TCS Daily


Scotch Tape

By Michael Rosen - August 30, 2005 12:00 AM

EDINBURGH - Sadly, religious incitement to violence is almost as old as religion itself.

Take the Reformation, Scottish-style. The adorable seaside town of St. Andrews -- so named because its founder carried the remains of its namesake across the sea from ancient Greece -- was at one point the ecclesiastical center of all Scotland. A majestic stone cathedral graced its skyline while a sprawling, hardy castle secured its shores.

The Reformation literally destroyed both buildings. The firebrand reformer John Knox (1505-1572) delivered incendiary sermons from Perth to Stirling, railing against the Church and locking horns with the reigning Mary Queen of Scots. He ignited blazes throughout the country, including in St. Andrews in 1546 when he joined a mob in occupying the castle after the cardinal residing there had George Wishart, another reformer, burned at the stake. Only the arrival of the French fleet ousted the Protestant occupiers, and only after reducing the castle to rubble.

On June 11, 1559, Knox unleashed another inflammatory speech in a St. Andrews church, prompting his disciples to lay waste to the cathedral. Today, only the spire and a few walls remain.

St. Andrews -- whose "Royal and Ancient" Old Course is revered as golf's original playing field -- was a short drive from this year's G-8 summit, a conference which British PM Tony Blair was forced to depart in the aftermath of the July 7 bombings. On that grievous day, an ashen-faced Blair returned to Scotland, surrounded himself with his fellow heads of state, and told the nation and the world that "We are united in our resolve to confront and defeat this terrorism that is not an attack on one nation, but all nations and on civilized people everywhere."

The irony of this moment -- namely that representatives of eight major world powers would set aside their different ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds and come together as one in a country steeped in the bloody sectarian battles of the past, only to taste the violent faith-based onslaught still to come -- was not lost on many.

In fact, even prior to the 7/7 attacks, Parliament was debating the "Racial and Religious Hatred Bill", a measure ostensibly designed to promote religious harmony by criminalizing unwarranted verbal assaults on religion. The bill had come under fire at the time for restricting freedom of expression, particularly when it came to criticizing the hateful rhetoric emanating from many of Britain's mosques.

Four days after the bombings, the bill passed the House of Commons and is awaiting passage by the House of Lords, despite widespread opposition by many of Britain's churches. Several of the bombers, second-generation British subjects all, were said to have prayed and studied at several British mosques where imams regularly delivered fiery sermons calling for the eradication of infidels. The condemnation of such incitement which swiftly followed the attacks -- although not in all quarters -- could in some cases have been barred by the religious hatred bill.

Of course, the bill, like a famous road, was born of good intentions. While the British Empire has spanned the globe and encompassed a wide range of cultures and religions, Britons themselves -- like their continental counterparts -- have been unprepared for the widespread immigration of the past several decades. The temptation to ostracize or denigrate new arrivals, especially if they take low-paying jobs away from "native" Brits, can be especially alluring. Hence, the desire to protect the integrity of "exotic" faiths from intolerance.

But the drafters of the religious hatred bill either have never encountered the frank invitations to violence on offer in many mosques, are willfully ignoring them, or cannot see that they are protecting the very worst forms of religious hatred. The sermons -- and sermonizers -- leave no doubt as to their intentions: the establishment of Sharia in Britain and the forced conversion or slaughter of all non-believers.

What's needed is not any religious hatred act, or any vigilante action or counter-incitement, but rather candid and fearless reporting on the hate speech emerging from British mosques, much as organizations likes MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch provide in the Middle East. This is not to encourage snooping or infiltration of holy places but simply to suggest more active monitoring and translation of fighting words, some of which are even televised. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, when it comes to speech, sunshine is the most powerful disinfectant.

Fortunately, someone seems to be listening. Last Wednesday, Home Secretary Charles Clarke promulgated a list of "unacceptable behaviors" that would warrant expulsion from Britain. These include "fomenting, justifying or glorifying terrorist violence" and "seeking to provoke others to terrorist acts." Preaching and public speaking are explicitly listed as vehicles of such actions. This policy will hopefully help eliminate genuine religious hatred and the violence it causes.

The effects of Muslim immigration are far less strongly felt in Scotland, where the population is relatively white and homogeneous. Muslims make up around 3% of England's populace and 8% of London's, while Scotland's population is less than 1% Muslim. Even in a medium-sized city like Edinburgh (pop. 450,000) -- half-medieval, half-Georgian, looming over the Firth of Forth -- the faces are mainly white.

Here, in fact, Edinburghers are too enthralled with the ubiquitous and renowned August festivals to give last month's events in London much thought. The distance indulges a certain benign ignorance of the terror threat among the Scots.

All this enables Scotland to escape the present and wallow in its glorious and tragic past. Don't be surprised, though, if an updated version of the interconfessional struggles that wrought destruction in the Highlands centuries ago make their way north to these bonnie shores as well. Here's hoping they don't.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, is an attorney in San Diego.

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