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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-379)



  360. I think we are with you on most of that.
  (Mr Thomson) Yes.

  361. Where I would like to come in by way of question along the lines of what we were just saying is to some extent you align a new sort of blasphemy with incitement because they are only a step change, according to your argument, and you have set out some definitions in paragraph 31.
  (Mr Thomson) Paragraphs 18, 30 and 31.

  362. What worries me about this approach is that it certainly does not deal with atheists or humanists, and it is not intended to for the reasons you have given us, but does it even deal with all major world religions? I think not.
  (Mr Thomson) In my respectful submission, yes. I have perhaps rather a liberal interpretation because I studied all the religions and I did this even before I came to Islam myself and made that choice. My understanding is that the origins of the Brahminic faith, which you can say is the basis of Hinduism, comes from the Prophet Ibrahim, so within the Upanishads you find these statements of the unity of existence and of how really existence is a manifestation of the divine attributes of the Divine. I would say it has its roots in a revealed text because we know certainly from the Qur'an that Abraham had a book that was revealed to him. My understanding as far as Buddhism is concerned is that the Buddha was sent to revive the original teachings of the Brahmins, or the Hindus you could say, or of Ibrahim, just in the same way that Jesus was sent to revive the teachings of Moses when they had been changed. Therefore, Buddhism as well partly has its roots in a revealed text. As far as the Sikh religion is concerned one finds that in a way this is the product of the meeting of Islam and Hinduism, so you find in their book that they take texts from both sources and you find in the religion which has evolved as Sikhism they have aspects which are completely in conformity with the teaching of Islam and aspects which are completely in conformity with the teaching of Hinduism. I would say, again, that they have their roots partly in a revealed book and therefore would come within my definition.

  363. I am sorry but have you discussed this definition with any of the other major faiths?
  (Mr Thomson) I have not had the opportunity up to now, no.

  364. Because I think that we would be very wary of accepting this formulation unless we were sure that it did not run into further trouble with people who very sincerely hold other faiths. It certainly does not deal with the humanists or the atheists.
  (Mr Thomson) No, it does not even deal with the Scientologists. It is interesting that in the law which has developed under the law of charity where the respected judges of this land have looked at what constitutes religion and what is God, basically they have said that any following that they are prepared to recognise as a religion basically involves the worship of the Divine, however the Divine is perceived. Obviously the different religions may have a different concept or different understanding of the Divine. For example, the Buddhist understanding of the original void is very much in harmony with what the Prophet Mohammed said about what there was before the universe came into existence. This is another matter.

  365. It may be another matter but the fact remains that I would suggest to you that it would be very dangerous for us to recommend to the House legislation which plainly leaves out part of the obligations under Article 9. At the moment I am not dealing with the qualifications of Article 9, I am dealing with what is on the face of Article 9 which certainly includes non-religion and certainly includes all the major faiths. I wonder whether you have any lines of communication of your own whereby you can find out what they think of the definition that you have put forward to us.
  (Mr Thomson) My Lord, perhaps we should take the example of the Scientologists because they feel that they have been under attack, they feel they have been excluded sometimes from the country, that sort of thing, and they have tried to invoke the law, this is in the realm of charity law, without success up to now. Clearly they would probably be vocal in saying "even if our movement does not involve worship of the Divine, we still regard ourselves as a religion". I can see their argument, I can see their point, but my argument and my response to this is two-fold. Firstly, I think this is the Select Committee on Religious Offences, it is to do with the recognised religions. I think if provisions are needed as a counterbalance, if you like, to deal with non-religious groupings then obviously they have to be thought about and perhaps something will be drafted. To the best of my knowledge the non-religious groupings are not under attack in the same way that some of the minority religions are, especially Muslims and Islam.

  366. I think you would find that the Scientologists would challenge you on that. They have been under very severe attack in various countries, including Germany. I do not know what may happen in the future but I do not think you are right in suggesting that they are not under attack although they may not be a religion in your terms. Are you sure that it is correct to go ahead with legislation, or suggest legislation, which plainly does not comply with Article 9?
  (Mr Thomson) I think it is dangerous to argue, and this seems to be the drift of the argument, that we cannot look after everyone so we had better not look after anyone at all. I think where there is a clear case for protection legislation should be passed. It should be as wide as possible, it should be as widely embracing as possible. I am not saying that it is only the Muslims who should be looked after, I am saying all the religions. If we had the situation of the Scientologists then obviously the people ultimately responsible for drafting the laws will have to come up with a formula which offers a measure of protection to which they should be rightly entitled under the Human Rights Act. I do not have any disagreement with that. Probably because I have not had first-hand experience of being a Scientologist, their situation is not as immediate to me as being a Muslim. Clearly if legislation is needed to protect groups like the Scientologists or like the humanists or the out and out atheists or even the worshippers of Manchester United, if you like, then this could either be a separate Act or it could be part of this Act but I still maintain very respectfully that these offences are to do with religions and not people who deny religion and people who deny God. In the definitions which I have put forward I have tried to simplify and make practical what has become an anachronistic definition. The definition of blasphemy that exists at the moment is out of date, it came from an historical situation which no longer exists. There is now a new situation which requires legislation. I know you asked my previous colleagues are there any previous examples and of course one thinks of Australia where certainly protection is granted to different religious groups. I have not looked at it in detail.

