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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)

WEDNESDAY 23 OCTOBER 2002

MR FUAD NAHDI, DR ZAKI BADAWI, MR RAFICQ ABDULLA MBE, MA AND MR AHMED VERSI

  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 time—Islam 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 criminal law.
  (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 was.

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 intolerance.
  (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 framed—and I am a non-lawyer—is 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 just—I think we all would—appreciate 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?

Chairman

  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 much.
  (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 is happening.

Chairman

  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 lawyers.
  (Mr Abdulla) Absolutely. We could spend hours on that.

Lord Avebury

  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.

Chairman

  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 future.

  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?

Chairman

  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.

Lord Avebury

  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.

Chairman

  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 me—and I should like your comments on this—to 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 1860 Act.
  (Mr Versi) Yes.
  (Dr Badawi) We agree completely.

  418. So there is worth in that legislation still, is there?
  (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.


 
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