Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 203-219)

14 DECEMBER 2004


  Q203 Chairman: Good afternoon. Can I ask each of the witnesses to introduce themselves and the organisation they are from briefly?

  Mr Khan: My name is Imran Khan. I am an adviser to the Forum against Islamophobia and Racism.

  Ms Mashadi: My name is Samar Mashadi. I am the Director of the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism.

  Mr Kallidai: I am Ramesh Kallidai from the Hindu Forum of Britain.

  Mr Vaghela: I am Venilal Vaghela from the Hindu Forum of Britain and also Chairman of the Hindu Council of Brent.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. Mr Winnick.

  Q204 David Winnick: To the representative of the Hindu Forum. A witness in a previous session claimed that the Hindu temple in Neasden harboured a terrorist organisation, and understandably the temple were furious and strenuously denied such accusations that in any way they are involved in harbouring terrorism. What is the response of your Forum?

  Mr Kallidai: The Hindu Forum is the largest body for Hindus and represents 250 organisations; and we have contacted a number of Hindu organisations and they were outraged by that claim, and not only the Hindu community, but also the Sikh community in general have expressed outrage about Mr Jagdeesh Singh's claim. Our talks with the Sikh representatives and national bodies of the Sikh organisations informed us that this person did not represent anyone in the community, he represented a fringe group, which, of course, brings us to the question of how this Committee selects people to give evidence in one sense. The temple itself has been a haven of peace. It has propagated a very peaceful religion and has inspired millions of people throughout the world. It has no links with any terrorist organisations. It has been visited by Prince Charles and Diana and everyone has been there. Everyone is convinced, including the police forces, that the temple does not harbour any terrorist activity, and we feel that such insinuations should be carefully monitored.

  Q205 David Winnick: I understand, well, I more than understand, because I have, like my colleagues here, a copy of a letter from the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain in which he accepts that the organisation is not involved in terrorism and ends by saying, "We are pleased to note the excellent work carried out by the Neasden temple in promoting understanding and community relations in the country." Hopefully that clears up that aspect as far as the Muslim Council are concerned, but they never made the accusation in the first place. VHP, as I understand it, is an organisation of Hindu extremists. Would that be right?

  Mr Kallidai: No, that, of course, we would vehemently deny. There have been a lot of media reports about the VHP, of course.

  Q206 David Winnick: What is the VHP?

  Mr Kallidai: The VHP is an organisation that works with social and moral upliftment of Hindus and the VHP UK is a totally autonomous body from VHP India. The VHP had issued a public statement in 2002 saying that terrorism of any form is to be condemned. I think it is wrong, on the basis of media reports, to adjudicate an organisation. I have here with me, for instance, reports from the Times and the Daily Telegraph saying that the Markfield Institute of Higher Education and Islamic Foundation had academics who have links to Hamas, but that, of course, is not proved; it is just a media report. The Hindu community have not clamoured for that organisation to be labelled a terrorist organisation, because we think it is important to get the facts right, not just on the basis of media reports; and I think to have or feel or actually label an organisation a terrorist simply because of media reports is not helpful for interfaith relations. Similarly, the VHP has never had in any court of law any evidence proved or provided to link them to a terrorist organisation. So, on the basis of media reports, we should not quickly judge and label an organisation.

  Q207 David Winnick: It is simply a bona fide organisation concerned with the welfare of Hindus?

  Mr Kallidai: Most of the Hindu community in the UK and the world consider the VHP to be a peaceful organisation.

  Q208 David Winnick: The Hindu Forum list a number of attacks on Hindus by Muslims in this country. What evidence do you have of that and how serious do you consider the problem to be?

  Mr Kallidai: Many of these, of course, are from police reports and from newspaper reports as well.

Chairman: Mr Kallidai, can I explain. There is certainly one vote now; there may be more than one. If there is one vote only then we will reconvene at 3.45, if there are two votes, with members' support, we will be back by 3.55.

The Committee suspended from 3.30 pm to 3.55 pm for a division in the House of Commons

  Chairman: Many apologies, the division was delayed longer then we expected so some members will be making their way back, but we are quorate. David will continue, if that is alright.

  Q209 David Winnick: I think we have had enough questions on the VHP. I think we can leave that aside. Can I turn to you, Mr Khan, and ask: what do you feel, with all your experience, can be done to build into minority interfaith contacts?

