Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has accepted an invitation to become chairman of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation (ECTR). The ECTR boasts an advisory board comprising a dozen European presidents and prime ministers. It describes itself as a non-governmental body that "fosters understanding and tolerance among peoples of various ethnic origin; educates on techniques of reconciliation; facilitates post-conflict social apprehensions; monitors chauvinistic behaviours, proposes protolerance initiatives and legal solutions."
Behind all this jargon, Blair and the ECTR claim to promote religious belief and dialogue as a means to challenge hate speech and extremism. Writing in The Times, Blair and ECTR President Moshe Kantor state:
"It is our firm belief that it is not religion or faith per se that causes or foments conflict. It is the abuse of religion, which then becomes a mask behind which those bent on death and destruction all too often hide. ... The ECTR brings together parties and political leaders who have been at the heart of some of the world's most difficult conflicts to foster dialogue. Our projects also tackle conflicts from the ground up -- focusing on the root causes of intolerance, which are usually ignorance of other faiths and cultures -- and so the ECTR takes its message to schools and universities around Europe to encourage tolerance and reconciliation."
The ECTR's mission is explained in a document entitled, "A European Framework: National Statue for the Promotion of Tolerance." This "framework" is currently being brought before parliaments all across Europe. For Blair and the ECTR, however, "tolerance" seems not to be freedom of expression, but an Orwellian standard of behaviour to be rigidly enforced and regulated by government.
"Tolerance," the ECTR claims, is "respect for and acceptance of the expression, preservation and development of the distinct identity of a [religious, racial or cultural] group."
Proponents of individual liberty, however, argue that true tolerance means tolerating views that we dislike. In a free society, there is no requirement to show "respect" for such views, merely to accept the right of free people to express them.
"There is no need," the ECTR explains, "to be tolerant to the intolerant." It seems that European "tolerance" means only tolerating a European agenda.
The notion of "group rights" is deemed to trump individual liberties. The ECTR calls for European countries to introduce a number of "criminal offences punishable as aggravated crimes," as part of a "Statute for the Promotion of Tolerance." These crimes would include:
(iii) Group libel...
(iv) Overt approval of a totalitarian ideology, xenophobia or anti-Semitism.
(v) Public approval or denial of the Holocaust.
(vi) Public approval or denial of any other act of genocide the existence of which has been determined by an international criminal court or tribunal.
These measures are staggering assaults on free speech. Particularly damaging is the proposed criminal offense of "group libel" -- the notion that defamatory statements about a group of people are actionable by individual members of that group.
Group libel has no basis under British law. In 1993, a British court ruled in Derbyshire CC v Times newspapers that governmental entities could not sue for libel because it would lead precisely to undemocratic restrictions on free speech. Group libel laws, such as the ECTR is proposing, would allow extremist religious and political movements to censor reporting and criticisms of their beliefs.
In Britain, Public Order Acts already criminalize incitement to violence. If, for example, a neo-Nazi activist advocates that Jews should be murdered on the streets of London, he would likely be prosecuted.
The ECTR, however, wants to go much farther. As an "aggravated crime," group libel, the ECTR's framework explains, also means "defamatory comments... with a view to... slandering the group, [or] holding it to ridicule."
Blair is repeating his old mistakes. In 2006, his government was condemned for its attempts to criminalize anyone who "intends...to stir up religious hatred or was reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up."
After losing a vote in parliament and after politicians, comedians and journalists forcefully argued that such proscriptions would censor honest criticism of religious groups, Blair was forced to accept amendments to the legislation.
To criminalize ridicule would be disastrous. In a free society, no one has the right not to be offended. As Conservative MP Dominic Grieve said in 2006, the proposals were an attempt to "appease" some minority groups.
Along with criminalizing -- in the name of tolerance -- views that the ECTR deems intolerable, Blair's group also proposes Orwellian means of regulation to further its "tolerance" ideology. "The Government shall ensure," the ECTR advocates, "that public broadcasting (television and radio) stations will devote a prescribed percentage of their programmes to promoting a climate of tolerance."
In addition, government funded bodies will impose and enforce such tolerance, with the ECTR framework calling on governments to "establish a National Tolerance Monitoring Commission as an independent body -- composed of eminent persons from outside the civil service -- vested with the authority to promote tolerance." A separate governmental body will also be set up to "supervise the implementation" of the Statute for the Promotion of Tolerance.
The ECTR also lobbies for "entrenching state funding for religious institutions into law."
Once again, Blair seems unable to learn from his own follies. Under the Blair government, the authorities poured millions of pounds of funding into the pockets of religious groups, which the government believed would challenge extremism and terrorism. Publicly-funded groups, however, included Islamist organizations connected with terrorist movements.
The current Prime Minister, David Cameron, has since noted:
"As evidence emerges about the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were initially influenced by what some have called 'non-violent extremists', and they then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence. ... Some organisations that seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community are showered with public money despite doing little to combat extremism. As others have observed, this is like turning to a right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement."
Europe needs to divorce the state from oppressive interest groups; it should not do the opposite and embrace them further.
The ECTR's proposals only serve to reinforce the dangerous flaws of multiculturalism policy. Under this system, people are classified as members of religious and cultural groups, not as individual citizens with individual rights. By defining individuals by the groups to which they belong, you deny individuals their own voice and rights of citizenship.
In a recent case before London's High Court, a British judge ruled that an illegal immigrant who beat his own son should be forgiven because of the "cultural context." In other words, the law should protect only white children; the ruling implicitly condones the beating of minority children -- all in the name of diversity and tolerance. Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Equality Commission, described the decision as "the effective abandonment of the migrant family's child on the altar of multiculturalism."
As an extension of multiculturalism policy, the ECTR's proposed measures seek to protect the various groups by which European states classify their citizens. Such laws and regulation would further divide Europe into tribal groupings, composed of various religious, ethnic, cultural and political movements -- all in competition with each other for government patronage and support.
By criminalizing our freedom to criticize religious movements, or even to express intolerant thoughts, and by offering legal protection to religious groups from ridicule or insult, Blair and the ECTR would destroy the most important tenet of individual liberty: freedom of expression.
A free society cannot proscribe toleration of the intolerant. Actual tolerance requires free citizens to tolerate views they dislike.
We should certainly not, as the ECTR advocates, be forced to "respect" views that the government declares suitable.
In a democracy, the law is designed to protect individuals against the agenda of oppressive interest groups. But Blair and the ECTR are proposing the very opposite. Under government-enforced "tolerance," extremists would flourish, honest critics would be silenced, freedom of expression would be criminalized, and, in deference to religious and cultural "groups," the individual would lose his right to be an individual.