Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)|
WEDNESDAY 23 OCTOBER 2002
ABDULLA MBE, MA
400. We understand this. We have this material.
(Mr Versi) What we need is something to protect before
it happens. We could have legislation to deal with it after it
has happened, but we already have that. What we are asking for
is something to prevent that from happening because people are
living in fear, the Muslim community is living in fear. This is
the most important bit which I like in the legislation you have
brought forward: to prevent incitement. Once you have that, in
the same way that there is a freeze in the attacks against the
Jewish community, against the Sikh community, against the Hindu
community, the BNP has taken that stand already, you will find
very few attacks. The only time you have attacks against the Sikh
community is when people see someone with a beard wearing a turban:
they look like bin Laden and therefore they must be Muslim. Also
attacks took place after the Gulf War against the temples because
to the racists, temples look like mosques and they cannot make
the distinction. Now the BNP has very clearly told their members
to distinguish between the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.
Chairman: I am going to come back to this, but
I shall leave my colleagues to ask any questions they would like
to at this stage. I want an answer about Section 39. It is very
important that we should have it, but I shall not go on about
it now. I shall come back to it, if I may, a little later?
Earl of Mar and Kellie
401. I come from Scotland, a place where bigotry
is also known. I am very interested by the suggestion that the
law should be extended, the law in both England and Wales, to
include vilification and ridicule. I certainly see this as important
advice to a multinational, multi-ethnic, multi-faith society on
how to behave itself and therefore how to live in peace. I approve
of such community-building advice, but is it actually going to
be possible to legislate against vilification and ridicule or
are these lesser forms of incitement to hate or are they in fact
an extension of blasphemy?
(Mr Abdulla) I think that is a very, very important
question. We live in a democratic society, we believe in freedom
of opinion and why not a bit of ridicule. We ridicule all sorts
of institutions within our society, so why should we Muslims be
treated as a special case? I understand that. I am British and
I live here. Certainly when the Salman Rushdie thing happened
I was very angry with the Muslim community and the way they reacted.
For goodness sake, this is a novel. Having said that, the Michel
Houellebecq case in France is very interesting. I do not know
whether you have even bothered to look at the novel; it is an
appalling bit of work, third rate. However, Houellebecq has a
wonderful way of self-publicity and he was interviewed on TV stations,
etcetera. You could say that he is attacking monotheism and he
is attacking Islam in particular, so what? The trouble is the
context and the times we live in. Nothing is actually set in rock
and stone. If people feel threatened, and there is something about
the perception of certain race relations legislation ... In my
institution, for example, if we are accused of racism, we have
to prove that we are not being racist. So one becomes sensitive.
What sort of society do we want in this country? There has to
be a balance somewhere along the line. You cannot have absolute
freedom of speech or whatever; we have learned that now. I have
discovered that we are ahead of the game, better than most countries
in the world, certainly in terms of racism We in Britain want
a society which believes in integration. That is a very interesting
notion in itself. It is quite a complex notion. Integration does
not mean assimilation. A lot of Muslims look at me and say I am
assimilated, I have become so British it is unbelievable. I think
I am integrated, because I still hold onto Islam. Whilst I may
not be upset with someone mocking the religion, there are lots
of people who may be upset and you have to be sensitive to that.
Whether that should be a crime and what level of criminality,
I do not know? When I was asked about this particular case in
Exeter, where this man could get up to seven years in jail, and
what I thought about it, I said "Poor man. Perhaps he did
not know what he was doing when he attacked the people directly".
The law is not clear and we have to lead not miles away from the
front but encouraging people to be more thoughtful about other
people in our society. I recognise the problem you have raised,
but there are two sides to it.
(Dr Badawi) When you have something like Islam, it
could not be that this is something which is permissible. Islam
does not just exist as something flying in the air. "Islam
out of Britain" means "Muslims out of Britain".
If you said "Judaism out of Britain", I wonder what
the law would say there. There are certain things and certain
statements which have really to come under the law. Mocking is
a matter of level. Some of you may not know that I opposed the
fatwa at the time and I issued a counter-fatwa because we do not
want to go down the road of trying to persecute people who are
frankly making fools of themselves; that was what Mr Rushdie did.
