Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)



  300. Mr Aziz, would you like to introduce, very briefly, yourself and your colleagues to the Committee.
  (Mr Aziz) My name is Mohammed Aziz and I have been working with FAIR for the last year and a half. On my right is Sadiq Khan, a partner at Christian Fisher khan, the law firm, Chair of Liberty, the Human Rights Organization, and legal Adviser to FAIR, but giving evidence in his personal capacity. On my far right is Dilwar Hussain, Director of the Islam in Europe Unit at the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, and on my left Chris Allen, author of the recent EUMC Report on `Islamophobia since 11 September and Researcher Officer at FAIR. Do you need anything more in terms of introduction?

  301. No, that is fine. Would you like to just tell us briefly what is in the submission which you have now presented to us. Would you summarise it for us.
  (Mr Aziz) My Lord, if I could make two requests first. As time is very short what we want to do is bundle some of the questions together that have been put to us by the Committee.

  302. You can do that certainly.
  (Mr Aziz) Secondly, as we do not have a view, as a group, on blasphemy but knowing that the other two groups which will follow us do have a view on a blasphemy we thought that we would spend our time on non-blasphemy matters.

  303. Please do, that is fine.
  (Mr Aziz) If we could start then with question number three and number six.

  304. Yes.
  (Mr Aziz) Those are the questions which look at the mischief that we are trying to address here. And at this point, if I may, I would like to ask my colleague, Sadiq Khan, to make an input.

  305. Yes.
  (Mr Khan) Thank you. As far as the mischief is concerned, we have had an opportunity to read the transcripts of the evidence given by the Home Office and by the police and, with the greatest respect to them, they did a very good job of crystallising the concerns that Muslim communities up and down the country have about the current gap in the law. At the moment if somebody decides to incite an individual or groups to hate members of certain religions it is not an offence. The way the law has developed in this country over the last 20 years means there is an anomaly, where some mono-ethnic religions are covered under the race hate legislation whilst others that are multi-ethnic religions fall outside the protection of that law. What we would not want to see is equalising down of the law so that the Jews and Sikhs who have the protection of the law are deprived of protection. Here onwards what we want to see is that the religions which are not mono-ethnic also to be given that protection. That is our starting point. That is where we are coming from. What is also quite clear from our experience in the last two years in particular—and this is a sweeping generalisation - is that, whereas in the olden days a fascist tended to be unsophisticated and not know what the law is and tended to beat up non-whites randomly and some whites as well, the Jewish community, nowadays the fascists are a bit more sophisticated and we will hand out in the next few moments—and Chris will talk about the research he has done with regard to the BNP-literature from far right organisations which demonstrate this fact. It is quite clear from the literature that they know what the current law is, they know where the gaps are and they use that to persecute and attack Muslim communities. In one example Chris will talk about, they actually ridiculed the police, who in their enthusiasm to try and catch people inciting religious hatred arrested somebody who was displaying a religious hate poster in their window. But the BNP realised there was no way he could be charged with incitement to commit racial hatred because the poster was specifically targeting Muslims Muslims, not on the basis of the race. What we are saying is that to fight the sophisticated fascist we need to amend the law to protect followers of religions who are victims at the moment of hatred caused by individuals. Finally, the perverse situation which exists at the moment is that if I incite a group or individuals to hate Muslims and somebody as a result of my incitement to hatred goes out and commits a criminal offence against a Muslim, that person who I incited can be arrested and charged with a criminal offence, as the inciter who started the chain going I am above the law. That is a concern that we have and we hope the Select Committee will address that. There is some literature we have brought with us which we thought you might find interesting, which Chris will now talk about if that is okay.

  306. We are very much anxious to have this sort of material so I welcome it.
  (Mr Khan) Okay. Before Chris kicks off, are there enough copies to go round? We only have a few of these documents. Chris?
  (Mr Allen) There are two types of literature there. There is one type of literature which is distributed quite freely to homes and also to places of worship and there are some newsletters and magazines which are distributed mainly within BNP supporters, and mainly to their activists. The literature which is distributed by the National Front and groups such as Combat 18 is very much more difficult to get hold of because it is on a much more localised grass roots level and it is produced much more on a localised basis. Unless you can get within those communities it is very difficult to get hold of those. Hopefully the literature that you have got there from the BNP will suffice to show what the more mainstream of the literature is showing.

