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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 328-339)




  328. Now I welcome the representatives of the Muslim Council for Britain. Again you have been very kind and you have given us CVs for all of you but if you would like very briefly to introduce the matter now. We have also, of course, had a substantial submission from you which personally I have found very interesting. I do not want to ask you any questions about this at the moment. I will invite you to look at our set of questions on the yellow paper and according to whichever of you thinks fit to give us answers to them.

  (Mr Sacranie) Yes, my Lord Chairman. First of all, may I convey my appreciation to the Committee for inviting us to this important oral evidence when the issues and questions are so important. I think it is really appreciated that the Muslim community's views are being taken on board. The Muslim Council of Britain is the umbrella body of the Muslim community, a representative body in the UK. I am Secretary General and I was elected last April. I have with me on my right Khalid Sofi, who is the Chair of the Legal Affairs Committee, on my left Abdul Wahid, who is a member of the Central Working Committee and Mrs Sarah Joseph from the Media Committee. My Lord Chairman, I think it is important at the outset to make very clear the role of the Muslim community in the UK. Muslims are not only religious in a personal capacity but have a religious duty to preserve harmony and order in society. British Muslims have a unilateral obligation to preserve harmony and peaceful relations in society. We have a social contract with the country in which we live. I am sure most of you will have received our publication, "The Quest for Sanity", which has recently been published. On page 35 we have actually published "Our Social Contract"—what we as a Muslim community have to abide by where we live.

  I will just quote from a paragraph I think is relevant. "As British Muslims we have the right and duty to use wise counsel and all of our powers of argument and persuasion, to impress upon our government the duty to uphold the rule of law and follow ethical policies. As citizens of Britain we have a social contact to maintain the peace and stability of this country. No one must be tempted to commit any criminal or subversive activity." This really goes to the very heart of the community. In the society in which we live, which has now been accepted as multicultural and multi-faith, if all of us are to be treated equally, it is quite apparent there are sections of the law that do not give protection to an important section of the community, the Muslim community. I think it has been made very clear by my colleagues from other groups that have come before you and made submissions earlier on that Muslims transcend racial boundaries and therefore protection is accorded to other faiths and communities, but sadly we are not protected. The result is that the community is, of course, suffering from it. There is clear evidence it is vulnerable, it is insecure, alienated, discriminated against, threatened and marginalised. There have been cases where it has been vilified as well. This brings me to questions which were put to us. I will ask my colleague Abdulwahid Hamid to deal with the first issue, the issue of blasphemy.

  329. Thank you very much. I would now invite you to deal with any of the points in our list of questions which you think fit. I have in mind particularly in your own submission—I do not know whether you want to deal with it now or later—in paragraphs 3.3 and 3.4 where you have criticisms of the methodology of tagging-on religious hatred to the previous substructure of the law. I find this very interesting and I would like you to expand on it, if you can fit it in somewhere in your responses. I do not want you to be distracted from answering the main questions. It can fit into question four very well.
  (Mr Sacranie) Do you want us to deal with this question now?

  330. Deal with it when you get to section four. Deal with any of these questions in whatever order you feel fit.
  (Mr Sacranie) Certainly. It would be perhaps appropriate if any particular points come in from your side on the submission that we have made. There are two important documents that have also been included with our submission. The Need for Reform document, which is published by the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, which outlines in some depth the initial problem that was very much on the ground during the time of the Satanic Verses saga. That covers quite a bit of what has been mentioned here as well.

  331. Yes.
  (Mr Sofi) My Lord Chairman, I will be able to deal with those two paragraphs. What we are saying here is that we want legislation to deal with incitement to religious hatred to take account of how the legislation on incitement to racial hatred has worked previously. What we feel has happened is that the legislation has not worked very effectively because there have not been many prosecutions and if there have been prosecutions we do not have a breakdown of ethnic and other backgrounds to know who they were or whether this legislation or this offence has been used against Muslims, black people or others. In order to ensure that any new legislation on religious hatred is effective we have tried to rectify these. The way the MCB sees that can be done is by de-politicising the province of the Attorney General who at the moment has to give permission for prosecutions. We feel that powers could be given to the Director of Public Prosecution who can then give permission for prosecutions. As a safeguard there should be a duty placed upon the Attorney General to publish criteria on the basis of which the permission would be given. If permission is refused then there should be written reasons for doing so. The Attorney General should also publish a report to Parliament saying how many permissions were given, the reasons why they were given and also the reasons why they were not given. There could be a report of incitement which can then be passed on to the House of Commons select committee. There could also be a group to monitor how the legislation is working. The whole idea is to ensure that legislation achieves the desired objective and that it does not have the same effect as the offence of incitement to racial hatred, which has not really given protection to the very communities it was enacted for.

