[Alastair Lichten] Hello and welcome to the latest episode of the National Secular society podcast I’m Alastair Lichten, Head of Education at
the NSS, and this is part 7 in our series of interviews Exploring Religious Freedom.
A few weeks ago I spoke with Geoffrey Robertson QC. Jeffrey will tell
you about his work so I won’t do too much of an introduction. I am however
excited to announce that he will be presenting the Secularist of the Year
award at our upcoming conference Secularism 2019. There will be links in
the show notes and I’ll be back at the end of the episode with more details. Enjoy.
Geoffrey Robertson welcome to the NSS podcast. [GR] Thank you.
[AL] Would you like to start by introducing yourself to the audience? [GR] Well I’m Geoffrey Robertson QC. My life
is an open book. It’s called Rather His Own Man, it’s just been published, In Court
with Tyrants, Tarts and Troublemakers. So if you want to know about me, read my autobiography.
[AL] I’ll have a link to that in the show notes.
What does religious freedom mean to you? [GR] It means the right of every person to, if
they’re so minded, if they want consolation from some superstition or
other, to embrace that. There are some confusions because human rights treaties
sometimes talk about not only holding beliefs, but also practicing them and
some practices are simply not on, in human rights terms, because they have to
be balanced against the rights of others. You can believe what you like.
You can believe in Rastafarianism or Scientology or Methodism or whatever, but
if the practices of that religion impinge on the right of others
then, there are lines to be drawn. Religious freedom doesn’t mean all those fanatical Pakistani Muslims chanting for
the death of a poor Christian woman. We saw that obscene spectacle last year.
That’s not what religious freedom means. [AL] What first drew you to human rights advocacy?
[GR] I grew up in Australia where, in the 50s and 60s, the churches were very strong and very
repressive. It was a very repressive society, particularly a racist society,
they had what they called a White Australia Policy. They didn’t allow any
non-whites into the country. They had a system where they didn’t include
Aboriginal people, the indigenous people, as Australians. They couldn’t vote and
they couldn’t be counted in the census. It was a stupid and brutal country,
particularly because of the policies of the churches. When I started to
practice law, I started to become interested in the way the court system
was discriminating against Aborigines. Some of them were being
prosecuted and convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. And so that was, I guess,
the first thing. Australia was always very close to South Africa it was
playing tests, cricket and football tests with South Africa, and Peter Haine came
out and I became friendly with him. And so I was involved in the anti-apartheid
struggle as well. So they were the kind of issues that drew me, as a young lawyer,
I guess, into the civil liberties. We called Human Rights ‘Civil Liberties’ in
those days. We had to fight for them against fairly
brutal policemen. And, of course, the other thing that, I think, makes Americans and
Australians perhaps a little more practical than British people, is
that we had to fight Vietnam. We had to fight conscription. We were being
conscripted to be sent off to kill people, civilians and children, who
was simply of a different colour. So we were pretty hardened, I think, by that
experience. Britain did not go through that. because of the wisdom of the Wilson
government in the 60s. but it’s often not appreciated how that does, perhaps, make …
It was interesting how, when I came to Britain in the early 70s and got
involved in civil liberties campaigns, just how many people had come from
Australia or New Zealand or America, hardened by their experience in anti-vietnam campaigns. [AL] I will be speaking to Peter Tatchell in a podcast.
[GR] Yes, well Peter is a good example. He grew up in Australia at the same time as I did.
He started, I think, with anti-Vietnam and then went on, of course, with Gay Rights.
[AL] Perhaps some of the cases you’re best known for, is defending
Gay News in the Mary Whitehouse blasphemy case, and you’ve also acted for Salman Rushdie.
[GR] Yes. [AL] So both these cases were around 30 years
ago. 30 Years is a lot. But what you think is the significance
of those cases today? [GR] Well, I think in Mary Whitehouse’s case,
she was a very vicious Christian. She was backed by the moral rearmament movement,
and her very right-wing view, she was totally opposed to gays, she tried to
attack the churches whenever they suggested that was any hope of salvation
for them, and her agenda was to harness the courts, the law, to condemn secularism
in various forms. So she was rather liked by the conservative judges who were
happy to say with her that Christianity is part of the law of England, and this
was something that had to be removed. She had a very belligerent, red-faced,
tub-thumping, bible-bashing. QC called John Smythe, who was always thinking of
ways to attack either gays or secularists. He was behind the Romans in
May, the prosecution of Gay News for a poem that suggested that homosexuals
might get to heaven, and he was the architect of the attack on the National
Theatre over showing a play called the Romans in Britain, which, yes, it showed
Romans raping druid priests when they conquered Britain, but the real
objection was that it showed, in the second act,
the brutal Romans as the SAS, the paratroopers and the British
Army in Ireland. So it was a political objection. She was very right-wing as
well as being overly Christian, and fanatically Christian, and trying to use
the law, in a courtroom crusade, against the permissive society which was led by
John Smythe, who, as we now know, was himself a brutal
sadist – who was allowed to pick up kids from a nearby public school and
take them to his shed, his potting shed, and then cane them for masturbating.