Nevertheless he did a lot of damage and this was an occasion where
some irresponsible people did some irresponsible things. We do
not want the law all the time to pursue everybody or every action.
We know that if you use that instrument, it will turn out to be
a blunt instrument and may cause more difficulties than otherwise.
Nevertheless, there are certain things such as aggression which
can begin with a few words which might appear to be neutral but
which could lead to action. "Islam out of Britain" for
instance is not something which I should like to permit any more
because this should be covered. Then mocking the religion in certain
respects by misrepresenting it, as in fact Islam is misrepresented
all the timeIslam is an oppressive religion, anti-women,
whatever. We could debate these sorts of things, we could argue,
we could deal with it. After all there are many books in the universities,
many lecturers in the universities who make these statements and
we debate with them. We debate within our own community. Most
people think we are a homogeneous community but we are not, neither
intellectually, nor racially, nor culturally: we are a universal
religion. We have different points of view and we argue amongst
ourselves as well. What we want as a community is for our arguments
to be treated with the decorum and respect which should be accorded
to us as citizens.
402. Moving on from vilification and ridicule,
I suppose what it actually is, is that we are trying to work out
whether to criminalise malicious misrepresentation.
(Dr Badawi) Yes, malicious.
403. Then it becomes extremely difficult to
prove. Again, it is extremely good advice to a society not to
misrepresent others maliciously, but whether that can be criminalised
is the bit I am slightly worried about.
(Mr Abdulla) The notion of malice is not unknown in
(Mr Versi) I am not a legal person, but now we have
a diverse population, some of who are very sensitive to issues
like The Satanic Verses. It is trying to work out some
sort of modality, whatever suggestion you can come up with, to
ensure that there are some aspects of religion which should not
be ridiculed because it might create that kind of problem because
it might incite some people to do something. Now we have that
kind of population, we have to take that into consideration and
maybe come up with something. I am not a legal person but I think
we could come up with something. For example, the reason Michael
Howard, the former Home Secretary gave for rejecting incitement
to religious hatred was that if we had that The Satanic Verses
would be banned; that was his logic. That means that he considered
that this incitement to religious hatred was similar to racial
hatred. At that time there was a discussion about an EU directive
and how that might affect that. This is what his understanding
Bishop of Portsmouth
404. Speaking for myself, I have a huge amount
of sympathy and delight at the evidence you have given and I am
intrigued and partially reassured because I am living with the
debate about the blasphemy law. I am still, as a non-lawyer, though
I cannot actually claim to be totally innocent in a legal discussion,
driven back to the basic question of how we define, because that
is what this group is going to have to recommend if we do. How
do we define in legal terms what is incitement and what is religious
hatred? My dilemma is that clearly this legislation, if it comes
forward, may well have huge benefits for the communities you speak
for. Incidentally, I long for the kind of constructive and healthy
relations between Christians and Muslims at the time of John of
Damascus in the seventh century but we cannot turn the clock back.
(Mr Abdulla) I do not know about that.
(Dr Badawi) We can go forward.
405. Exactly; indeed. However, I am aware in
a multi-cultural and multi-faith society there are different pockets
and speeds of religious intolerance and it applies to Christians
as well. I know of a girl in a school in this country who wore
a cross around her neck and was teased massively by an ultra-tolerant
teacher, but if she had turned up with a Star of David or a crescent
it would have been right. The Christian Church, which, with respect,
has been in this country for longer than the Muslim community,
has had to put up with all kind of burlesques. I could just about
occasionally define or try to define some of the jibes against
the Church of England in some of the newspapers as possibly incitement
to religious hatred because they go beyond what I regard as true,
but I do not have the time or the energy to engage with that and
do not think it is important. What I am saying is that we need
help from you, not just to tell us what the abuses are and the
case studies, we need help in how to define in legal terms what
these things are and the remit must look to a future in which
there are different pockets and speeds of different kinds of religious
(Dr Badawi) You as a Christian majority are confident
in your position and you can tolerate a lot of the attacks on
you rather than a minority, which is what we are. We are in a
different situation altogether. We are vulnerable and we need
protection. You do not need the protection, you are strong enough.
That is something.
406. I am not sure that we do not need the protection,
but never mind.