  307. I am happy to say that we have already got this. There is no harm done but we have got it and seen it. It is a very good thing.
  (Mr Allen) With regard to mischief there are two points I would like to pick up on. The first point is the way that, as Sadiq mentioned previously, far right organisations and neo-Nazi groups are actually exploiting the loophole that exists in the law by inciting hatred against religious communities. The second point is how religion is becoming much more used within that sort of prejudicial environment to be a substitute for race. We are talking about how religion is used now in the same way that race was used maybe 20-30 years ago. I would like to pick up on the first point, this idea that the fascist groups and neo-Nazi groups are very much more sophisticated now than is probably understood in the popular domain. There is a copy of this in the back of our submission document. It is in Appendix 6. It was published in the BNP newsletter Freedom in December 2001. There is an article there entitled "Police drop a clanger!". This was following the changes introduced by the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001. Prior to that the BNP had been running a campaign which was called "Islam out of Britain". After that new legislation came in they amended their campaign slightly so that they stayed within the legislation. What happened here was that a 62 year old in Leeds, Dick Warrington, put one of these "Islam out of Britain" posters in the window of his house. The police came one day and asked him to remove it and took it away. The next day, of course, he put another one in the window. The police come and they arrest him under incitement to racial hatred. Of course, what happened was that once they got to the police station they found out that there is no legislation to cover his arrest, because Muslims are excluded from existing racial hatred laws. The BNP are fully aware of this. I will just read a quote from them. They say "The snag for the police, however, is that Islam is not covered by the anti-free speech race law... it's legal to say anything you want about Islam, even far more extreme things than the very moderate message on the poster". I think that is the first point I would like to make, that the BNP and the National Front and other far right groups are fully aware of the legislation and they do work entirely within those constraints.

  308. Others as well?
  (Mr Allen) Yes, there are others. The National Front and Combat 18 are probably the most prolific in their campaigns against Muslims. I know that Combat 18 in particular target indigenous converts to Islam. It is a vicious campaign. The BNP, where they are trying to be much more mainstream, are more careful about what they put into their normal literature, but the National Front and Combat 18 and other smaller groups - and there is a reference to some of them in the submission document—are actually much more localised and violent as their material is much more activist produced rather than centrally produced, as in the case of BNP literature. What we see in there—this is, in their magazine, Identity magazine, the BNP magazine—again from December 2001, is that it says "BNP launches new poster campaign". This was their old "Islam out of Britain" poster and they actually put underneath: "We reproduce the poster above, unfortunately it has to be censored to comply with the new `law'". Now what you will find is that, the following month, they actually launched a brand new poster which is stilled called "Islam out of Britain", but they have changed the wording slightly to ensure they stay within the legislation. There is an interesting point which has come up this week. When I was checking with regard to some BNP literature, the BNP have removed—obviously being aware of what is going on this week with regard to the Select Committee—every trace of literature, every trace of publication and they have removed their campaign against Islam in Britain from their website. Officially now the BNP are not campaigning to get Muslims out of Britain or get Islam out of Britain.
  (Mr Khan) For this week anyway.
  (Mr Allen) Exactly. It highlights very succinctly that they are very, very sophisticated and keep an eye on what is going on. That is what I would like to mention with regard to the far right groups. One final thing I would like to just mention with regard to those groups: it does not seem as though there is a coincidence that where the far right groups are working and operating to initiate religious hatred there are more socially divisive tensions with regard to those communities. As we saw last year in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, three of the very high profile locations that the BNP and National Front are campaigning in, there is a lot of socially divisive tension which exists there, and of course, the disturbances did come from there. I am not saying that was fully the reason for the disturbances, but it is no coincidence that those sort of groups are active there. The final point I would like to make is with regard to religion being used by these groups as a substitute for race. If you look at some of the literature that we have handed out, and if you remove the word Muslim or Islam and replace it with, say, Afro-Caribbean or black or Jew or Sikh, you find that literature does sit outside the law. I think that just shows that the BNP and other far right groups have been able to move on; they have been able to change and are now substituting race issues and their normally racially motivated campaigns for religiously motivated campaigns. They have been able to exploit the loophole further by getting a very small Hindu group and a very small Sikh group to align with the BNP to distinguish themselves from Muslims from under the blanket term which is preferred, and is quite widespread in this country, of "Asians" to describe people from the Indian sub-continent. This is an approach which the BNP are increasingly using. Of course, now the Hindu and Sikh communities are beginning to do that as well. We saw in Manchester following the Bradford riots last year, that Hindu and Sikh groups were distinguishing themselves from Muslim groups and saying that they do not wish to be termed Asians any more. Religion is becoming much more not only a source of self-identification but also a marker of differentiation between different communities.

