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

Letter and Memorandum from The Muslim News

  Thank you for inviting me to make this submission to the Select Committee.

  We welcome the initiative taken by the House of Lords to look into a long overdue law on Religious Offences.

  The Muslim News has published many reports about discrimination against Muslims in schools, work places, sports and other areas. In many cases, the victims were not able to get redress as religious discrimination is legal in England, Scotland and Wales but not Northern Ireland (where religious discrimination legislation only applies in employment). There is an urgent need for comprehensive legislation on religious discrimination and incitement to religious hatred, like the Race Relations (Amendment) Act. However, as you are calling for evidence on two issues, namely, blasphemy and incitement to religious hatred, I will restrict my submission to those only.

Should existing religious offences (notably blasphemy) be amended or abolished?

  The Blasphemy Law provides protection to the Anglican religion. This was highlighted when the case to ban the Satanic Verses under the Blasphemy Law was defeated in the High Court. The Muslim community then began to look seriously at alternative legislation to protect non-Anglican religions. We are not against the existing Blasphemy Law which protects the Anglican faith, as Muslims believe in and revere other prophets, including the Biblical prophets. Even if the Law protected all religions except Islam, we would still support it, as we believe that all religions need that protection. So I don't believe that the Blasphemy Law should be abolished. However, we would like to see another law that criminalizes vilification of any religious belief. I am not saying that the legislation should outlaw criticism of religious belief. It should protect religions from scurrility, vilification, ridicule and contempt.

Should a new criminal offence of incitement to religious hatred be created and, if so, how should the offence be defined?

  Muslims do not enjoy the same protection against hate crime as rightly enjoyed by other minorities and faith communities like the Jews and Sikhs. It has been shown that hate attacks against Muslims increase during national and international events concerning Muslims. For example hate crimes against Muslims increased during the Satanic Verses crisis in 1988-89, during the Gulf War against Iraq in 1990-91 and more recently in the wake of September 11.

  Many, including the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), Runnymede Trust's Islamophobia Report, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens, Metropolitan Assistant Commissioner and Head of Specialist Operations David Veness, and the Government have acknowledged the need for a legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred.

  The CRE recommended in its Second Review of the Race Relations Act 1976 the need for outlawing religious discrimination and outlawing of incitement to religious hatred.

  Islamophobia Report (1997) recommended outlawing of religious discrimination and incitement to religious hatred (p63).

  Sir John Stevens, speaking to the Muslim community at the London's Central Mosque on 15 October 2001, said there was a need for the legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. He said then that the Police had sent several hate mails to the Crown Prosecution Services to see if prosecutions can be brought against the culprits but was not confident that they would be prosecuted as the hate mails were religious in nature. "We can't do much but test the system to the limits," he said. (The Muslim News, 26 October 2001, p6).

  David Veness during a meeting with British Arab Muslims living in London in 2 February 2002, said that the reason why the right wing BNP were getting away with inciting hatred against the Muslims increasingly since September 11, is because "they are careful not to cross the legal boundaries" and acknowledged the need for outlawing incitement to religious hatred: "Yes, there is a need for incitement to religious hatred legislation." (The Muslim News, 22 February, 2002, p1).

  Last October the Home Secretary included in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill 2001, a law to criminalise incitement to religious hatred. However, the Government dropped the law on incitement to religious hatred in return for an easy passage of the Anti-Terrorism Bill through the Parliament.

  The legislation on incitement to religious hatred should be included in the relevant places in the Public Order Act 1986 and Section 24(2) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. However, there needs to be safeguards as suggested by the Muslim Lawyers' Committee and others in the Muslim community:

  "Clear criteria for prosecution which is reviewed, agreed and monitored by a commission made up of independent individuals representing faith communities in the UK. Publication by the Attorney General in an annual report of all cases referred to him (since he has to give consent to prosecutions) giving details of ethnicity, religion, sex and age with brief facts of the case. A statutory duty by the faith commission to report on whether prosecutions for religious incitement reveal any bias on grounds of race or religion." (The Muslim News, 30 November, 2001, p5).

  The Muslim News has built up and documented religiously motivated crimes against Muslims since the Gulf War. A dossier of such crimes in the wake of the September 11 atrocity is attached herewith.

8 August 2002

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