(Dr Badawi) This is something. When
we in Islam were strong, when our society was strong, we had many
arguments against Islam and we tolerated them. John of Damascus
whom you mentioned, wrote a lot of things against Islam; they
were published and nobody bothered. We really are a community
which is vulnerable and we feel that a society is really measured
by the protection it extends to the vulnerable. We believe that
this society is a very civilised society and therefore we want
your help as well. The question here is around the idea of how
to define incitement. This is defined as anything which would
actually prepare the way for aggression. As we know, aggression
begins with words and leads to the first words of hatred; first
to ignore the people and then to have words which are derogatory
words and gradually the words rise in their tone and lead in the
end to physical aggression which is what we really are trying
to prevent. Incitement would be any statements which would prepare
the way or legitimise or make it possible for people to commit
aggression against others. This is a simple way to define it.
With religious hatred, our position is that the whole point of
religious hatred, has been defined in other legislation. I do
not know about the legal situation in Northern Ireland around
religious hatred. In my view religious hatred is not really attacking
religion per se but inciting people to hate the upholders
of a particular faith. This is very important. You can hate my
religion to your heart's content as long as that does not lead
to hatred against me and my people and then deprive them of their
human rights in a civilised society.
Baroness Perry of Southwark: I should very much
like to follow up on the Bishop's question and your reply to it,
because my anxiety about any law which could be framedand
I am a non-lawyeris how one gets the balance between freedom
of speech and proper debate between people of the same religion
or different religions or no religion and the need to protect
the person or people who hold a particular religion and who are
being hated or others are incited to hate them because of their
adherence to that religion. I can think of many perfectly civilised
and acceptable conversations in which people have debated the
hatefulness of another religion or indeed the hatefulness of all
religion. I can recall vividly one High Table after-dinner conversation
in which an atheist attacked all religions and said that most
of the evils of the world had come from religion. Perfectly civilised
and none of us around, the people who are people of faith felt
at all threatened or hated by that. I should justI think
we all wouldappreciate very much your thoughts on how the
wording of legislation could be reflective of that need for balance,
for people being able to speak in a temperate and civilised way
about religion and a ban against those doing it in ways which
do incite leading to violence. Perhaps I could tag to that: are
there not laws already on the statute books which do protect against
that tip-over into incitement to violence?
407. May I just add on this that we have Article
10(2) of the European Convention and this allows for an amount
of discussion which goes to a certain extent and constitutes the
freedom of speech which we are obviously all trying to protect?
Do you have any device whereby we can define what that is, what
the dividing line is? That is really what Lady Perry is asking
you and I should like to reinforce it because it worries me very
(Dr Badawi) We should certainly be in favour of freedom
of speech. We are not against freedom of speech at all. It would
be dangerous for us apart from anything else. Freedom of speech
is sacred for us, but there is a line which has to be drawn. I
know that it is a fine line and it is very difficult and there
has always been tension between freedom of speech and the protection
of the community, just like the decency law. D H Lawrence's famous
novel was said to be indecent and then society changed its values
gradually and broadened the thing. This is a fine line. There
must always be a tension between freedom of speech and incitement.
This is very, very important. If it is instituted in the law then
the courts might in fact react to give us protection. We are growing
into the society here; we may in fact reach the position of self-confidence
which would be like the Church of England and allow people to
mock us with impunity. At the moment we are not in that position.
What I feel is that we should really have legislation to say that
incitement to religious hatred should be criminalised. How the
incitement should be defined, defined in terms of what exists
in society at present and how the community reacts to it and then,
gradually, this tension can allow for this degree of flexibility.
You cannot have a law which is rigid. A rigid law is not a law
which can be applied easily. I know that this will put a great
burden on the judges and give the lawyers a marvellous time trying
to criminalise a particular novel or work or otherwise. I think
that we should say literature or actual words which are to be
considered incitement to religious hatred should be considered
to be legal. Now how to define the incitement is really a matter
for the taste of the society, for the whole situation. We Muslims
at the moment feel vulnerable and therefore anything which says
"Islam Out" or "Islam is such and such" makes
us feel uncomfortable and we feel that is a beginning of the incitement
for people to attack us and hurt us and attack our institutions.
Bishop of Portsmouth
408. I think you may have misunderstood me and
I apologise for that. I do not think all members of the Church
of England have that self-confidence and the girl in question
was teased out of wearing that cross. That may explain why some
of us are under pressure to retain the blasphemy law. That is
where we are at.