  309. Do any of you want to add anything on questions three or six?
  (Mr Khan) The two additions to make to questions three and six would be, firstly, that we appreciate this Select Committee is simply looking at the area of criminal law and what we can do to make these sorts of things criminal offences. However, I think what we must not forget is that—and we discuss this in our submission, so I am not going to duplicate, but briefly—there are concerns which many groups have about the anomalies which exist in the civil law, which are obviously important for you. But the other point which I think question three misses is that although the legislation will deal with a particular mischief, what clearly it will prevent hopefully is the greater mischief of the hostilities within the communities which Chris has talked about, which we have seen over the last year, and the problems which can occur when those things are not nipped in the bud. As far as question six is concerned, does Section 39 deal successfully with the mischief and is there evidence that more is needed. Well, firstly, it is too early to tell what impact Section 39 has had on this area. I think it has been in action now for six or seven months. I am not sure if there has been a successful conviction yet, where religion was an aggravated feature, which led to a greater sentence. What Section 39 does not do is deal with those situations where there is threatening, abusive or insulting language, literature, material that is intended to cause religious hatred. It does not deal with the gripe that we have. It is a bit of a red herring in a way, welcome as it is. Firstly it is too early to tell whether it is having any success, and secondly, we are not sure in fact whether it deals with the concern we have, and in our view it does not.

  310. We are very well aware, of course, of the civil law aspect of this but it is not within our terms of reference.
  (Mr Khan) We appreciate that.

  311. There is nothing we can do about it.
  (Mr Khan) This time.

  Chairman: Are there any questions on that?

Lord Avebury

  312. Can I ask, Mr Allen, you said that there was evidence that the far right were targeting individual converts to Islam. Do you request the police to invoke the protection against harassment legislation, particularly the religiously aggravated offence of harassment which exists now? Do you find that is well known within the police?
  (Mr Allen) I think my colleague, Abdul Aziz, will probably be able to give more information on that. It is part of the role of FAIR to actually look into these things but I am not actually on that side of the work. I was using that as an illustration so maybe Abdul Aziz could explain a bit more.
  (Mr Aziz) We do casework at FAIR, and we had an example at FAIR of an indigenous convert to Islam who had been targeted by Combat 18, who was severely wounded. The attack was so vicious that the police felt it was necessary to move the whole family out of their property. He was retraced by Combat 18 and threatening letters were again sent to the property. The letters suggested that the targeting was basically on the basis that he had betrayed, so to say, the white race and the religion of Christianity. It was on that basis that he had been targeted and he had to be moved yet again. Of course there is a law to prosecute on the basis of grievous bodily harm or violence or harassment, but the element of religious hatred could not be captured at that point. Subsequently, of course, there has been a change in the legislation with Section 39 which would now capture that situation. However, our concern is firstly that, despite Section 39, there is a gap left there which is the gap of incitement. We do not think that the public order aspect of Section 39 extends to fill that gap and in the instance that it does not, and the literature that we have here suggests that it does not, and the response that we have had from the law enforcement agencies would also suggest that it does not, the community certainly feels that there is a hierarchy of protection. That is the second mischief, in that the community feels there is a hierarchy of protection between different races and different religious groups, and this then creates perceptions of a hierarchy of citizenship, and then resentment. Thirdly, what has been noticed is that, because there is protection of some race and religious groups, the weight of activities by the far right has shifted from those that are now protected to those who are not protected under the incitement legislation which covers race. That is the third mischief we would suggest. The fourth mischief is that religion is now used as a surrogate for race hate and that has been mentioned by some of the other submissions which have been made here orally. Those are the four mischiefs which we feel the current legislation produces and does not protect communities, like the Muslim communities, from.