This was the sort of secret mentality. And he was called in by a very
stupid headmaster and told that he wouldn’t be reported to police if he
left the country. And he left for South Africa where he continued his extremely
sadistic bent. The police investigation only came out when
a couple of his victims, years later, revealed it. Of course they
recommended his prosecution but he died before the retribution in the courts
could be achieved. That is, I suppose, an example of extreme hypocrisy
He was the persecutor of gays and secularists in the late seventies. And
the importance of stopping them, and they were stopped – at the Romans in Britain we
managed to destroy Mrs. Whitehouse and her private prosecution. I remember her,
when the case fell apart, was thrown out, she sat huddled in the back of the court, with having financed this expensive
prosecution, and near to tears, she was enraged.
She was fundamentally wrong in thinking that her particular religion
could be enforced through the law, through, in that case, the common law.
So it was very important to stop her in her
tracks, which we finally did. The Salman Rushdie case was
quite different. It was a case of international religious terrorism. The
Ayatollah Khomeini put £3 million down for someone to come and assassinate Salman.
He went into hiding of course. He hid in my attic for a while. He was a friend
[AL] He’s not still there is he? [GR] Ha ha! No. He’s now courageously going about
town, town usually being New York, quite openly, although the bounty is still on his
head. But back on Valentine’s Day 1989, when the fatwa was issued, he went into
hiding and the Muslim groups who protested, burnt the book, behaved absurdly
given its contents, wanted to flush him out of hiding, they served a writ.
17 Muslim barristers brought an action for sedition and for blasphemy
against him. I acted for him. It was a good occasion to set out the evidence.
And, of cours,e when you looked at and analyzed the Satanic Verses, it isn’t
blasphemous in any conception of blasphemy. But these people had been so
keyed up, I don’t think any of them had actually read the book, any of the
protesters, and there they were burning it, and in some protests a number of
people were killed because they were so hyped up. So I think the action brought against
him, it was important in ending prosecutions for sedition, which was the stupid old law that was still around, and the court ruled
that it couldn’t be brought unless there was violence. And it was important in
ending blasphemy, because it ruled that blasphemy didn’t apply to religions
other than Christianity, or in fact to attacks on other than the established
Church of England, so it couldn’t stay. We had to abolish the blasphemy laws
because we couldn’t have this discriminatory criminal offense. So it
helped in the path, in the progress towards a secular society. At the end of
the day Christianity was no longer part of the Law of England,
and we didn’t have crimes that could be used against secularists or gays.
[AL] Would you agree that there’s a bit of an echo of that dynamic today, that if we look at
the threats to religious freedom you have on the one hand physical violence,
international terrorism, international authoritarian regimes, physically
oppressing and then you have people pursuing a legal strategy to undermine
rights, or to assert through the legal strategy, a right to discriminate?
[GR] Well I think there are still groups of Christians, of course, particularly, but
also other religions, the Jewish religion has now the churches of Christianity, the
temples, the Muslim groups, look to the law, but increasingly, interestingly and
ironically, they’re starting to look to human rights law, because they do have
rights. And a number of cases are exploring just where the line is drawn.
We have, for example, the bakers who
refused to ice a cake for gay marriage and things like that. These
issues need to be sorted out, and so tentatively, case-by-case, we try to
develop it. I mean, in this country we seem to be relaxed about women
who wear hijabs, although, that’s, for my money, indicative of the extent to which
they’re oppressed and is insulting. [AL] But any sort of ban on it would not pass the test.
[GR] Well in France they banned it. I would certainly not allow a woman wearing a veil to give
evidence in court when I was a judge. But whether they should be allowed to cover
up in public is a matter that needs to be considered. There are arguments on
both sides, and so we are seeing, in a sense, the religious groups coming in to
argue their case, but on human rights law terms. A lot of the fuss about
anti-semitism, you’ll notice there’s distinctions being drawn between
criticizing Israel as a government, the Netanyahu government, and criticizing
Jews generally, which is anti-semitic. Whereas criticizing the
Netanyahu government isn’t. But it is making distinctions between those two,
and I wouldn’t have thought, I don’t notice much criticism, there should be
more, of Orthodox Jewry, Jewish religion. Perhaps the fear of anti-semitism is
curbing criticism of the religion itself, which, of course, is not
anti-semitic. So it’s drawing those distinctions. But the way we’ve moved on
is that we are drawing them and arguing them out on the basis of human rights
principles and not on the basis of some absolute law that Christianity must be
protected or whatever. [AL] Is that just maybe human rights has been a victim of its own success? That we framed all instances this narrative of
human rights, and someone, there’s a phrase, not sure who it’s attributed to, but
tells people when you’re used to privileged equality feels like a fashion.