  332. I understand the ambition very well, the means to achieve it is another thing. Thank you for that. Is there anything you would like to say on any of the other questions? Would you like to start with blasphemy, because this is something that we have to deal with?
  (Mr Hamid) So far as the existing law on blasphemy is concerned the Muslim Council of Britain is for keeping this law because, as we said in our submission, we covet no freedom to commit sacrilege against any other faiths and the protection that is given to the Anglican Church in this regard we feel should be maintained. We believe abolishing the law on blasphemy would mean so far as other faiths are concerned what we call negative equalisation, that we all will not be protected in any way. This is our position, we think this law should really stay. In addition to this what we are for is the introduction fairly soon of a criminal offence to vilify any religious belief. We would like this to be given great importance because we see that in many of the troubled spots of the world we find that the religion of people in various parts—if we look at places like Bosnia for example—is vilified and then this leads to really horrific crimes and even genocide. The question of the vilification of religion we feel is very, very important, particularly in the post-September 11 situation in which we are. We see in many cases atrocities that have been committed and which have been attributed to Muslims are not just laid at the door of the aberrant behaviour of certain individuals but they are in fact being laid at the very door of the foundations of Islam itself, namely the Qur'an, which Muslims believe is the word of God and Divine Revelation, and also these accusations of responsibility are being directed to the noble Prophet of Islam where he is being described as a terrorist and in other really very derogatory ways. These two sources in particular form the basis of all Muslim being and their very existence and to denigrate and vilify these would strike at the very root of the Muslim community and individual social lives because as individual Muslims we are each supposed to internalise the teachings of the Qur'an and follow the example of the Prophet. We feel that a law against vilification is very important and we are aware that in many cases this has raised the question of restraints and limitations on the freedom of speech. We want to say that in no civilised society there is absolute freedom of speech. There is always the freedom of speech conditional on restraints of various kinds to protect the lives, dignity and property of individuals and of communities. I think this august gathering would certainly appreciate this. In bringing in any law to deal with the vilification of religious sanctities, which includes not only the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet but also the sanctities related to places of worship, and so on, it is important to realise that protection for these sanctifies is very, very crucial to the continued stability of the Muslim community and harmony in community relations throughout this land.

Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach

  333. I would like to ask two questions on this very interesting submission of evidence, the first is in relation to 2.3, you state there that the Muslim community in the view of MCB would not like to see the blasphemy law repealed. I would like to ask you, what is the way you take a sounding of the Muslim community, what is the basis of the evidence of that? Secondly, with respect to vilification, I take it that you would agree that there should be debate between various religions and how do you limit the offence round vilification so there is an open debate and various religions could challenge each other, at the same time respecting the fact that they should not vilify each other?
  (Mr Sacranie) Being a representative body of the community of more than about 380 organisations across the country when the select committee was established and questions were made available they were conveyed to the Muslim organisations across the country. Through our meetings that have taken place whether they concern legal affairs and community affairs the issues have been brought up and interestingly there is this feedback that comes up in a very positive light. Of course, as believers should do, they take their religion very seriously and know that there is a clear respect in Islam for other faiths. There is a clear sanction in the provisions of the Prophet that we need to respect all other faiths and ensure that we do not denigrate any other faiths at all.
  (Mr Hamid) With regard to the second part of your question so far as debate is concerned and discussions relating to matters pertaining to the sources and the sanctities of religion I think this is something which Muslims welcome because we believe knowledge can only be furthered through debate and constructive debate. When this degenerates into accusations of labelling the Muslim community as a community that is religiously required to be violent—as we see in the current climate fostered by the US "War on Terror"—very often it is now suggested that Muslims are religiously required to be violent by stating that the two sacrosanct bases of Muslim life, which I have mentioned, both promote violence and terrorism. As Muslims then, are we all legitimate targets of the war on terror? I think this crosses a threshold which places the Muslim community at great risk and it is no longer a question of the acceptability of debate but it is a question of targeting individuals, targeting the community and creating a great deal of insecurity and, as I mentioned earlier, much graver consequences in terms of social relations.


