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I say at the outset that my amendment does not reflect my party's policy, but I want to explain my concern about recent events that have done serious harm to the religious beliefs of our different faith communities. Two recent events demonstrate how inadequately we deal with hatred of this kind. Last week we learned that more than 40 Muslim graves were desecrated in Birmingham. It is easy to deal with such matters as criminal damage, or to use other legal means, but the underlying hurt does irreparable damage to our faith communities. The shockwaves of what happened in Birmingham were felt across the whole country.
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The second incident was reported in our national newspapers only yesterday. I am aware that the matter is under investigation by the Metropolitan Police, but suffice it to say that an allegation has been made by a Muslim man that a police officer desecrated his Koran by throwing it into a rubbish bin when arresting him. The incident is alleged to have happened last Monday in south London, and the man also alleges that he was assaulted while being detained at his home. Muslims believe that a copy of the Koran is sacred and must be treated with respect. Throwing it in the bin could be viewed as a grave insult amounting to desecration. I shall not go further into that case, but we await the outcome of the investigation undertaken by the Metropolitan Police.
There are other examples that are hurtful to the community. All of us are aware of the alleged mishandling of the holy Koran where the US military confirm that it had identified five incidents in which the holy book was mishandled by American personnel at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. The report sparked protests across the Muslim world. In Afghanistan, riots resulted in at least 15 deaths. I do not believe that we shall ever find out whether the holy Koran was flushed down the toilet, but it is not disputed that such incidents create extreme hurt to our Muslim community.
There are incidents of pig heads being left outside mosques. It is only recently that prison officers who deal with Muslim inmates have understood how to handle the holy book. It is not uncommon that even the most gentle inmates become violent when their religious beliefs are hurt.
Another incident relates to some Christian fanatics who vandalised a Hindu temple. Two young white men reportedly intruded into a temple service in Ealing Road, in London. One of the men snatched the microphone and shouted that there was only one God and that the congregation was stupid to worship a stone. They then shook the idol until it was broken. The Hindu community was deeply offended that its sacred images were desecrated by those two persons. Of course we could argue that there are powers to deal with religiously aggravated criminal damage cases. In this case the Hindu community said that it had lost confidence in the ability of the CPS to prosecute such cases. The community has a list of regular incidents from 1993 in which temples and festivals have been vandalised. Very few of such incidents have resulted in prosecution. Jewish cemeteries are regularly vandalised. Synagogues have been painted with swastikas and headstones covered with anti-Semitic graffiti.
There are powers to deal with religiously aggravated criminal damage, but they fail to take into account the wider insecurity of communities that feel that their hurt is never clearly understood or dealt with. The Government were keen to tell the Muslim community about the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, and we all know about the letter sent by the Home Secretary to the mosques in this country prior to the election. I very much hope that the Home Secretary will write a
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further letter to the mosques and temples saying what the Home Office is doing to protect the beliefs of religious minorities in this country. I beg to move.
Lord Desai: My Lords, I have great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, but I am not sure that I support the amendment. I do not like the Bill, as is well known. It was supposed to be about believers, not about belief. We are trying hard not to overstep the mark by criticising or obstructing people's dislike of religion, but we want to stop them hating those who hold certain beliefs.
The line is difficult to draw, but we know precisely the sort of thing that can happen. Once we start down that road it is hard to say what objects are held sacred. As a former Hindu I can imagine that a number of objects could be held sacred by a Hindu; there is no precise limit. Because of my lack of religious belief, I do not want to privilege books which, to me, are only books. They may be holy books to some people, but they are merely printed paper to me. If someone says that such printed paper is holy, sacred and so on, and that I cannot do something with it, my right to handle such books will be restricted because they happen to be religious books. I may want to do something that others may find insulting, but to me it would be only a book.
Let us stop and think a little further. Are there not laws on the books already that allow people to be prosecuted for vandalising temples or destroying icons and figures? If someone feels deeply insulted by the way in which the holy Koran is treated, it may be a matter to consider, but it does not constitute hatred of a religious person. I do not want to go in that direction. Let us keep the Bill fairly restricted and narrow because it is bad enough as it is.
Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, perhaps I could remind your Lordships of the time in the early 1990s during the height of the Rushdie affair when Muslims thought it right and proper to burn copies of his novel The Satanic Verses and effigies of Salman Rushdie himself. Where would such actions fall under the amendment? It suggests that the amendment needs greater definition. Of course we all deplore the desecration of the graves that we have heard about recently, but the amendment is still too broad.
Another area that might come under its aegis, which again is contentious, and which has certainly been tested in the US, is flag burning. I remember going to great lengths, along with many other peoplesome of whom are in your Lordships' Houseto defend the burning of flags. It may be that we would fall on the wrong side of the law if the amendment were agreed to.
Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, the amendment is undoubtedly well intentioned, but your Lordships owe some respect to the English language when legislating. How on earth can religious hatred include desecration? Hatred is a state of mind; desecration is a physical act. To say that hatred includes desecration is
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such a gross perversion of the English language that, however well intentioned the amendment, your Lordships should not put that remarkable phrase on to the statute book.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. If we want the clearest possible evidence of religious hatred, it is the destruction, or desecration, of symbols or sacramental objects. I was party to meetings in Ealing about the experience the noble Lord mentioned. I am very well aware of the very strong sense of hurt that was felt about those actions because of the nature of belief and the nature of the objects which were destroyed and damaged.
Given the debate in this House and elsewhere about how to define religious hatred, this is the most tangible way in which we can demonstrate that it occurs. For that reason, I hope that my noble friend will in her reply give careful consideration to the arguments. What causes frustration and a feeling that society and the criminal justice system care little about these matters is the fact that the only charges that could be brought under these circumstances are fairly minor ones of criminal damage, with no indication of the severity of the hurt that has been caused and no understanding of the feelings of the communities concerned about the hatred that is being expressed towards them and their beliefs.
I have respect always for my noble friend Lord Desai. The Bill is designed to protect individuals rather than their beliefs. However, the amendment is not about beliefs but about the impact that those acts of desecration have on a large number of individuals. Having heard the very strong views expressed by several hundred people at the meeting I attended, I think that the Government need to look at this very carefully.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, there is no doubt that the offence of desecration arouses extremely strong feelings. We had plenty of evidence of that in the Select Committee. We must consider whether, as my noble friend hinted, the problem is one of adequate penalties under the existing law or of the difficulties that the police have in bringing cases to court. Criminal damage attracts a penalty of 10 years' imprisonment for the basic offence, which can go up to 14 years if the offence is religiously aggravated. The problem is not one of the inadequacy of the penalties that are available but of the difficulties the police have in catching the perpetrators of the offences described by my noble friend and bringing them to court.
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