Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Did Norwich City Council overreact?

Today the Norwich Evening News24 reports on the Norwich reverend whose council ban sparked EDL protests.

The minister, whose ban has given an excuse for the English Defence League to organise a march in Norwich on November 10, has denied having links to the right-wing group.  But is this really the issue?

The Reverend Alan Clifford was barred from a stall on Hay Hill where the council claimed he was promoting leaflets against Islam. In a statement to the Evening News, Mr Clifford, left, from the Norwich Reformed Church, said “My objections to Islam are ideological not racial.”

This statement indicates that Mr Clifford is aware that it is a crime to incite racial hatred.  He may also be aware that the Human Rights Act 1998 guarantees freedom of religion and expression.   But the UK has extra laws on this subject, and section 29A of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 includes “religious hatred”. The definition is designed to cover hatred against a group of persons defined by their religious belief or lack of religious belief, and makes it a crime to incite hatred against others for their religious or "ideological" beliefs. 

Read one of Mr Clifford's leaflets for yourself.  I did, and found it critical of Muslims and also of secularists, critical to the point of insolence.

As a secularist I resent being described as "decadent" (I wish), and I can understand Muslims would be offended by much of what Mr Clifford writes about Islam. 

Christians might also be offended by the words written by the minister under the guise of "loving" and "forgiving" Christianity.

Mr Clifford showed atrocious manners in distributing such material on Hay Hill, and in my opinion deserved a slap on the wrist for such public provocation against secularists, Christians and Muslims alike.  He is now barred from his hateful pulpit on Hay Hill.

Free speech is not at issue here, however much the EDL want it to be.  There is no free speech to shout "Fire!" in a crowded building, nor to tell deliberate lies, nor to willfully incite hatred against others for their race, for religious beliefs, for sexual preferences or even for the rational scepticism of atheists, agnostics and secularists.

On the other hand perhaps Norwich City Council has overreacted.  Maybe the council should have banned the public distribution of the offending leaflets rather than the cleric himself. 

There is a long tradition of tolerance for street ranters in Britain, and it seems to be a relatively harmless way to let off some steam.  Care in the community.

So, in the spirit of free speech, I'll let the EDL have the last word on behalf of the "tired and convicted" reverend -


  1. You suggest that "Maybe the council should have banned the public distribution of the offending leaflets rather than the cleric himself."

    But it wasn't Alan Clifford the individual that was banned, it was Norwich Reformed Church, whose permit to hold a stall on local authority premises was withdrawn because they were using it to distribute hate literature.

    If the church had been distributing antisemitic rather than Islamophobic literature I don't think we'd regard that as an overreaction, would we?

    You refer to the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. But that makes inciting religious hatred a crime only if the incitement is intentional and the words used are threatening (neither is necessary for a prosecution under the racial hatred law, but Muslims are not covered by that legislation, unlike Jews and Sikhs).

    Clifford would say that his intention was not to incite hatred, but rather to innocently inform people about the true nature of Islam, and the leaflet complained about contained no explicit threats. That would be why, after the council reported Clifford to the police, the police stated that no criminal offence had been committed.

    This shows how useless the current religious hatred law is. The legislation needs to be revisited so that the law against incitement to religious hatred has the same teeth as the law against incitement to racial hatred and Muslims have the same protection from racists as Jews and Sikhs do.

    You say that Clifford's leaflet was offensive to Muslims but that it was also offensive to secularists like yourself.

    This is not comparing like with like. Secularists are not a minority non-white community who are subject to attacks by racists and fascists. Muslims are.

    Antiracists, including secularist antiracists, should be the last people to try and obscure that distinction.

    Clifford's leaflet is not merely "critical to the point of insolence", it stokes up fear and hatred of Muslims. He accuses governments of "ignorantly distinguishing between militant and moderate Islam" and warns that "seemingly-benign Muslim communities will always be breeding grounds from which their more militant members can recruit jihadists".

    If Clifford wrote the same sort of thing about the Jewish community he would almost certainly be prosecuted for inciting racial hatred.

    Finally, the leaflet that you reproduce at the end of your piece is not by Clifford. It's from the leaflet the EDL are using to advertise their demonstration.

  2. Thanks for correcting my factual errors, which I will edit above.

    You twice speculate about how I would react to public anti-semitism, as if suspecting a different response. Why?

    All beliefs couched in such extreme language and forced into the public sphere, should be viewed with the same prejudice. No sane person wants to incite hatred and division amongst citizens.

    I think that Norwich City Council were right to stop the reverend from disseminating such hateful literature, maybe I did not make that clear enough, but at the same time this should not mean rushing to more legislation to restrict the criticism of relgious beliefs.

    The limits of free speech in the context of criticising religious beliefs is a thorny thicket indeed.

    For example, how do you know I am not as bitterly offended by Clifford's view of secularists being "decadent" as any other person reading his leaflet? How do you measure such offence and the hurt it causes?

    And how about the good moderate Christians who would shudder at the hateful leaflets which are presented to the public as "Christian"? Their feelings matter too.

    By the way, secularists can be of any race just as Muslims can be of any race. Secularists can even be religious - but they do not believe in any special privileges and exceptions for religion.

    To a secularist no religion is above critical appraisal, and the rest is simply negotiating the limits.

  3. Mr Clifford is absolutely spot on with his comments about Islam. The council was wrong to ban him and his stall at the market. They are obviously scared which makes his point quite eloquently.

    1. I think there's more to it - the Reformed Church's 'shouty' stall is unpopular amongst the people of Norwich -a genteel atmosphere- and their two-day long rant in the same spot so that the market traders could not hear was also inconsiderate.

  4. What’s the point of being a Member of the European Parliament if you can’t stand up and denounce the Pope as antichrist?

    What is the point of being Pope if you can’t tell gays they suffer from an ‘objective disorder’?

    Why would you want to open a hotel if you can’t call Mohammed a terrorist or paedophile or rail at the oppression of hijab-wearing women?

    Why would you want to stand in Hyde Park Corner if you can’t call Scientology a cult, or open a café if you can’t tell gays they’re going to hell for their abomination?

  5. what you fail to mention is that police found nothing racial within the leftlet or that any offence was commited.