  334. I am very interested in what you say about this. I think we as a Committee very much appreciate the Muslim community accepting blasphemy on the basis that you have just put forward. It is in fact an extremely unsatisfactory criminal offence from various other points of view, apart from the fact it does not cover any religion other than the Church of England. If you are looking for something to supplement it and take its place do you have any models from anywhere round the world that you can point us to? This problem cannot only be in Great Britain. (Mr Hamid) Offhand I am not able to quote any such precedent.
  (Mr Sacranie) I believe, and this is subject to correction, in European countries, particularly in Belgium, Islam is recognised as a religion. There are certain provisions that it does protect but that needs to be looked into. Perhaps when we do that we can try and provide further more specific information.
  (Mrs Joseph) I think the importance of Islam being protected, not just Muslims, can be seen from the way the far right have used Islam and the words of the faith in their material. You had the presentation from Chris on the far right literature, and he has provided you with these I understand. If I can draw your attention to this one, which is a downloadable leaflet from the BNP website and was to be handed out outside churches. It highlights the word "Islam" and suggests it is "Intolerance. Slaughter. Looting. Arson. Molestation of Women. That's what Sikhs and Hindus say ISLAM really stands for. If you wonder why, the word-for-word quotations from the Koran below might give you a clue, and show you why the people who know this religion the best fear it the most. Justifying terrorism, murdering unbelievers, raping their women, taking their countries. Despite what Blair and the Bishops say it is all in the Koran. Get a copy yourself, or learn more about the reality of Islam..." Along with 666, the anti-Christ inscription, this type of literature instils fear in the people reading it: these people are not part of us, they do not hold the same values and in fact they do not like you. So if I am a white church-goer reading this, I am to fear these Muslims because their Qur'anic text actually says things against you. It reminds me somewhat of the 1938 Nazi propaganda film Der Ewige Jude, with the BNP taking those Qur'anic verses out of context in order to demonise Islam and Muslims and instil fear of Muslims in the reader. The film itself takes verses from Deuteronomy, "Unto a foreigner thou mayest lend upon usury, but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury." That was the film, as I am sure you are aware, to alienate Jewish communities, to say these people do not belong here, they do not like you, they will never look after you, they will not support you, they will rob you. They will rob a non-believer but they will look after themselves, look after their own. These are very much the same types of quotes that they have pulled out, out of context from the Qur'an, in order to demonise Muslims. I do not want to be a total scaremonger but I think we have to appreciate that type of propaganda and what it led to. There is a very, very, very real fear in the Muslim community that we are seeing a precursor to something which could happen later. Within Britain thankfully our fascists have never really grown and we are fortunate in that, but we see the rise of fascism in Europe and if we allow it to rise here and we do not take a grip on it now who is to say we will be lucky this time round.

  335. You are supporting, are you not, the proposition that there should be an addition to the law along the lines of what is in Clause 2 of Lord Avebury's Bill?
  (Mrs Joseph) That is hopeful as long as it does not manipulate. If the manipulation of religious texts and the vilification of Islam can be then used as a tool then we have to make sure that the law itself protects us in that regard, that the vilification of Islam is not used as a precursor to whatever.

  336. Then you are asking for an extension of something along the lines of Leeson, are you?
  (Mr Sacranie) I think there is a very clear anomaly and when we are talking about blasphemy I hope I have made it very clear that the more comprehensive legislation should deal with the issue of vilification so it is more practical and it can be implemented, and that needs to be looked into. I am sure this is an area for government as far as legislation is concerned and it can be looked into in more detail. It is the very principle that we are referring to now. Where there is the political will to address the problems that exist and the very serious problem we can see in the future, then I am sure we can find the right wording.

Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach

  337. Can I just clarify this, you are saying, are you, that vilification is not an alternative to blasphemy, but vilification would include blasphemy as a subset?
  (Mr Sacranie) Yes. We believe that there are many areas of the law of blasphemy which covers this issue. There is a clear definition of the law of blasphemy and that will be included in the production that is accorded under that legislation. This legislation will be wider, more practical and cover the key beliefs we refer to.


  338. What I think you may be saying is this, tell me if I am wrong, if one had the new definition of what I call "blasphemy"—getting it away from the historical basis and the Church of England—which was to cover a much broader spread of religious tenets and possibly even religious objects and premises you may very well get into an area where you are also beginning to bite upon some of the incitement materials that we have seen. I think that is really what Mrs Joseph was just saying. Is that right?
  (Mr Sacranie) Yes. The way we see it is there is a very blurred line. Where we have an initial attack on the very foundation of the faith, because that is what we are referring to, vilification, the very foundation of our faith, whereas incitement is more a reference to people who observe the faith.

  339. I just ask once more, do you have any models you can offer us? We have looked at some comparative law. I looked at blasphemy specifically in commonwealth countries and I have looked at various overseas material and I have not found anything that is quite right yet. Would you be able to help us, not necessarily today, through your contacts?
  (Mr Sacranie) Certainly. If my memory serves me correctly there were a few areas that we referred to some years ago and we will try and provide them to you.

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