The French authorities are investigating Bob Dylan after some Croats were offended by something he said in an interview with Rolling Stone last year. The singer had said: ‘If you got a slave master or [Ku Klux] Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.’

Dylan is the latest victim of Europe’s neo-blasphemy laws, in which offending someone’s group identity is treated in the same way that offending God once was. When Christianity stops being sacred, everything becomes sacred; did GK Chesterton say that? Well it’s the sort of thing he might have said.

I wonder how the great secular reformers of yesteryear would have felt about blasphemy being effortlessly replaced in this way. When in 2008 Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris introduced the repeal of our blasphemy laws I was opposed to it, basically for tribal and culture war reasons, because it would further undermine Christian England. But Harris was right and people like me were wrong; much as I don’t like tedious young artists insulting the Virgin Mary, it shouldn’t be a criminal matter, and there’s little justification in having a law as a statement of values.

But now that identity, whether of race, religion, class, sex or sexuality, is the new sacred, hate crime laws have become blasphemy laws in all but name. The things that will get someone arrested, investigated, shunned, boycotted, made unemployed or end their political career – all relate to the blasphemy of identity.

One of the first such laws, also in France, made Holocaust denial a crime, and some warned that other wacky historical interpretations would become illegal one day, but now you can’t even upset the Croats, whose wartime record was appalling (I seem to recall reading that some SS officers came to visit Jasenovac. the Croatian death camp, and told them they were taking the whole genocide thing too far).

This is certainly not something that the Anglo-Saxon world has escaped. According to Jon Gower Davies’s New Inquisition: Religious Persecution in Britain Today there are now 35 Acts of Parliament, 52 Statutory Instruments, 13 Codes of Practice, 3 Codes of Guidance and 16 European Commission Directives that deal with various neo-blasphemy crimes.

People even forget that the arguments they use against ‘haters’ are the same ones used against blasphemers in the past – namely that they sowed division, or that they had malicious intentions, whatever their arguments and facts. Someone responded to my post the other day about Richard Dawkins by arguing that ‘he needn’t be such an asshole’ in his comments about Islam, and presumably therefore it was his fault. Galileo was a bit of an asshole too; he was still factually correct.

Although there’s a judicial investigation, I can’t see Bob Dylan being extradited to France to face charges. That’s the thing with most hate crime investigations; they don’t tend to go anywhere, they’re just an inconvenience that make people’s lives a pain or misery for a while, cost lots of money, and discourage everyone else from making any contentious comments. And it is the very ambiguity of hate crime, the uncertainly about when one is breaking the law, that makes them so illiberal.

I often wonder what babyboomers like Dylan must feel about how our world has changed; when they were young, barriers were breaking down and people were free to say what they liked. Did they imagine that when they’d got old the society they lived in would be more censorious than that they rebelled against? Certainly the times they are a-changing.

Tags: Bob Dylan, Europe, Freedom of speech, hate crimes, Religion