(Dr Badawi) I am with you.
Bishop of Portsmouth: Perhaps I am not speaking
for as many as you are, but both our communities know of people
who are feeling very vulnerable and that is why this discussion
409. May I at this stage welcome Mr Nahdi. I
am afraid you went to the Moses Room and obviously were not told
of the change of venue. I am very sorry that you have been languishing
down there but do join in now.
(Mr Abdulla) Talking about definitions, yes, there
is a tension and we need more certainty but there is a tension
between certainty and justice and justice is something where you
take into account the context in society and the temper of society
at the time. Of course High Table discussions are fine, because
they are between "civilised people" having a civilised
discussion. An element of common sense comes into play too; there
is a good English notion here about common sense. If the BNP starts
putting up a website saying "Muslims Are Fifth Columnists"
that is incitement for goodness sake. There is a problem about
defining definitions. Definitions are a funny thing to play with.
We are trying to pin things down, but maybe we should not.
Bishop of Portsmouth
410. Theologians deal with definitions like
(Mr Abdulla) Absolutely. We could spend hours on that.
411. I was struck by Dr Badawi's warning that
we should not give lawyers a marvellous time. This is the second
time you have made a remark of that kind. In your introductory
statement you said that we have to be careful not to make things
so complicated that ordinary people would not be able to understand
and use the law. I should like to know whether you think that
the suggested way of tackling this problem, by adding the word
religious to the word racial hatred wherever it occurs in Part
3 of the Public Order Act is in fact the right way forward. May
I perhaps supplement that question by asking you whether you have
any anxieties that because the racial parts of Part 3 of the Public
Order Act have not been as effective as many people had hoped
or considered it was going to be in terms of the number of prosecutions
and the apparent reluctance of the CPS to bring proceedings under
Part 3, the same thing might occur in the case of incitement to
religious hatred? Does that cause you any concern and do you have
any thoughts about how we might be able to overcome it?
(Mr Versi) There have been some sensitivities on this
in the Muslim community. The Muslim Laywers' Committee has come
up with some points. One of them says, clear criteria for prosecution
which are reviewed, agreed and monitored by a commission made
up of independent individuals representing faith communities.
You mentioned about incitement to racial hatred and I do not know
but it has been claimed that the legislation has been used against
the black and Asian community rather than the white community.
This is the claim. Also, if there are any cases, the individuals
are reluctant to go court because they believe that the police
and the CPS are racist. Also, the other way round, because the
police and CPS are inherently racist that is why this is not being
implemented correctly, that is at the implementation stage. The
other recommendation by the Muslim lawyers is to have an annual
report of all cases giving details of ethnicity, religion, sex,
age and so on, in order to know what cases are coming in and the
people who are being prosecuted, whether it is a racial or religious
hatred. In this way, if we monitor things, we shall be able to
find out, whether there is any bias. Until now people are not
aware exactly; there has been speculation but lawyers I have spoken
to who are involved in race cases say they have not been monitored
in the proper manner to enable us to find out whether there is
a bias, but they believe there is a bias. This is because of the
race cases in the past.
412. I do not think there ought to be any difficulty
about this because the whole scheme of Part 3 depends upon the
Attorney General consenting to the going ahead of any prosecution,
and so it would under the clause which was in the 2001 Bill. Do
you have any views about his role, whether that is an adequate
method of dealing with it and also whether it is the right way
of dealing with the borderline between freedom of speech and what
constitutes incitement? Would you like to comment on that at all?
(Mr Abdulla) There has to be some sort of long-stop
somewhere along the line. It is not a free-for-all; that is not
an unknown notion in Islamic law also. We were talking earlier
on about people who had knowledge. Whether the Attorney General
is exactly the right person or not? He is after all a lawyer.
Goodness me, do we want lawyers to get involved? I do not know.
In the sense of someone having to say yes, this is not vexatious
litigation, this is serious, we need to do something about it,
you have at least one stop. Then the judges will have their own
ability and discretion to decide whether there is a case or not
to be answered and prosecuted on. I am not super comfortable but
we need to have some sort of break, otherwise everybody and their
uncle will be coming to bring action.
