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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 393-399)




  393. Good morning, may I welcome you to the hearing? It is still morning in parliamentary terms. Dr Badawi, I think we have not done justice to your full titles and I am awfully sorry about that. We will make sure it is correct in the transcript. We are on tellie. What happens to it after that I do not know, but we are. I welcome you very much. We have an excellent CV from all three of you, so I do not think you need to go into great details about this, but is there anything you would like to say by way of an introduction, because if so we should be very pleased to hear it? Then we have given you a set of questions you might like to take in whatever order you think fit. Anybody answer anything or contribute anything as you see fit. Is there anything you would like to say as an introduction?

  (Dr Badawi) By way of introduction, as a community we feel in need of protection. We were very happy indeed with Lord Avebury's Bill which really brings forth to us some sort of hope that we will be treated equally with other communities in the country. We are not asking for protection for our religion—religion is a set of doctrines, a set of ideas, an oral agenda subject to questioning and argument—but as citizens, as individuals, as people who hold certain beliefs. We should like to feel that we are protected like everybody else and will not be targeted by anyone or any organisation, either individuals or groups. We find that we are targeted by certain people and sometimes discriminated against and harassed in many ways. We should like protection and we feel that if your Lordships move the motion forward, the Bill as it is—and we have some suggestions and we have submitted certain suggestions from the various organisations we work with—and can take into consideration our own observations, that would be very helpful. Further, I should like very much to get out of the legal documentation. My adviser is a lawyer and I hope you will accept this. It frightens me. When it says item so and so, Bill something, I have to go to so many references before I can understand what is involved. Could we have something very tangible, very easy, very simple, so that the ordinary person does not have to go to lawyers and pay them heavily to get to the bottom of the matter? If we could have a Bill which puts all these things in very clearly for the ordinary person like myself, a thoroughly common person, ignorant person, I think it would be very helpful. That is just by way of introduction.

  394. Thank you very much. As I understand it, one of the difficulties, not that we have had much in the way of religious problems hitherto before the 2001 Act, has been the complications in the formulation of the criminal law. Certainly I am very much aware of the fact that we ought to try to make it simpler, so if we have your support in that, it is very valuable to us. I should like to ask you later about some of the instances of harassment and so on which you have given us. You will appreciate perhaps that we are not here to deal with discrimination because there is another government initiative on that front on religion, gender, age and other things. We are only on criminal law at the moment. Would you like to have a look at the questions which we circulated to you? Take them in any order you think fit and any of you answer.
  (Dr Badawi) We have drafted answers to the questions and one of the things about the scope of the inquiry is that we think the scope of the inquiry should be broad and there should be the anti-terrorist law. My adviser actually drafted the answer for me so perhaps he might read it.
  (Mr Abdulla) There is a modicum of legal protection with regard to the Church of England through the long-standing offences of blasphemy. We are not here talking about that at all. We are happy for it to remain; it is not what we are concerned about in this case. We agree that the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act also grants some protection to persons on the base of their religion by extending the notion of a crime of racially aggravated assault. We believe this is in some ways a somewhat clumsy Act where everything has been thrown in bar the kitchen sink. It is a lawyer's paradise but for the average citizen—and I shall speak now as the average citizen on the Clapham omnibus—I should like to see something in plain English and I think Dr Badawi has alluded to that.

