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

Letter and Submission from the Muslim College

  Honourable members of the Select Committee,

  We are making this submission to the Committee as leaders of various faith communities in the United Kingdom desiring to urge the Committee to favourably consider the present Bill against the incitement of religious hatred.

  The United Kingdom is a multi-faith country which should and does in the main rejoice in the diversity of its populations and religions. Much inter-religious ecumenical work has been done between our faiths, we have learnt a lot from each other whilst maintaining our own religious convictions. The key to co-existence has been a recognition that we all live in the same society and a desire to understand each other's view of God and the world, and of our respective fears and hopes. Even in an essentially secular society such as ours, religion remains a foundation of our identities and our aspirations. Indeed, amongst many of us religious belief is a core element of personal and communal identity.

  Therefore, if we are to support the creation of a modem multi-cultural/ethnic and religious society, it is of paramount importance that religions are protected in so far as their adherents should not be subject to attacks either physical or through incitement on account of their religious affiliation. There exists already some protection for Anglicans, Jews and Sikhs, and we wholeheartedly support this, but there is now a need to extend legal protection for members of other religious faith who have an equal right to respect as citizens of this country.

  Therefore, we urge the Committee to recommend the enactment of the Bill against Religious Hatred into law.

19 September 2002


  This paper outlines the situation of Muslims in the United Kingdom for the purpose of setting our support for the Avebury Bill in context.

  Muslims have lived in this country for many years from the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, Muslims have been present in the national consciousness since the time of Chaucer. However, the large populations of settled communities of Muslims began, as with other migrations into this country in the middle of the 20th century and have grown in size over the past 50 years with waves of immigrants coming from all over the Muslim world in their bid to escape poverty and persecution. Therefore, during the 50s and 60s the main immigrant influx was from the sub-continent, in the 70s and 80s from Turkey, Bangladesh and East Africa and more recently from Somalia, Afghanistan, Morocco, Iraq and Kosovo. There are approximately 1.8 million Muslims in the UK made up of first generation, second generation and third generation immigrants. First generation Muslims retain strong emotional and blood-ties to their mother countries whilst having clear ideas about the reasons for coming to the United Kingdom. The following generations continue the association with the countries of origin but the connection with the UK is much stronger although problematic for several reasons including the issues of identity, racism and socio-economic pressures they encounter in the UK.

  In order to set the Muslim community in context within the UK a few statistics would be useful. We should, however, keep in mind that these statistics are not fixed, they are based on estimates and some of the definitions used to compile them are hard to standardise. Muslims comprise about three per cent of the total UK population. By far the greatest proportion of this population is made up of people of Pakistani origin (700,000) and Bangladeshi origin (300,000). Other significant groups are, Muslims from India (240,000) and the Middle East and Africa (375,000). There is small Afro-Caribbean and white convert group (10,000) and about 200,000 other Muslims who originate from various countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, Bosnia, Kosovo and so on. Whilst at one level there is a certain homogeneity of religious faith within the entire Muslim community, it would be erroneous to regard it as a monolithic block. Racial, cultural and national differences are as powerful as religious commonality. Even in terms of religious belief there are differences of affiliation between various communities such as the Sunni and the Shia's and so on. Having said that the community is diverse, it is still legitimate and important to consider the Muslim Community as a whole in contrast with other communities which make up the UK today.

  The Muslim community is concentrated in certain cities of the UK. Thus there are communities in Glasgow/Edinburgh, Oldham (11 per cent), Bradford (17 per cent), Leeds (4.5 per cent), Leicester (12 per cent), Birmingham (15 per cent) and London (14 per cent). London has the most ethnically diverse Muslim population.

  There are approximately 600 registered mosques in the country, but if one adds the ad hoc facilities for prayer the number climbs to above 1000 mosques. These religious centres provide a range of services from being simply a place to perform the ritual prayers to a comprehensive service to the local community encompassing religious education, social service, counselling, and adult education. Such mosques play an important part in the life of the local community. Certain mosques play a negative role in that they encourage a militant isolationism and other mosques enable the local community to integrate into the wider community to various degrees.

  In all categories of social statistics which measure performance and quality of life, Muslims achieve low scores. This is a community at the margins of society which is in the process of developing its British/Western Muslim identity. Therefore, when we consider the job market and employment we find the following:

    —  Muslims of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origins are two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than the white non-Muslim population, and they are three times more likely to be on low pay.