  Mr Khan: I think the critical issue is about education. I think when we get to the stage where leaders are talking; and my discussions with some of the people here today suggest that there is interfaith communication at senior level, between leaders of organisations and so on, and the evidence from FAIR, the survey, indicates that there is not that inter-reaction, interfaith communication at ground level. In my view, and this comes out of other inquiries I have been involved in, fundamental to any recommendation to the future, is education at a very young age. I do not know if I am correct in this, and others may be more experienced, but it seems to us as an organisation that the issue of respecting all religions has to take place at a very early age. I do not know whether that is primary school, secondary school, or at what age. We live in a secular society. If it is to be a truly secular society, then, as one of my colleagues said, all religions have to be equidistant in terms of the perception that young people have; and, simply from my experience of nephews and nieces who go to school, my understanding, and this is not to say that this is wrong but it does provide a perception, is that the Christian religion is seen as central with others at the periphery. The argument, of course, is that this is a majority Christian community and, therefore, that is how the system operates, but we are in unusual circumstances post 9/11 and, if we are to deal with some of the issues that have arisen since then, there needs to be an investment at a very early stage in making sure that the perception of other religions is as clear to young people as the Christian religion is, being the main focus of the school curriculum.

  Q210 David Winnick: Would the other witnesses agree?

  Mr Vaghela: I would agree with him on education from an early stage, especially when you look at the curriculum that is set aside by the standing advisory body on religious education. The amount of education that is taught in an average school is 80% Christianity, while 20% is divided between Hindu, Muslim, Sikhism and different ethnic religions. Especially in a school which is 80% ethnic community, it sounds ridiculous. We need to justify the teaching of all the religions on an equal level.

  Mr Khan: Can I add to that, because there is some research, but this is to do with racism. I do not whether this is indicative, but my understanding from research conducted is that children as young as three start to get an idea of differences and making racist comments; so we are talking about research that suggests that the formative years are the most fundamental ones. By particularly my age and some of the people I see around me, by our ages, we are fairly set in our ways. We can have that dialogue, but it is at a very early age, the formative years, where there has to be an intervention.

  Q211 David Winnick: Mr Khan, if you look back at the dislike, rivalry and discrimination of the kind between Catholics and Protestants in certain parts, leaving aside Northern Ireland, but Northern Ireland in particular, and certain parts of Scotland and the rest, it does not give one too much hope, does it, that if the two main Christian denominations had so much difficulty over time what about the new arrivals—Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs—in Britain?

  Mr Khan: No, it does not, and what you see in the schools ends up in the football terraces, and so on and so forth. You see that going all the way through at a young age. I do remember watching a television programme, I think last night, where parents with their young child at a football match were being racist towards footballers. It is what the parents say to the child which is obviously influential and if the parents are not being responsible, at least at the schools there can be intervention, because as a curriculum the laws are applicable, et cetera, and so on and so forth. That is where the state, the Government, can probably intervene. It is much more difficult to police inside the home, but outside it within the school context, I think we can. If we get them early, if we get them at a very early age, then it is possible to have hope for the future and not end up having the same problems as in the past.

David Winnick: Without wishing to introduce a jarring note, before we were interrupted by the divisions, I did ask you, Mr Khan—I now remember—about attacks on Hindus. I do not believe I got your answer on that. To finalise that particular set of questions, perhaps you would respond?

  Q212 Chairman: Could I add a supplementary to save me coming in. Could you be clear as to whether you think things have got worse since international terrorism has had a higher public profile. I am sure, if you like, this is the background level of the problem?

  Mr Kallidai: There are two or three types of attacks on Hindus documented in this country, and some of them stem from extreme religious views and also politically extreme views as well. In our document we have listed both types of attacks, and certainly, I think, in terms of extreme news propagated by religion, there seems to be a slight increase in attacks on Hindus. We do not have very exact statistics at the moment of other Hindu communities, simply because attacks on the basis of religion are not monitored by the police, attacks are monitored on the basis of ethnicity and race; so I think it would make better sense, since religiously aggravated crimes are as much of importance as racially motivated crime, for the police to start monitoring religious crime on the basis of the victim's faith just as much as race, which I think will add to our understanding of whether these crimes have increased or decreased.

  Q213 David Winnick: You are clearly in favour of incitement to religious hatred?

  Mr Kallidai: Yes, that is right.

  Q214 David Winnick: You have no reservations on that?

  Mr Kallidai: The only reservation would be where do you draw the line between freedom of speech and incitement to religious hatred. It is not quite clear at the moment how the Government proposes to deal with that issue.

  Q215 Chairman: We will come back to religious hatred. Before I bring Mr Clappison in, can I ask a question to FAIR? The Hindu Forum have listed a number of attacks which, amongst others, include some attacks which they believe to be by Muslims on Hindus. You answered Mr Winnick's question earlier about the sorts of things that by implication would help to reduce attacks against Muslims. Is it the same measures, the education measures, the early age education that you talked about, that you think would help deal with any problems where, in fact, the Muslim community is the perpetrator against other faiths, or are there any differences in the way the issue should be approached?

