The offence of blasphemy was abolished in England and Wales in 2008, but the disturbing case of the Batley Grammar School teacher – still in hiding two years after showing a picture of Mohammed in an RE class – and the recent punishment of schoolboys in Wakefield for lightly scuffing a copy of the Quran suggest that the imposition of de facto blasphemy laws is unlikely to end soon.
Blasphemy remains a crime in Northern Ireland, and while Scotland’s blasphemy law was repealed in 2021, it was replaced with menacing, vague new offences against stirring up of religious hatred. Meanwhile, some would argue the Equality Act has created new categories of ‘blasphemous’ speech and heretical beliefs. ‘Woke’ speech codes in workplaces and universities are often likened to a new religious doctrine, with new taboos policed not just by twitter mobs but through HR departments and EDI policies, ironically, often in the name of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’. Recent scenes in New Zealand and at Speakers Corner in London remind us that even today, attempts to silence can still take on the very old-fashioned form of a physical mob, baying for the blood of heretics.
In this climate, are we seeing the return of blasphemy laws ‘by the back door’? In a pluralist society, how should we strike a balance between tolerance for diverse beliefs and the right to ridicule or criticise religion? How can we defend the right to free speech against Islamism, while our institutions routinely censure dissent from woke liturgy?
Join our expert panel, Emma Webb, Rakib Ehsan, Steven Evans and Ben Jones for an in-depth discussion followed by audience Q and A.
About our speakers:
Emma Webb is director of the UK branch of the Common Sense Society. Emma was the co-founder of campaign group Save Our Statues. Before that, she was director of the Forum on Integration, Democracy and Extremism (FIDE) at Civitas, where she remains an associate fellow. Prior to that, Emma was a research fellow at the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society, specialising in Islamist social networks and institutions. As a political and cultural commentator Emma has written for the Telegraph, Times, Spectator, Independent, spiked, Unherd, ConHome, CapX, among others, and regularly appears on broadcast media, including talkRADIO, GB News and the BBC.
Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research analyst and writer, specialising in matters of social cohesion, race relations, and public security. He is the author of the forthcoming book Beyond Grievance and has worked with a number of think-tanks, including the Henry Jackson Society, the Centre for Social Justice, Policy Exchange, ResPublica and the Runnymede Trust. Rakib is a columnist for Sp!ked and a regular contributor for The Daily Mail and The Telegraph. He has featured on BBC Newsnight and Good Morning Britain (GMB).
Stephen Evans is the chief executive of the National Secular Society and a regular media commentator on the role of religion in public life. The National Secular Society played a leading role in the campaign to abolish blasphemy in England and Wales and ensuring free speech on religion was protected in Scotland’s 2021 Hate Crime Act.
Ben Jones is Deputy Director of the Free Speech Union’s cases team and he helps members of the public in all walks of life who’ve been penalised for speaking their minds. He also represents the FSU on TV and radio and co-hosts the FSU’s new podcast, That’s Debatable. And he is in the final months of a PhD on British ex-Muslims, focusing in part on how difficult it is for them to speak freely because of the danger, self-censorship and social taboo around criticising Islam.