Groups that have traditionally been able to be in privileged
society, been able to, been happy to to impose their values on other people,
there’s pushback, and that feels to them like oppression.
[GR] I think that’s an interesting point. But if I were a committed Christian, I would feel very
lost today if I had experienced the law and the establishment in the days
when Mary Whitehouse ruled it. That was in the late seventies and early eighties [AL] There is a lot of case law that’s been developed
since our adoption of the European Convention of Human Rights and Human
Rights Act, to deepen our understanding of what religious freedom means.
What can be done to make that record of developing understanding
more accessible to people? Because, I mean, I think it’s fair to say,
that human rights are very poorly understood. [GR] Yes, I would agree with you
and it’s not easy because at this stage we’re getting terribly complicated. I
mean, I welcome the Human Rights Act, because I thought it would
make the law less complex, we wouldn’t have the old common law going from case
to case. We would have a set of principles on which you could construct
logical arguments. But, because it’s got caught up in discrimination law and
it’s complicated to decide between direct and indirect
discrimination, and so on and so forth, it has got a bit too technical. And while
we’re going through this process the Human Rights Act has only been
operating for less than 20 years, and we’re going through this process of
getting precedents, of sorting out what the law requires in particular cases, and
so that takes some time. And I could go on about the need for better law
reporting, the need for actually teaching kids at school Human Rights starting
from there, telling them what this basis of our law is all about, and inviting
them to develop or refine it themselves. So, you know, it is a problem
with all law, and it’s a pity that it’s still a problem with human rights
because that depends on everyone knowing their rights and being able to understand it.
[AL]I’ll give you an example that comes up quite a lot. We tend to see cases in the office. We rather derisively refer to them as ‘fired for praying at work’ cases.
Someone’s in some position of power: nurse, teacher, and it comes up. And this
is driven by these conservative, strongly conservative Christian religious
groups, and you see a lot the story that this person that’s been fired
for praying at one, and obviously, if someone was fired just for being a
Christian that would be a terrible form of persecution that we would never tolerate,
but it comes out, it gets a very sympathetic hearing in
certain areas of the press, and then months or years later it actually
comes to an employment tribunal, where the case is just thrown out,
[GR] Because, obviously, yes, you can be whatever religion you like, so long as you don’t
ram it down other people’s throats, and so long as your practice of it does not
impinge on the rights of other people, whether your employer or your fellow
[AL] What I’m saying is the coverage of the actual employment
tribunal case, this is what actually happened, is just not comparable to the coverage
of this person sounding sympathetic. I was just fired for saying what my Christian views of marriage were…
[GR] You’re infuriating everyone else, insulting everyone else, and assuming or saying that
being gay was a crime and so on. Yes, of course, I suppose they do
get more sympathetic coverage, but then again sometimes you’ve got to admit
the rights of Christians are infringed. I mean, I don’t mind if a BA
stewardess leans over to serve me my drink and her crucifix drops down, as
long as it doesn’t drop in my coffee. There are cases where overzealous
secularism, if you like, has infringed the rights of Christians. So I’m not upset
that these test cases are being taken. [AL] Balancing rights will mean
that you have some cases that seem a little unfair, but I’m not talking about those
particular cases, I’m talking about the constant building of this narrative, case-by-case.
[GR] Oh yes. I know. Well, Christians love beating themselves up.
In a sense it’s part of a lot of religions actually, it’s part of
almost the culture of being repressed, being oppressed. And really
Christians shouldn’t feel like that. They are perfectly protected in this country.
And, indeed, the problems that Christians face in Egypt, in Indonesia,
I mean Pakistan. It’s time that, I think, we concentrated on defending the rights
of Christians in these other benighted countries, where they’re
surrounded by haters and people whose behavior is obscene.
[AL] And these are typical. Now, in China, we have an officially atheist state persecuting
Christians. But, predominantly, this is where Christians are a religious minority,
and you have over there an authoritarian religious regime thats persecuting them. It’s somewhat strange, I would say unseemly, sometimes
to be in a country where Christianity is so privileged, and certain Christians…
[GR] Well, Christianity is too privileged. We have to get rid of the established church. It’s
crazy. We don’t have a written constitution but it’s crazy that the
established church is treated as if it’s established in a way that other churches
are not. That’s the Anglican Church, it’s is ridiculous they should have 26 of the
bishops cluttering up the House of Lords, adding very little if anything to the
deliberations of Parliament. It’s ridiculous that we should have prayers. I
shall never forget the gay news case. We were waiting to come on, in the those
days the House of Lords Judicial Committee was the Supreme Court, and
10:25 we had to sit there listening to the prayers with which the House of
Lords opened every day. It’s ridiculous. They’re always
Anglican prayers and we should get rid of them entirely.
