“The conviction of these five men is a dangerous infringement of free speech and the right to protest,” said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.
He was commenting on the guilty verdicts yesterday (11 January) against five Muslim men who protested at a home-coming parade by soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment in Luton in March 2009.
The convicted men were associated with fundamentalist groups that want Sharia law in the UK and worldwide. These groups support the execution of LGBT people, women who have sex outside of marriage and Muslims who abandon their faith or convert to another religion.
Five defendants were convicted under the Public Order Act of using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
“I abhor everything they stand for, but defend their right to freedom of expression. Even though what they said was offensive to many people, their right to speak their mind is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society,” added Mr Tatchell.
“They want to destroy our democracy and freedoms. I want to defend these values. If we silence and criminalise their views, we are little better than them.
“Judge Carolyn Mellanby was wrong to rule that the people of Luton have a right to be protected against words they find insulting. There is no right to not be offended, since almost any idea can be offensive to someone. Many of the greatest thinkers in history have caused insult and offence, including Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin – as well as gay rights pioneers like Edward Carpenter and Magnus Hirschfeld.
When the LGBT movement campaigned against homophobia and for gay equality in the 1960s and 70s it was deemed offensive by many straight people. Indeed, artistic, photographic and video representations of same-sex relations were usually classified as offensive and illegal by the police and state censors in Britain as recently as the early 1990s.
“The five convicted Islamists would like to censor LGBT people and put us on trial. We should not stoop to their level of intolerance.
“Democracy is superior to their proposed theocratic state and we need to prove it by demonstrating that we allow objectionable opinions and contest them by debate, not by repression and censorship.
“I strongly disagree with these men and their fundamentalist religion. They seek to establish a sexist and homophobic Islamist dictatorship in the UK.
“I reject the hatred and religious tyranny they espouse. They oppose women’s rights, gay equality, people of other faiths and Muslims who do not conform to their hard-line interpretation of Islam.
“But I defend their right to express their opinions, even though they are offensive and distressing to many people.
“Insult and offence are not sufficient grounds in a democratic society to criminalise words and actions.
“The criminalisation of insulting, abusive or offensive speech is wrong. The only words that should be criminalised are untrue defamations and threats of violence, such as falsely branding someone as a paedophile or inciting murder.
“Some sections of the Public Order Act inhibit the right to free speech and the right to protest. They should be repealed.
“Just as I defended the right to free speech of the Christian homophobe Harry Hammond, and opposed his conviction in 2002 for insulting the gay community, so I also defend the right of these Islamic fundamentalists to make their views heard, providing they don’t incite violence.
“The best way to respond to such fanatics is expose and refute their hateful, bigoted opinions.
“Rational argument is more effective and ethical than using an authoritarian law to censor and suppress them,” said Mr Tatchell.