam have argued that Mohammed was possibly a madman who suffered from epileptic fits and delusions. Others will label him as a paedophile. Is that defamation of his character? Is it defamation of his character even if it’s true? Is truth therefore less important than defending and protecting the honour of a dead guy?

May I be so bold as to suggest that what the Muslim Council of Britain would really like is for Islam to begin enjoying something of the same legal privilege as it has in Middle-Eastern countries. After all, it is largely Muslim groups who are actively supporting such legislation. In some Islamic countries people who reject or insult Islam have no rights, and in many others apostasy warrants the death penalty. In Pakistan, if you so much as even accidentally defile the name of Mohammed you’re mince. By calling for legal protection of Mohammed’s character the Muslim Council of Britain are, in effect, taking steps to have Islam protected from criticism by law, on the grounds that it is offensive to Muslims. Such an intellectually redundant position belongs in the Dark Ages, or, perhaps, the Middle-East – not in a society that values education, freedom of thought and of speech.

Despite the fact that Muslim groups are happy that the same protection be extended to other religions, we should be concerned that our freedom to attack religious beliefs could be eroded. We must never treat criticism of religions, cultures or lifestyles as anathema. It is, and should be, acceptable to describe a religion in the way that Nick Griffin spoke of Islam. Of course, Griffin must be prepared to argue his case, but he should not be silenced or punished for expressing his opinions. Those who seek to silence others in such matters are at least as dangerous to a liberal democracy as any (inaccurately named) ‘far-right’ bigot. Attempting to define the boundaries of acceptable political and religious speech is a highly dangerous path to tread. Eventually nothing other than the most warm, fluffy, deadening benign language would be acceptable. We need to recapture the spirit of the Enlightenment: we may not agree with what someone else says, but we will fight to defend their right to say it.

Ironically, many oppose the BNP on the grounds that it is ‘fascist.’ However, what they actually end up doing is adopting the very tactics of the fascists they despise: seeking to censor other opinions by an act of law, and engaging in violence when it suits. This was highlighted in the furore caused by the visit a few years ago of Jean Marie Le Pen, French National Front leader, to a BNP meeting in Britain. The irony could not have been missed by anyone with more than two neutrons flying around inside their skull. Here we had bricks and bottles thrown by anti-fascists (you know, the kind of peace-loving “can’t we all get along and respect each other” folks) at “far-Right thugs” (you know, the kind of thugs who throws bricks and bottles) who, lets admit it, behaved themselves all day. Apparently these anti-fascists were concerned about potential violence caused by the visit. Indeed. The truth is they were concerned about potential violence in a way that a serial killer is concerned that there’s going to be another murder. Seeking to censor the views of the BNP because they are deemed to be fascist is itself a form of fascism. What good is it to attempt to rid society of fascism using the very tools of the fascist? These people aren’t anti-fascist at all – they’re anti-fascist fascists.

We must also defy the increasing trend that offending people is an inherently bad thing. In an interview, Richard Dawkins was challenged that it was offensive to describe religious people as “deluded.” His reply was memorable: “I don’t care if it’s offensive – because it’s true.” Whilst I disagree with Dawkins that religious people are all deluded, I greatly admire his “truth comes first” spirit. God-forbid we ever reach a point in our societal evolution when it becomes wrong to proclaim something we see as the truth simply because someone is offended. The pursuit of truth must be protected above hurting the feelings of a minority of thin-skinned, sensitive souls. Freedom of speech is the lifeline of truth, without which the path to truth would be blocked, the proclamation of truth impossible, and the challenging of competing ideas, each claiming truth, hindered. It is important also to recognise that our freedom of speech is inexorably bound up with the freedom of speech of those we disagree with – they stand or fall together. Freedom of speech means nothing at all if we can only express views approved of by the Government, or those that nobody finds offensive. If the term is to mean anything, it must include the freedom to be offensive. Saying that Elvis is dead is offensive to certain loon-bins (as is calling them loon-bins).

Mature, adult discourse thrives in a climate of free speech. Truth should be our goal, and since truth and the pursuit of truth rely fundamentally on freedom of speech and expression, we need to accept that banning the expression of ideas – even the most abhorrent ones – is a threat to truth and the greatest threat to democracy. The expression of ideas – any ideas – allows them to be challenged, confirmed, refuted or modified. Did John Stuart Mill teach us nothing?

What anti-fascists need to realise is that their tactics have done little other than help the very groups they oppose. They have drawn attention to them, and even created sympathy where there was only disinterest. In short, they have helped expand the very platform they seek to dismantle. If they’re not crippled by the time they stop shooting themselves in the foot, anti-fascists would be better off running a different course. Allowing fascist groups to air their views could actually help the anti-fascist cause, since people will hear just exactly what it is that these people stand for. It also gives the opportunity for reasoned criticism, argument, scorn and public ridicule, which is far more helpful than the usual approach of creating manic hysteria. Fighting fascism with fascism is like fucking for virginity.

At present, I am far more worried by the hordes of politically correct lunatics running around vomiting all over society than I am about the BNP and their ilk. When I named this article “Down With the Nazis” it wasn’t the BNP I had in mind.

Stephen Graham (B.Th Hons)