(Mr Versi) I know the Attorney General is in charge,
but could we not have a commission who would look into the actions
taken by the Attorney General on this issue, in a sense collecting
information on the way the Attorney General has made a judgment
on a case and discussing it at commission level? It might help
to find out whether there are any problems in taking up borderline
issues or complaints. If an independent commission is there, it
can monitor this and come up with some kind of suggestion in the
Lord Avebury: When the Attorney General published
his guidelines saying how he would have exercised the powers under
the clauses as they were in the Anti-terrorism Act, did you take
any view on those or did you even at that stage, when you were
not certain whether it was going to become law or not, bother
to study the Attorney General's guidelines in any detail? Do you
think that if it became a live issue, the guidelines could be
considered by the various faith communities and at that stage
they could advise the Attorney General on whether they thought
the guidelines had been pitched correctly or not?
413. Did you in fact see the draft guidelines?
(Dr Badawi) Oh, yes.
(Mr Nahdi) Yes.
(Mr Versi) The three points I mentioned came up after
the guidelines, that is the recommendation that there should be
an independent commission which should be monitoring. This is
what they wanted after the guidelines had been listed and there
was an article by a lawyer who analysed it and came up with this.
414. Do you mean that this commission would
have looked at the way in which the Attorney General had exercised
his discretion in particular cases?
(Mr Versi) Yes; monitored, annually or whatever, so
that it would give a portrayal of how things were being done.
Because of the experience of incitement to racial hatred in the
past, it would help to understand the way the law is being implemented.
415. So the commission would have looked at
both the incitement to religious and incitement to racial hatred.
(Mr Versi) Yes.
(Dr Badawi) Of course; yes.
416. May I ask you about another matter? In
the list of Islamophobic attacks which you have sent us, I know
they are taken from items which occurred in September and November
last year before the 2001 Act came into force. The last one on
the first page was that somebody put excrement through the letterbox
of a mosque in Birmingham. That seems to meand I should
like your comments on thisto fall directly within the Ecclesiastical
Courts Jurisdiction Act, which is one of the questions. I wonder
whether anybody contemplated doing anything about it under that
legislation and whether you think that legislation is useful for
this sort of event.
(Dr Badawi) It is useful and should be retained.
(Mr Versi) This also deals with offences inside places
of worship. It is important. I did not realise this until last
year when I went to a court to report on a case where a Muslim
leader was involved in violence inside an Islamic centre and the
police took it very seriously. Even though the person who was
attacked did report it and then just left it, the police continued
with it and took the case to court. I asked why it was being taken
so seriously and was told it was because it was in a place of
worship. It was not a church, it was an Islamic place of worship.
I believe it does cover places of worship. It is important that
there is protection in a place of worship.
417. If it was registered it falls within the
(Mr Versi) Yes.
(Dr Badawi) We agree completely.
418. So there is worth in that legislation still,
(Mr Nahdi) Yes.
(Dr Badawi) Yes.
(Mr Versi) Yes.
419. The other thing I wanted to ask you was
from the same set of papers. It seems to me, and I have looked
through this, apart from the bits about Scotland and Northern
Ireland, that virtually everything would now be covered by Section
39 of the 2001 Act, not least, if I may say so, by Section 4(a)
of the Public Order Act which is intentional harassment, alarm
or distress, using threatening, abusive or insulting words and
behaviour. Has this featured in your thinking about the sort of
attacks which have happened? Do you know of any cases where it
has been used, where the Attorney General has consented? I am
not sure that he has to under Section 39. No, he does not. Have
there been prosecutions for this sort of thing since the 2001
Act came in?
(Mr Abdulla) There has been one prosecution in Exeter
where a man actually used offensive language towards Muslims.
It went to the Exeter magistrates and the person was actually
convicted under this new offence which is designed to outlaw religious
hatred. Apparently the witnesses who were people who were being
attacked by this gentleman were scared and fearful of the language
used towards them. No violence or weapons were used. This chap
apparently said, "You don't speak English. You don't understand
English. You are Muslims. What are you doing here?". This
is the case I was interviewed and about and I thought "Great",
but the people who were attacked felt quite intimidated by it
and this man was prosecuted and convicted. There is now a special
hearing where they have to plead on certain technical aspects
of the law. I do not know whether he has been sentenced yet or
not. So the law has been used already.