  395. I can tell you that I have had to bring Archbold with me before I can even make any sense of it.
  (Mr Abdulla) Absolutely. I had to look at it because I was interviewed on the radio about this because someone was actually prosecuted in Exeter. My goodness me, I had to do some homework on this. I sort of understood it, but even then I think we could look at it again. What I said to Dr Badawi was that perhaps we had taken a rather purist view and politics would not allow us to do that. We have to be able to tinker with the thing, to get it through parliament, so we may have to look at the second best. We also say that we believe that people belonging to other religious faiths also need protection from incitement and vilification. This is what Lord Avebury's Bill is trying to do. We have this business about the BNP and the National Party and their appalling website which we cannot actually grab at the moment under the race relations legislation, so we have to look at that. Indeed you can see some of the stuff happening in France with Michel Houellebecq's novel where he criticises monotheistic religions but Islam in particular, so he has been prosecuted. That raises very nice questions about the freedom of speech, freedom of opinion and incitement, religious provocation. I think it is an area where—this may be rather credulous of me and naive—I trust the judgment of the judges to know what is a sensible prosecution or not. Our interest is in the protection of citizens and inhabitants of Britain who are members of other faiths from incitement to hatred, or insult to their person as members of that faith. Islamophobia is alive and well and it is spreading, as we know. We have seen it in Italy, in Holland with the Pim Fortuyn case, in France and Muslims. In my day job I am actually in a large university which has a 40 per cent ethnic minority, which is code language for Asians, which also includes Muslims. Those kids can be feeling quite vulnerable and threatened, especially those who wear Hijab. So the scope of the inquiry is good; we are happy with it.
  (Mr Versi) I have done a different kind of presentation. I have included all your questions in my presentation so a lot of the questions asked will be answered. It is about a 15- to 20-minute presentation which includes all the questions you have asked. May I read that? The question on blasphemy law. We do understand that blasphemy law provides protection to the Anglican faith. This was highlighted when the case to ban The Satanic Verses brought under the blasphemy law was defeated in the High Court in 1999. The Muslim community then began to look seriously at the opportunity for alternative legislation to protect the non-Anglican religions. One of the conclusions we reached was that the best course of action is to legislate against incitement to religious hatred.

  396. Do you think that is an alternative?
  (Mr Versi) We prefer incitement to religious hatred rather than extending or abolishing the blasphemy law. We believe the blasphemy law should be left as it is because there are many complications arising out of that, as Mr Badawi enumerated earlier. Of course there are some in the Muslim community who would like to extend the blasphemy law; there are also some, if that is not possible, who would like to have another legislation which criminalises vilification and ridicule of religions. So there are different views in the community, but I prefer the incitement to religious hatred, which I believe would help a lot and is easier because the blasphemy law is more complicated and many people are saying it is old-fashioned or out of date. We are not for abolition. We do not mind the existing blasphemy law staying as it because at least it is protecting all religions. It protects not only Anglicanism but Catholics because of Jesus and so on. There was a case of a sculpture with a condom placed on it and it was withdrawn by the Arts Council because a Catholic MP brought this issue up. The Arts Council withdrew it because they thought it might affect the blasphemy law. It was not because they were Catholics but because of Jesus and so on.

