So speech and actions that "glorify" terror are now illegal in England, which represents a kind of victory for Prime Minister Tony Blair. The bottom line: This is the kind of news event that is shredding old definitions of "liberal" and "conservative" right now. You can sense that in Alan Cowell's report in the New York Times. It was a showdown, for the most part, between Labor and the Conservative and Liberal Democratic opposition.
Mr. Blair's critics said the vote, one of three crucial parliamentary tests in as many days, was as much a display of political maneuvering as a strengthening of British laws, which already include prohibitions like those used last week to prosecute Abu Hamza al-Masri, a firebrand Muslim cleric. He was sentenced to seven years in prison for soliciting to murder and promoting racial hatred.
Opponents had said the term "glorification" was legally vague and unnecessary. "The existing law is quite adequate to the problem," said Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats.
So is soliciting murder the same thing as praising jihad?
By the way, who gets to define "jihad"? If a radical Islamist defines "jihad" one way -- waving a sword -- and gets arrested, does that mean you then have to arrest a moderate Muslim for using a more spiritual definition of the word? Wait, sorry about that. Who gets to define what is dangerous spiritual language and what is not?
And, while we're at it, does that mean that opposing this law means one is soft on terrorism? That's the precisely the kind of logic that, once upon a time, "liberals" used to accuse "conservatives" of using. Didn't free-speech liberals here in America oppose that kind of thing when President Bush and Co. started down that path? Wait, there's more:
A proposal to close mosques used by radical imams has been dropped, and a plan to extend the permitted period of detention without charge or trial to 90 days from 14 has been abandoned in favor of 28 days. Speaking after the vote, Mr. Blair said the new law "will allow us to deal with those people and say: Look, we have free speech in this country, but don't abuse it."
So what is the line between offensive speech and dangerous offensive speech and who gets to draw it? Didn't the old law -- with that "murder" language -- go far enough?
Meanwhile, you just know that now there is going to have to be some kind of law that leans the other way.
If you legislate on one side of this clash in order to fight terror, you will now need to legislate on the other side in order to fight, well, Islamophobia. This is where talk of new British laws against "religious hatred" enter the picture. I dug into this a bit this week in my Scripps Howard News Service column, which included some interesting remarks in the House of Lords from the brilliant scholar and bishop N.T. Wright. If you wish, click here to read my column and then you can click here for Wright's text. Here is a piece of summary language from the column:
Wright stressed that it will be dangerous to pass laws that attempt to replace, amend or edit religious doctrines that have shaped the lives of believers for centuries. But politicians seem determined to try.
Thus, Birmingham University forced the Evangelical Christian Union off campus and seized the group's funds because it refused to amend its bylaws to allow non-Christians or atheists to become voting members. Thus, Wright noted that police have shut down protests in Parliament Square against British policies in Iraq. Comedians -- facing vague laws against hate speech -- are suddenly afraid to joke about religion. And was there any justification for government investigations of the Anglican bishop of Chester and the chairman of the Muslim Council of Great Britain because they made statements critical of homosexuality?
Public officials, said the bishop, are trying to control the beliefs that are in people's hearts and the thoughts that are in their heads. The tolerance police are becoming intolerant, which is a strange way to promote tolerance.
Now, is what the bishop is saying "liberal" or "conservative"?