Submission from the Islamic Human Rights
1. The Islamic Human Rights Commission welcomes
the introduction of the Religious Offences Bill in January 2002
by Lord Avebury in the House of Lords. We agree that the current
blasphemy offences are outdated and recommend that the relevant
provisions are altered and/or refined to protect religions from
vilification. We wholly endorse the creation of a new offence
of incitement to religious hatred.
2. The Islamic Human Rights Commission agrees
that the current offence of blasphemy that exclusively applies
to the Christian religion is outdated and its practise has been
3. There have only been two private prosecutions
since 1921. The prosecution of Gay News by Mary Whitehouse
in 1976 and the Salman Rushdie affair. The Home Office adoption
of the 1985 proposals by the Law Commission not to seek state
prosecution for blasphemy shows that much weight is not attached
to the offence. Therefore there appears no reason to retain this
outdated offence in its current form on the statute books.
4. However, we must accept the concept of
religious sensitivity in today's society and thus there still
remains the need to protect religions from vilification. While
an offence of blasphemy as it is currently defined hampers the
right to free speech, the absence of any legislation regulating
abuse towards religions would infringe on the right to religion.
A balance needs to be drawn between the two rights while on the
one hand allowing room for intellectual disagreement and on the
other hand provide protection against abuses towards one's faith.
It is necessary to protect and promote tolerance towards a multi-faith
5. On this basis, we put forward the recommendation
for the retention of the provision but with a narrower definition
than the "broader" blasphemy offences that currently
exist to only offer protection against vilification.
6. The Islamic Human Rights Commission wholly
endorses the proposal to extend the offence of incitement to racial
hatred to cover incitement to religious hatred.
7. The extraordinary anti-Muslim backlash
felt by the Muslim community after the events of September 11
served to highlight deficiencies in the law with regards to protecting
the Muslim community from hate crimes.
8. The IHRC report entitled "Islamophobia:
The New Crusade" gives an overview of the rise of this new
phenomenon from international politics to schools and universities.
9. "The Hidden Victims of September
11: The Backlash against Muslims in the UK" looks at the
number and nature of attacks against Muslims since September 11.
Seventy-five percent of all hate crimes go unreported, so the
incidents that are referred to in the reports represent only the
tip of the ice-berg of the wave of hostility experienced by Muslims
in the UK. The type of treatment ranged from written and verbal
abuse, psychological harassment and pressure, discrimination at
work and school to serious crimes of violencefrom pushing,
shoving, being spat at to violent attacks leaving victims hospitalisedwhich
constituted 58 percent of incidents reported.
10. Current race relations legislation is
inadequate in protecting Muslims and operates on a discriminatory
basis, its application being of a selective nature. Jews, Sikhs
and Rastafarians fall into the definition of racial or ethnic
groups and are provided adequate protection against discrimination
while the same level of protection is denied to Muslims. We welcome
the Government's recognition of the need to protect all religions
against hate crimes and to finally provide them with the same
level of protection that had been given to other groups under
racial hatred legislation.
11. The offence of "Incitement to religious
hatred" should be defined as hatred against a group of persons
defined by reference to their religion or belief or perceived
religion or belief. Although Article 9 of the ECHR encompasses
both religious and non-religious rights, this particular Bill
is aimed at religious offences. So we recommend that the focus
is retained on that area and should not be extended to include
12. The legislation should provide protection
to those bona fide religious groups such as Muslims who
are particularly vulnerable and are in need of legal protection,
protection that is taken for granted by other religious groups.
It cannot be claimed by non-religious groups such as scientologists,
atheists, freemasons, druids etc that they are in need of the
same level of protection. This is perhaps apparent from the fact
that there is no non-religious group calling for the extension
of the legislation to protect them.
13. Concerns are raised as to any adverse
effects created by an offence of incitement to religious hatred
on the rights of freedom of expression protected by Article 10
of the ECHR. The consequence of this measure may be that serious
restraints are placed on speech in terms of philosophical debates.
Whilst a fine line exists between what constitutes philosophical
debate and incitement, the Government must provide precise definitions
and draw distinctions rather than place total restrictions on
the fundamental right to freedom of speech. For example, by declaring
opposition to the Zionist movement, one may find himself being
prosecuted for incitement to religious hatred. By quoting certain
verses from the Quran, one may find himself being prosecuted for
inciting religious hatred. For purposes of creating a balance,
the Islamic Human Rights Commission supports the retention of
the Attorney-General's power to decide whether prosecutions should
14. We hope that the proposed legislation
will not lack practical effect as does current racial crimes legislations.
Under these legislations, only 35 convictions have been secured
since 1988. Ironically, out of the 45 prosecutions brought, ethnic
minorities found themselves to be disproportionately affected.
These statistics indicate that rather than providing ethnic minorities
with protection against hate crimes, the legislation was to restrain
the growth of black power movements. Indeed, the first prosecution
was of a black activist called Michael X, followed by subsequent
prosecutions of other black activists. So the law that had been
designed to primarily protect ethnic minorities has been used
against them. There have been 61 prosecutions between 1998 and
2001. No racial breakdown is available.
15. We further note that when a clause to
outlaw religious incitement in the Anti Terrorism, Crime and Security
Bill 2001 was defeated that year, references to the first prosecution
being against a Muslim group indicate similar motives. The possible
prosecution of Muslim groups, at a time of anti-Muslim backlash
and the singling out of the Muslim community as victims of hate
campaigns by the BNP (See IHRC report on The Oldham Riot) and
other neo-Nazi groups would be highly inappropriate.
16. It is necessary to put in place a mechanism
whereby the implementation of the legislation can be scrutinised.
The Islamic Human Rights Commission recommends that while the
Attorney-General retain the power to grant or refuse applications,
his discretion to do so must be based on criteria that is outlined
in the legislation in the form of a note of guidance. This decision
should be open to scrutiny by Parliament via regular reports consisting
of racial and religious breakdowns of the figures and reasons
for pursuing or refusing to allow prosecution, submitted to the
Home Affairs Select Committee and the Joint Committee on Human
17. Extending current legislation to include
incitement to religious hatred will not be effective in deterring
and punishing perpetrators in the absence of further measures.
As highlighted by numerous reports, the police and criminal justice
system is drenched in institutionalised racism and Islamophobia.
Significant changes need to be made by addressing the application
of such legislation. Fear of increased discriminatory treatment
may result in an escalation of tensions between law enforcement
agencies and the Muslim communities.