  367. I think you would have to decide which state of Australia you were looking at because they are all different. They are all different from Commonwealth legislation as well.
  (Mr Thomson) It is a complicated matter. My Lords, I have put forward what appears to me anyway to be quite a simple and straightforward definition and by combining the two, combining blasphemy and incitement to religious hatred, within the same section, if you like, it does not get lost with the words "religion" or "religious" being added to various other statutes here and there and people do not have a clear idea of what the law is. I think if it was promulgated in this way then it would send a very clear signal to people. You may disagree but you have to have a certain degree of respect for other religions. You may not vilify them, or if you do, you do so at your own peril. I think also this is another point that I make in my submissions, that really it is hoped that by introducing both of these new offences there would not be a string of prosecutions and convictions, but rather there would be a deterrent effect which would mean hopefully that these laws would never have to be invoked except in very exceptional circumstances, but at the same time people would feel secure in this land, that they could believe in God and worship God as they saw fit according to their religion without being attacked. As far as the mischief is concerned, and I am moving on now really to incitement to religious hatred—

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

  368. You have been very clear about this religious debate only but I will give you an instance of two groups of people who have come together, a religious group, or a group of people who have religious belief, and a group of people who are confronting them. If one of the people who have faith says to the other "you unbeliever"—this is a fact, not a figment of my imagination—"you are an unbeliever", would the person making that comment in your view be guilty of one of these offences?
  (Mr Thomson) I think if they said "you do not believe in God, you are an unbeliever", the person who did not believe would agree, but if vilification entered the equation—

  369. If a person is facing somebody who is armed with a piece of wood or something who says "you are a non-believer", the question is would the person making that statement be guilty of an offence in your view?
  (Mr Thomson) Under the offences as I have framed them probably not because the unbeliever does not belong to a religion. I am aware of that difficulty. As far as the Qur'an is concerned there is a very clear Surah which is called the Surah of the Unbelievers and it says say to them: "I don't worship what you worship, you don't worship what I worship. I will never worship what you worship, you will never worship what I worship. To you your way of life, to me my way of life". This is a recognition of a difference of perception of existence but it involves no vilification. It is basically saying "Look, we have our differences. On the Last Day, which you do not believe in, God will decide between us". There is no vilification in that. Clearly if, say, a Muslim vilified an unbeliever there would not be protection under this law and this is why I said in my opening submissions if there is a need for protection for unbelievers then it should be the subject of different legislation or, if you like, alternative sections within the same Act. Because they are opposites I do not think you can actually unify them in the same section because they would merely neutralise each other and negate each other completely. It is what George Orwell called "double-think".


  370. Would you like to say a word about the mischief. I want to ask you about your paragraphs 13 and 15.
  (Mr Thomson) Very briefly, I think my colleagues have already drawn attention to the BNP leaflet campaigning. I do have copies here of leaflets which were issued by the Jewish Defence League, Kahane Chai, back in 1996 and at that time they said there is only going to be one warning and this is it. Basically they were threatening the Muslim community, especially the leaders, charities and businesses, with the same treatment that the Muslims in Lebanon were receiving at the time. I really add it is just as another example of the kind of mischief that we would seek protection from. I realise that it is probably a small group and an extreme group, just in the same way that some of the other groups are, but the point I am making is that mischief does not only come from far right so-called Christian groups, it also comes from far right so-called Jewish groups and we know there are so-called new Hindu and Sikh groups as well who go to extremes. I make the point in my submissions that groups such as these would not have protection under this law. Just because you are a follower of a religion does not mean to say that you have protection if you vilify another religion and, therefore, if a Muslim group were to vilify another religion they would be liable to prosecution under this law. I think this is important for everyone to bear in mind, again, in terms of the effect that it will have on society. If these laws are on the statute books it will make extremists think twice whatever religious group they belong to, including the Muslims. It is important to bear this in mind. It is almost the psychological effect that these laws will have if they are on the statute books.

  371. I am sure we are very grateful to you. This is not an example that I have had before and I am very pleased to have it, so many thanks.
  (Mr Thomson) It is quite extreme. On the face of it one would say I am surprised that they are not on the list of proscribed organisations under the Terrorism Act. It was issued against the Muslim community. This was issued mainly to Muslims, so it was a direct threat. If it is distributed amongst the Jewish community then it becomes an incitement to religious hatred and an incitement to commit religious aggravated offences.

  372. Perhaps you could tell us once more its provenance?
  (Mr Thomson) May 1996. I have the original here.

  373. How was it distributed?
  (Mr Thomson) It was sent by post. This was sent to the Furqan Charity Trust. I cannot actually see which day but it is May 1996, posted in Birmingham. At the time I understand it was sent to a lot of the Muslim organisations. Certainly I was advising the Furqan Trust and he received two because the proprietor was also a Muslim publisher as well as being the Chairman of the Trust. I said "Send one of these to the Home Secretary and ask him to do something about it". There was very little else that could be done.

  374. Did you go to the police?
  (Mr Thomson) I believe that the police were contacted as well by a number of Muslim organisations. I do not know what the upshot of that has been but certainly at the time complaints were made to the police and to the Home Office.

  375. But nothing happened?
  (Mr Thomson) Not to my knowledge. It was not something that I pursued personally as a lawyer. I was not instructed to go any further than that.

  376. I just wondered if you knew.
  (Mr Thomson) I do not know the outcome, no.

  377. Could I just take a few moments to follow up what you are saying in your paragraphs 13 and 15. As you appreciate, it is not for us to go into the civil law on discrimination, however much we might think it desirable that we should.
  (Mr Thomson) I just think it is important to bear that aspect and that context in mind.

  378. Anything we suggested would need to fit into a change in civil law, such as employment law.
  (Mr Thomson) We know there are European Directive laws and that there is going to be a law on religious discrimination in the workplace. There are other spheres as well where it [protection from religious discrimination] is required. In my first submission in paragraph one I am asking you to consider whatever recommendations you make should be within the general context of all the other laws which are in the process of being drafted and thought about.

  379. Yes. They are not, as far as I know, in the civil field but at any rate we can point to that situation.
  (Mr Thomson) It is a unified approach.

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