  Mr Khan: I think it is similar. There is a point at which the state intervenes in a child's life or in the home life. At the early stages it is very difficult for the state to intervene within the home, but it can do so at school. As the child grows older and as the age of responsibility becomes nearer, the state can bring in legislation which prevents certain action being taken by an individual. Certainly there is a two-stage approach for the state. One is the critical ages for the state to say, "We will educate in a particular way in respect of all religions equally, and beyond that, if by the age of criminal responsibility there is no change in that, then there have got to be criminal sanctions." Given my experience in the past with other areas, I am a firm believer that you have to have sanctions for there to be change; and so, whilst legislation is important in some respects, the concern that we have is that it has to be enforced in a way which is seen as non-discriminatory, which is what we see as being a problem at the moment with some of the legislation that is in existence.

  Q216 Mr Clappison: Could I ask the Hindu Forum particularly about the question of security of Hindu temples, because it is my understanding that traditionally Hindu temples have open to people of other faiths and open to other communities, but am I right in thinking from your evidence that there have been some problems with attacks on temples and you have had to take some particular measures as a result of it?

  Mr Kallidai: Absolutely. There have been two or three types of attacks. In the 1990s 21 Hindu temples were burnt, two of them completely.

  Q217 Mr Clappison: In Britain?

  Mr Kallidai: In Britain, and not a single perpetrator has so far been caught. This was, of course, in direct reaction to certain events in India about a mosque: there was an incident in a mosque, and in retaliation these temples were actually burnt. There are a lot of arson attacks. Then you have the second type of attacks that happen where you have graffiti and things being thrown, like eggs and so on, into these temples and things being stolen, a lot of vandalism as well, a lot of attacks by people with political views. A year ago for the Hindu festival of Diwali—because generally the Hindu temples are very open now, as James rightly said—two Christians vandals went into a temple on Ealing Road and they shouted to the people assembled there that everyone ought to convert to Christianity. They went straight into the shrine and shook the Deity of Lord Rama, and He fell to the floor and He was broken; and the police did not consult the community to find out the level of outrage and the seriousness of the crime. The case was rushed through in three weeks, and one of them was awarded £500 as a fine. There was a general outcry in the community, because we felt that the community had not been consulted enough. There are many types of attacks of this sort continuously taking place. Even when we have festivals like Diwali and Navratri, more often than not we have gangs of youths coming in and terrorising the worshippers?

  Q218 Mr Clappison: If I can move on and ask the representatives from FAIR, can you give us specific examples of ways in which the treat of terrorism has affected the lives of community groups and community cohesion?

  Ms Mashadi: In terms of community cohesion, the whole implication of the legislation has been quite severe, especially when one looks at the figures on stop and search and the disproportionate number of Asians who have been targeted. Most of those stopped and searched have been of Muslim origin. In terms of community cohesion we feel that, though the Government is trying to counter the perceived threat of terrorism, it should be done in conjunction and on a par with civil liberties. In that sense there has been quite a deterioration, we feel, in the trust between the multi- ethnic, multi- faith communities. We have also seen a negative ripple effect from the legislation itself, this is evident in the increasing number of Muslims who have reported faith-hate and race-hate crimes against them. The increase in Islamophobia, demonisation of Muslims specifically by the media, has led to the Metropolitan police launching a nationwide campaign to try and tackle crime against Muslims. This is the first campaign of its kind specifically aimed to tackle Islamophobia. Islamophobia has become more of an issue now for the Muslim community than it was prior to 9/11, even though it did exist then. This form of racism against Muslims is a lot more prominent now—so much so that a number of grassroots organisations as well as larger charities and organisations carrying out campaign work to try and challenge this.

  Q219 Mr Clappison: Is there any idea that you could put forward for us that you think would help increase understanding and reduce the sort of tensions which you describe?

  Ms Mashadi: There are a number of initiatives that can be undertaken. I think first and foremost with the anti-terror legislation—this needs to be seriously looked at in terms of its amendment and whether it is actually needed, and in terms of how effective the legislation has really been in countering any perceived threat of terrorism when there is already existing legislation in place to deal with those offences. Since the 11 September attacks hundreds of people have been arrested in the UK under anti-terror laws, but only a handful convicted. Security forces have been accused by some of heavy-handedness, there's nothing new about this pattern when policing against terror. We also find that people who have been arrested and the people who have been charged, most of them have not been charged for terrorist related offences—instead statistics show these people have been charged, for example, on offences related to immigration, ID—so I think that in terms of community cohesion there are a number of areas which the Government should act upon. The first I would say is for the Government to try and reach out and participate more with the community itself in terms of Community Cohesion initiatives already in place. These could be more publicised national interfaith initiatives, as well senior officials within the Government speaking out against reports which condemn Muslims in one sweeping blanket, an example of that would be the Telegraph report by Will Cummins. I do not know if people are aware of this article in the Telegraph which literally called Muslims "dirty Arabs" and compared Muslims to dogs. These kinds of statements would not be tolerated by any community. Also,—when we hear of reports in media that Muslims are not condemning terrorism- we would hope that prominent journalists as well as Government officials would work with the community to counter-act these stories in the media. The point is that Muslims are condemning but is anybody listening?

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