Bishop of Portsmouth

  397. May I just gently impress upon you that the Church of England and Anglican are not the same? There are Anglicans in Wales and Ireland and Scotland. In fairness to them I think I should mention that.
  (Mr Versi) I shall concentrate most on incitement to religious hatred. The current legislation on incitement to racial hatred is discriminatory and because of this the Muslim community suffers from the result of this incitement against them leading to a large number of attacks, which I shall give evidence of. Muslims do not enjoy the same protection against incitement as is rightly enjoyed by other minorities and faith communities such as the Jews and Sikhs. Last October the Home Secretary included in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill a law to criminalise incitement to religious hatred. The Government had realised then the need to outlaw this because incitement had led to the attacks and backlashes against the Muslim community post 11 September. However, the Government dropped the law on incitement to religious hatred in return for an easy passage of the Anti-terrorism Bill through parliament. The final Act did include provisions for protection against harassment, violence and criminal damage to property motivated by religious hatred. However, the latter does not deal with incitement to religious hatred which leads to the attacks, as we witnessed post 11 September. The importance of outlawing incitement to religious hatred is firstly because current legislation is discriminatory as it excludes Muslims, as I mentioned earlier. Secondly, there has been a shift by racists like the BNP, as mentioned, from inciting people on racial grounds to religious grounds. A few examples: "Pakis Out"; we have seen the BNP using terminologies such as "Islam Out of Britain". I have copies of all these things for you in my document. The BNP also uses such incitement against Muslims during demonstrations. For instance, on 24 November last year, during the BNP's anti-Islamic demonstration, they had placards saying similar things: "Islam Out of Britain"; "Protect British People". I have some photographs of that as well. Another leaflet from the BNP says, "The Truth About Islam". It also adds, regarding Islam, "Intolerance, Slaughter, Looting, Arson, Molestation of Woman" and it adds, "Muslim Extremists are trying to turn Britain into an Islamic Republic by 2025, using a combination of immigration, high birth rates and conversion and they must be stopped.". Racists have been able to use a lacuna in the law on incitement to target Muslims, a diverse ethnic group, and the fact is that they would like to target ethnic groups, but they are using religion as a cover, including English Muslims. In October 1998 for instance the BNP distributed anti-Islamic leaflets against a mosque in South London in Merton. The High Court was told by the CPS that even though they acknowledged that the leaflets were offensive and inflammatory, because the leaflets were anti-religious this did not come under the Public Order Act. Other practitioners of law have said at various times that there is a need for legislation against incitement to religious hatred. For instance, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, speaking to the Muslim community in the wake of the 11 September backlash against the Muslims in London's central mosque on 15 October last year, said there was a need for legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. He said this was because the police had sent several hate mails and leaflets to the Crown Prosecution Service to see whether prosecutions could be brought against the culprits, but he told us that he was not confident that they would be prosecuted because these were religious in nature. I asked him if he could use the existing legislation, he told me that they could not do much but test the system to the limits, that is use the current incitement to racial hatred to see whether this could work; but he said it was impossible. Again we have another, the Assistant Commissioner and Head of Special Operations, David Veness, during a meeting with the British Arab Muslims living in London in February this year who said that the reason why the right wing BNP were getting away with inciting hatred against Muslims increasingly since 11 September was because ". . . they are careful not to cross the legal boundaries". He acknowledged the need to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. This lack of legislation on incitement has resulted in increasing attacks at various times. It has been shown that the 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 11 September. The Muslim News has built up and documented religiously motivated crimes against Muslims since the Gulf War. For instance, during the Gulf War in 1991 attacks against mosques and Muslims increased. Yorkshire's Police Race Relations Officer, Chief Inspector Paul Marek said that there were 51 racially motivated offences reported to the police in Bradford for the first six months of 1991 compared with 23 in the same period in 1990. In West Yorkshire as a whole there were 193 incidents between January and June 1991 from 121 in the same period the year before. In Batley, West Yorkshire, in 1991 a mosque was attacked at midnight on 15 January. Petrol was poured into a roof vent and set alight, causing an explosion and damage of up to £50,000. Luckily at the time there was no-one at the mosque. According to the mosque there was also an increase in attacks on Muslim children in Dewsbury and Batley. In another incident in Kilburn, London, an English woman in Hijab was spat on and hit whilst shopping and I have more examples.


  398. You are listing a whole collection of incidents and there is also a large number of them listed in The Muslim News submission. I grant you that a number of these took place before Section 39 of the Anti-terrorism Act came into effect, but supposing that they happened now, are any of them not covered by Section 39? Certainly your arson one is covered by Section 39.
  (Mr Versi) They are but we are really concerned about incitement. What happens because we do not have this legislation against incitement, is that people talk about anti-Islamic things all the time and this leads to the attacks. What this section of the current law would mean is that people who are committing the crime would receive tougher sentences, but inciting people to commit a crime could still continue. Since the Act came in last year we have documented some more attacks as well.

  399. I understand the point about incitement. The list of occasions that you have given us does not include incitement and they are covered.
  (Mr Versi) No, they are as a result of incitement; this is what I am trying to say. Why do you not have these kinds of attacks against other faith communities. We do not have that kind of incitement against others. For example the BNP is now saying they are not against the Sikhs, they are not against Hindus, they are against the Muslims. This is in a new video they have produced. They are targeting specifically and they are able to incite.

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