    —  Three quarters of Muslims of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origins earn less than half the average national income.

    —  There is a higher level of self-employment amongst these groups than in the general population. Amongst Muslims of Bangladeshi origin 65 per cent are semi-skilled manual workers as compared to 15 per cent of the white population.

  The statistics concerning welfare the pattern remains depressing. Thus:

    —  28 per cent of older Muslims of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origins live in housing without central heating.

    —  38 per cent live in over-crowded homes.

    —  43 per cent of Muslims of Bangladeshi origin live in council or housing association properties which is 50 per cent higher than the national average.

    —  Male Muslim prisoners make up 7 per cent of the total male prison population.

  Health statistics are also poor. In education the situation is mixed. There are four Muslim state schools in the UK. It is interesting to note that twice as many Muslim girls of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origins took A levels in 1998 (the latest available figure) than white boys. Education is generally highly valued in Muslim students of Pakistani origin gained five or more good GCE grades as compared to 50 per cent in the population as a whole.

  Various pressures and issues bring the different strands of the Muslim community together including the prevalent blight of Islamophobia which has been exacerbated by the atrocities in New York and Washington probably committed by the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and by the subsequent negative publicity which affects all Muslims. The widespread discussion in the media on issues such as the treatment of asylum seekers, the war on Afghanistan, the alleged inherent incompatibility of Islam and the West which is the nub of the so-called "Clash of Civilisations", the possible attack by the USA on Iraq also creates tension in the Muslim community which on the whole regards the media portrayal of the issue as immensely biased against Muslims as it already does with regard to the tragic events in Palestine/Israel.

  There is a sense in which Muslims (who in any case generally belong to ethnic minority groups) feel beleaguered and threatened in the West, and this feeling of vulnerability is exacerbated by the outrageous remarks made about Muslims by the late Pym Fortuyn in Holland, the constant pressures against Turks in Germany, against Moroccans in France, by the appalling carnage enacted in the attack on September 11 in the USA. The general vilification of Islam and Muslims by such public figures as Prime Minister Berlusconi of Italy and the notorious novelist Michel Houellebecq in France who expressed his contempt for monotheistic religions in general and of Islam in particular, is not conducive to peaceful relationship between Muslims and the general population in several Western countries. The Houellebecq affair in France does raise issues about the limits of freedom of expression, the right to criticise religious beliefs. As Muslims, we are not intent on extending the Blasphemy laws to Islam or, indeed to other religions which should be robust enough to withstand criticism, irony and satire. However when comments are made about a religious belief which in fact puts members of that faith in an ignominious position in society, and makes it easier for others to treat them with disrespect and contempt, if such comments encourage an irrational hatred and fear of people of other faiths, we are entering the boundaries of incitement to religious hatred. Such remarks and statements about another religion can whip up trouble and social unrest as well as outrage. Thus the scurrilous remarks on Islam made by the British National Party on its website piece, "Campaign against Islam" which alleges to "expose and resist the innate aggression of the imperialistic ideology of Islam", is aimed at portraying Muslims as disloyal and potential fifth columnists in the UK. The BNP's anti-religious message has done significant harm to the standing of Muslims in northern towns such as Burnley and Oldham which witnessed serious riots last year. We must realise that for Muslims, Islam is not only a faith but it is also the essence of their sense of identity which they feel is being constantly threatened by what the Guardian has called "an unforgiving spotlight" which has been turned upon them.

  The atmosphere is not good. The actions and inflammatory statements of a minority of western bigots and of extremist Islamists create a potent brew of paranoia and social tension. The fact is that most Muslims are ambivalent, if not openly hostile towards the actions and intentions of the USA (and to a degree of the UK Government) towards Muslims, towards Iraq and overwhelmingly towards the USA's lax attitude with regard to the incursions of the Israeli Army in the West Bank and Gaza. They regard the attitude being adopted by the present administration in the USA as hopelessly biased against Muslims and notwithstanding statements to the contrary by President Bush, against Islam itself. Some may view this distrust of the motives of the West as unbalanced and exaggerated. However, the fact is that this perception is prevalent in the Muslim world and inevitably affects Muslims in the UK.