Parliament should not be, it’s perhaps not the most urgent matter, but it is
symbolic, important in law, and, of course, all the tax breaks that the churches are
given are outrageous. Churches are charities. Even the bloody
Scientologists can claim to be a church, to get charitable to status.
This is just ridiculous [AL] But I think because that privilege is so
accepted, it would feel like a threat to religious freedom.
They might perceive it as a threat to religious freedom, that we’re taking away.
[GR] Well, of course it’s not a threat to religious freedom, it is a threat to religious privilege.
[AL] Well, I’ll give an example. We had a campaign recently encouraging people
to write letters to their MP to support an EDM on prayers in Parliament. And this
was compared in some quarters to the scenes you see in China, or
the state bulldozing churches and the scenes you see in Saudi Arabia, of the
religious police breaking up prayer groups in private homes,
where you actually do have an example of Christians being persecuted
for praying. This is just not having prayers as part of government.
[GR] Prayers have no place in Parliament, of any kind. [AL] What do you think the biggest
threats to freedom of and from religion are today?
[GR] Well I think it depends where you’re talking about, if I may say so. There is no threat to
religion in Britain, except for some of the nutty DUPers and the ranters
perhaps in Northern Ireland. But there is no real threat to religion in this
country. But if you look at the wider world, yes, there is. Threats made by
religious people and particularly powerful religions. And there are threats, as we’ve seen, to religions in countries where they’re
discriminated against. And it would take us far too long to list those countries
and those threats. I’m constantly being sought for advice by
religions that are genuine but yet have powerful enemies and usually other
religions. I have a case at the moment where an utterly genuine religion, based
mostly on Tamil people in southern India, are being discriminated against,
beaten up and so forth, by extreme Hindus and even by some atheist groups. So, you
know, you’ve got to accept that in the world we have terrible examples of
religious hatreds. This is why we have a law against genocide and treat genocide
as the worst crime, because that is a crime where religious hatred usually
springs out into mass murder. [AL] Well, thank you very much for your time.
But before you go we always like to ask our guests if they have any recommendations for
films or books that do a good job of exploring religious freedom.
[GR] Ha! Well I can only recommend my own! If you want to read about fighting militant mad
Christians and Mary Whitehouse and so on read my book either Rather His Own Man,
or the earlier one, actually, has a lot on the gay news trial. That was called The
Justice Game. But, in so far as the Catholic Church is concerned,
which is a real problem you know, Why do they have statehood?
Why does this funny little enclave in Rome claim to be a state when no one is born
in it except by accident? And why should we allow the Catholic Church to get away
with what I say is a crime against humanity, the mass abusing
of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of mainly young boys, read
The Case of the Pope. That puts the case against the Vatican, at least, as a case
of crime. I suppose films on that subject, there’s
rather a good one called Mia Magna Culpa. That’s the documentary about how
priests buggered small boys deaf boys, so it was really outrageous, and how they
were finally brought to justice. There’s the film Spotlight, but these Hollywood films irritate me because they make
heroes out of journalists, and journalists, I’ve spent much of my life
defending, are a pretty miserable lot. They only operate, they only do their job
of exposing abusers, usually, when they’re tipped off by lawyers or by courageous
victims. So I see Spotlight in that category, as a hagiography of journalists,
who don’t really deserve it. They didn’t expose the situation of paedophile
priests in Boston until they’d done a lot of abusing. It was really the
lawyers and and the courageous victims who came forward
However, that’s a personal complaint. [AL] You can read our review of Spotlight at secularism.org.uk/reviews
Geoffrey, thank you so much. [GR] Thank you very much
[AL] I hope you enjoyed that discussion and found it as informative as I did. Since we spoke,
it’s been announced that Geoffrey will be presenting the 2019 Secularist of the Year
award. Rather than a separate event, this will take place at a ceremony at our major
upcoming conference Secularism 2019. The award is presented annually, in
recognition of an individual or organization, considered to have made an
outstanding contribution to the secularist movement. For example last
year’s winners were Phil Johnson and Graham Sawyer, for their courageous
campaigning work over many years to expose institutional abuse of children and
vulnerable adults in the Church of England in the face of some quite
fierce institutional hostility. Secularism 2019 will take place at the Tower
Hotel, in Central London on Saturday 18th May, with a great lineup of speakers,
including our keynote address from Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for
Separation of Church and State, and my guest on episode 2 of the podcast. Full
details and tickets are on the website secularism.org.uk/2019 Student tickets are just £10
Member tickets £25
and non-member tickets £50 So it’s really fantastic value for money.
If you enjoyed this episode please consider joining or
donating to the National Secular Society at secularism.org.uk
Until next time, thank you and goodbye.