Can an attack on belief amount to hate speech against a religious group?

Posted March 13, 2017
By Richard Moon

In hate speech regulation a distinction is generally made between an attack on a (religious) group, which if sufficiently extreme may amount to hate speech, and an attack on the group’s beliefs, which must be permitted, even when it is harsh and intemperate. A ban on hate speech should apply only to assertions that the members of the group are less worthy or less human than others or that they necessarily share certain undesirable traits – that they are by nature dangerous and should be treated accordingly. Attacks on belief are a different matter. The criticism of a group’s beliefs is understood to fall within the core of the protection granted by freedom of expression. Religious beliefs, including beliefs about God, or about human dignity, address issues of truth or right and so must be open to criticism, even that which is harsh or uncivil. Individuals and groups are free to advance their religious views in the public sphere, but they must also be prepared to receive criticism of those views.

In practice, though, this distinction between an attack on belief and an attack on the group is not always clear. Hate speech, when directed at a religious group, often falsely attributes a dangerous belief to the group’s members, presenting the belief as an essential part of the religious tradition. The implication is that the members of a group that holds such a belief must themselves be dangerous. In attributing a belief that may be held (if at all) by only a fringe element of the group to all its members – to all those who identify with the belief system or tradition -- the speech elides the space for judgment and disagreement within the tradition and ignores the diversity of opinion and attachment within the religious community. In effect it ‘racializes’ the group, treating the attributed belief as an aspect of the identity of each of the group’s members. An attack on a particular (attributed) belief becomes an attack on the members of the religious group – and may amount to hate speech, if the falsely attributed belief is sufficiently extreme.

The false attribution of belief can occur in one of two ways, each of which is illustrated in recent anti-Muslim/Islamophobic writing. The first involves a claim about what Muslims believe and how they behave. Most anti-Muslim writing makes the claim that ‘they’ support the use of violence to advance their faith. Even when it is acknowledged that perhaps not all those who describe themselves as Muslim are committed to the use of violence, it is suggested that non-violent or ‘moderate’ Muslims are exceptional or are prepared to acquiesce in the use of violence by others. The second way involves a claim about the core tenets of Islam – that a true reading of the Qur’an reveals that violence is a central component of the faith. Anyone who calls him/herself a Muslim, but does not support the use of violence, is not a true believer, and indeed, by associating with the tradition, may be giving legitimacy to its promotion of violence. From either of these perspectives – Muslims as violent or Islam as a violent religion -- the members of the group (those who identify as Muslim or as adherents of Islam) are presented as holding dangerous beliefs.

We are more likely to discern a link between a particular instance of hateful speech and the spread of hatred or the occurrence of violence in the community, when there is a pattern or history of violence against the targeted group. Because phrases such as ‘the final solution’ or symbols, such as the swastika, evoke the Holocaust, it is easy to attribute a violent purpose to an individual who uses them. Yet, in the case of vitriolic statements made about other groups that do not have the same recent history of organized violent persecution, it may be harder to discern a violent purpose. We are less likely to see the speech as a call or prelude to violent action. The question now is whether recent acts of violence against Muslims, including bombings of mosques, street assaults, the mass murder in Norway, and the recent murders in Quebec City make it more likely that Islamophobic speech will be viewed as hate speech – as encouraging the violent oppression of Muslims.