  313. Further to that reply, would you agree that there is a difference between the individual case where the example is there is clearly a law which applies, you said grievous bodily harm could be invoked in the case of an attack against a particular individual. If there had been no physical violence it would still have been possible, I suggest, to deal with the offence under the protection from harassment legislation but if you get the sort of literature which you have presented to us, and we have had previously from the police, you are talking about a group where there is no particular individual name. Is it not that aspect of the problem we are looking at, the difference between the targeting of an individual who has the protection of many different laws, Public Order Act and protection from harassment and so on, and the protection of a group of people as, for example, all the members who go to a particular mosque? If none of them are named then they do not have any right of individual protection, I suggest, and they can be a collective target of people like the BNP. Is it not this collective attack on members of a particular mosque or members of a particular religion we are looking at?
  (Mr Aziz) I think, my Lord, you are absolutely right here and you have said it far more eloquently than any of us could have put it. We agree with that absolutely.
  (Mr Khan) I think the problem is clearly an extension of that. Section 39 now allows the courts to recognise the religious hatred element in the ordinary offence. As you correctly identify they are criminal offences anyway and the added element is in the sentencing. The problem is with the crime of creating religious hatred where there is no named victim, as you highlight, that is the problem.


  314. I think I would like to move on and ask you if there is anything else in the set of questions you would like to deal with. I have to keep to a very strict timetable this afternoon I am afraid.
  (Mr Aziz) If we may deal very briefly with question four. Sadiq?
  (Mr Khan) Question four I think is a problem of today and tomorrow, the internet and the use of the internet. We have looked into this and Chris has given you some pages from the website. We think it is possible for prosecuting authorities to be imaginative when it comes to the internet. At the moment if there is a defamatory article on the internet a potential claimant can threaten the internet service provider with action because they have published a defamatory article. By extension we do not see why the prosecuting authorities could not look at ISPs in this country if there was material on the internet which could be in breach of other legislation. In fact, if you look at the current legislation which deals with incitement to racial hatred there are sections which are analogous to what we would hope to see in the future. For example, there is a section which deals with broadcasting or including programming in cable programme services because it was recognised at the time it was written that this could be an issue. The person who is guilty in that example is the person providing the programme service, the person who produced it and the person who said the offending words or behaviour. We cannot see why that cannot be used imaginatively when it comes to things on the internet. There is clearly a loophole, which is that those who are abroad, people—when it comes to defamatory articles as well - who go abroad and use a foreign ISP to publish the article. There is still an issue there, but we think that this will hopefully deal with a vast majority of stuff on the internet which will be in breach of any new law.

  315. Do you happen to know whether the 1986 Act has been applied to any internet publications?
  (Mr Khan) No, I have no case where it has been applied.

  316. No.
  (Mr Khan) One of the problems is to do with how imaginatively the prosecuting authorities are using the legislation. There are two issues here. One is whether the officer on the beat has been explained the new law and whether they understand, when they take a statement, the importance of Section 39 with regard to making sure that they take a statement from the victim which includes the religiously aggravated breaches which fall within Section 39, that is the first point. Secondly, when this becomes law, whether the officer on the beat will be trained to realise that there is a new law etc. As far as the internet is concerned, we have no example that has happened, but we think it could happen and it needs to be looked into.

Lord Avebury

  317. Have you had any discussions with the Internet Watch Foundation which exists to try and stop criminal activities on the web? It seems to me that your thoughts about how the matter should be dealt with and the threats of prosecution acting as a deterrent might be something they would take up with the Director of Public Prosecutions.
  (Mr Khan) The problem and concern we have—because of who we are, is that, the Muslim community, at the moment, would not be protected by criminal law if there was stuff there. Hopefully, in weeks and months to come, when the proposed law becomes part of statute we will be speaking to them. We will speak to them about what is going on. You are right, it needs to happen.


  318. Anybody else? Mr Allen, can I ask you one question, you may or may not be able to answer this. You have been involved with the work of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, have you not?
  (Mr Allen) Yes.

  319. Have they got anything that we ought to know about on this somewhat narrow subject?
  (Mr Allen) There was quite a substantial rise in certain parts of Europe of far right activities targeting the Muslim communities. In some countries those groups and organisations have been able to come into the more mainstream of the European political domain, running very largely on a highly anti-Muslim campaign. Yes, there is some information there. I am not quite sure whether I can pass it on to you because the information we have access to is of a confidential nature from the EUMC but I could try.

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