  On the positive side we can see that the UK has developed anti-racist legislation which is well in advance of any other country in the world including the United States and the Scandinavian countries which have a respectable record on human rights and social justice. Second and third generation Muslims in the UK regard themselves as an integral if problematic part of this country. At the same time the younger generation have become more assertive about forming their own western Muslim identity which we should applaud in a country that prides itself in its diversity in terms of ethnicity and culture. Inevitably, this search for an identity within the community of communities as adumbrated by Lord Bikhu Parekh, which is ideally the society of the UK, leads to tensions. There is the tension of belonging to one's own group whilst at the same time participating in the wider community. In some areas of Britain there is a distinct danger of ghettoisation which in itself is a cause of racial/religious animosities and clashes in towns such as Burnley, Bradford and Oldham. Thus inner-city communities, such as the Muslim community of Highfields in Leicester, are in danger of creating such a self-sufficient neighbourhood that it is barely touched by the broader secular culture of the UK. However, the cause of the problems with regard to integration in such areas as the Oldham and Burnley cannot be simply ascribed to religious isolation of Muslims. We would argue that the poor economic conditions and endemic unemployment are major factors causing tensions between the white and Muslim communities in those areas. The setting up of Muslim schools, in turn have their own problems. It has never been easy to be a Muslim child in mainstream British schools and the situation has deteriorated significantly since September 11. Hostility is encountered not only from fellow pupils but also, sadly, from some teachers. The wearing of the Hijab by Muslim girls and women also increases the prejudice that Muslims meet on a daily basis. Many of these young women, who consider themselves as British, are articulate, bright and feisty in their own right and find it frustrating that people cannot see beyond their headscarves. They feel instantly vulnerable (and consequently defiant) when they wear traditional Islamic dress especially after September 11. However, they are not prepared to shed what they regard as a manifestation of an essential aspect of their identity in order to "fit in". Their response is a real challenge to our notions of a civilised and tolerant society which takes pride in the diversity of its population and culture.

  Muslim groups are springing up to deal with the perceived dissonance between mainstream and Muslim education as meted out by the mosques in the UK. The quality of education provided by the mosques (as opposed to the Muslim schools that are set up within the UK regulations governing education) is extremely variable, some mosques are out of touch with, or openly hostile to mainstream society. This creates a dissonance in a Muslim child who can feel disorientated and ill at ease with his or her place in the UK. As pointed out above, many in the Muslim community are aware of the problem caused by the poor level of Islamic education being provided by mosques and action is being taken—albeit in small steps—to counteract this tendency.

  When one considers the position of Muslims in the UK one is struck by the issue of identity. What does it mean to be British, western and Muslim? Different countries are developing or struggling with different models. Thus it seems to us that France has opted for an assimilationist mode. If you adopt French culture and language, and its rigorous secular values then you are accepted. If you choose to hold on to your Islamic identity then you will encounter difficulties. The UK which, as we have already stated is ahead in the field of creating equal opportunities for people of different races and other minorities, is developing along the lines of an integrationist model. Thus law on employment will be extended to cover religious discrimination. The forthcoming Directive on Religion and Religious belief aims to make unacceptable religious discrimination in the work place. Thus employers will not be able to discriminate directly or indirectly on the basis of religious belief.

  However, to talk about models of responses to the different communities within our countries is perhaps over-simplifying the reality. Integration itself is a complex notion which demands choices to be made not only by the ethnic/religious minority but by the mainstream members of society. However, a recent Guardian/ICM poll shows us that, generally speaking, Muslims want to integrate on their own terms into British society. They make very interesting reading. The need for us to live as harmoniously as possible within the community of communities is fundamental if we wish to create a robust, modern and positive society. Winston Churchill, when he was Home Secretary in 1910, said that the civilisation of a society can be judged by the way it treats its prisoners. This memorable dictum can just as well apply to religious minorities. We should all care for the human rights of our citizens because, as the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf has pointed out that if we disregard the basic tenets of fairness and justice at times of stress, we are betraying the deepest principles of democratic government. This is one good reason why it is imperative that we have a law in this country that criminalizes incitement to religious hatred. Integration assumes difference and respect of difference, the incitement of hatred towards others on the basis of their difference inflicts grievous harm on their human rights and, therefore, should not be tolerated.

October 2002

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003