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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-434)



  420. One of our difficulties is that Section 39 does cover a very substantial area of unpleasant behaviour, including threatening words and behaviour of this sort.
  (Mr Abdulla) Certainly.

  421. If you are then going to superimpose upon that incitement, the dividing line needs to be drawn with some care.
  (Mr Abdulla) That is where the question of definitions comes into it. In a way we already had this conversation earlier on. It seems to me that incitement is the prologue to the drama which comes with personal attacks. Incitement creates a certain atmosphere in a society of hate and dislike. In this case we are talking about Muslims but it could be Jews, it could be Hindus or whoever. It is the creation of the atmosphere. I am afraid one goes back to 1933, 1936 and the Nazi era where you had Goebbels on the radio ranting and raging and indeed what happened in Africa recently with the Hutus and the Tutsis, where an atmosphere was created in radio broadcasts. That is incitement, to my mind, as opposed to meeting you face to face and saying "Gosh, you're a terrible Muslim. What are you doing here?". That is racially aggravated behaviour. There is legislation already.
  (Dr Badawi) There is indeed.

Lord Avebury

  422. Would you agree there is a distinction between whether the target is an individual or a collective?
  (Dr Badawi) Precisely.

  423. In the case of incitement you do not have to identify a specific person who is the victim of that conduct.
  (Dr Badawi) No, it could be wider.

  424. In the case such as the use of the excrement against the mosque, would that not have been covered by Section 4(a)? Was that considered? Here you do have identifiable persons, that is to say the worshippers at that particular mosque, who were no doubt caused harassment, alarm or distress by the conduct of the person who perpetrated this act. There you do have specific individuals who are the target of the conduct by the offender and it seemed to me that it would have been possible to use 4(a), even if that was not the decision of the police or the CPS in that case.
  (Mr Versi) Yes, but this is an act which has taken place. Incitement, which we are talking about, comes before the act. Some people who are racist take that as an inspiration.
  (Mr Abdulla) The fact of the matter is that the BNP could get away with it at the moment on the website. That is incitement to my mind.
  (Dr Badawi) It is incitement to racial hatred. You do not have to face a particular individual, but you can incite against a whole race and we want incitement against a whole religious community to be treated in the same fashion.

Earl of Mar and Kellie

  425. Just to be slightly flippant, I am wondering whether in the future it will be a defence to say that you were incited to religious hatred by someone else, whether that is actually a defence. I should like to turn to Mr Nahdi. You claim in your CV that you first coined the word "Islamophobia". I am interested to know whether it was a good idea for a group in society to identify itself as perhaps the most persecuted group in our society. Is that a good thing or has that actually put the Muslim community on the run?
  (Mr Nahdi) Yes, but that is the context we find ourselves in. One of the most interesting thing about this discussion is that we are talking about the physical aspects. There are other things which people of faith communities understand are much deeper than the physical aspect. People of faith consider any physical adversity as part of their religiosity. Here we are talking about the whole environment. Islamophobia was then picked up by Dr Badawi and the Islamophobia Commission is the irrational fear. We are talking about a society which claims to be rational. Part of the problem about any law, as Martin Luther King said, is that it is to restrain the evil, not to change hearts. That needs other kinds of processes. The issue about society is that when the Rushdie affair came to this country it was the first time really that the very essence of law in this country was questioned. One way of looking at the Anglo-Rushdie affair was whether there is a role or status for a religious minority in what is becoming an increasingly secular, liberal, fundamentalist society. There has been no answer since then. Our issue is that that issue took our young people from the nice comfortable lounges into the streets and we have not been able to bring them back home. We need laws. The law is to protect those who are weak and who are helpless in society. It is a set of laws instituted in 1976 in this country which has ensured that our community is marginalised, weak and impoverished. The Race Relations Act totally consumed us under classifications with which the great majority of our people do not identify and under which a lot of very good initiatives by the mainstream Society for Equal Opportunities have totally bypassed us. The result has been that we are the new emerging underclass in this society. When you talk about Islamophobia, it is a genuine call from a society which finds an artificial situation because of the law. It was only last year that British law officially recognised that there are Muslims in this country. The first time that the Muslim community was identified in this country as an entity was when the government—and this is very strange—appointed an adviser to the Prison Service. So our starting point is that we are a problem community. The only statistics about the Muslim community up to now are the number of GPs, because they are registered in the medical register and the number of Muslim prisoners in prison, which is about 18.5 per cent, which is more than six or seven times our population. The idea unfortunately is that we started from a negative position and there is a danger. I am sorry I was stuck in the Moses Room when all the action was upstairs but the other worrying thing is the suggestion about increasing the heading with "religious" in front of this. I am not a lawyer, but I am a mathematician: it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. There are areas where you get religious discrimination which have nothing to do with this. Remember that to be a Muslim is beyond being of a particular race. We have an increasing number of converts here from the white community and if you do that you will make them vulnerable. I do not know about the issue of making any law effective from the Muslim perspective. One of the things I came here feeling very strongly about was the blasphemy law. As Dr Badawi says, Muslims have differences and I am one of those Muslims who thinks the blasphemy laws are totally useless in modern Britain and should be totally eradicated. That is my feeling about it. One other aspect of it is that if you are going to make a law, then we need to pool into the philosophy under which that law is going to be extracted. Here it would be interesting to ask somebody like . . . the idea of modern plural Britain affects all of us, religious, faith communities and non-faith communities. In the last few years I have spent more time in the company of bishops than sheikhs for no obvious reason. The issue is that what is really heartening in particular for the Muslim community is that what you are asking for is like we are told to re-invent the wheel all the time. You talk about incitement to religious hatred but it was not difficult to find incitement to racial hatred. Or we talk about definitions of religion again. There is a lack of will so far on this issue. I agree and accept that our starting point has been from a community which by law primarily and by all other organs of the state has been totally marginalised and sidelined. For this we need to be helped by the law again to come into the mainstream because we also have a lot to contribute from our vast resources and our jurisprudence into what constitutes a multi-cultural, multi-faith society which we all need and must have.
  (Dr Badawi) May I say that when you say the word "Islamophobia" is not very helpful, I am guilty because I am the one who coined the phrase? Let me tell you why we did that. For the simple reason that we are not defined by ourselves, we are defined from outside. We are people of diverse races, diverse cultures but we have common features, that is that our system of belief really binds us together. The world outside does not recognise our differences, does not recognise our diversity. The mechanism of prejudices is not to recognise any difference at all. You see one person and that is what has happened. That is why I say Islamophobia, because in reality people look upon us in the same way; they look at me and my colleagues here as though we were copybooks of each other, which is not really true. I hope you have read the Runnymede report. If you have not, I will send you a copy. It is a very, very interesting one and shows you the full extent of the Islamophobic reaction, particularly in the media, which is very, very frightening.

Bishop of Portsmouth

  426. You spoke about the converts and the minority needing protection. That set off in my mind the existence of pockets of Asian Christians who are feeling vulnerable. I know, for example, that the Bishop of Wakefield will want to make that point, speaking for people of all faiths within his diocese. You cannot actually speak for them, but clearly you are nodding your heads when I mention that. Does one of you have a very brief comment to make?
  (Dr Badawi) We would be very strongly supportive of their position, their freedom in every respect and would give them all the protection. My colleague said that he sees a lot of bishops; I sit with Bishop Muzorewa.
  (Mr Nahdi) Last year the Archbishop of Canterbury's office set up a commission called the Christian-Muslim Listening Group under Bishop John Austin. I think I was the Muslim equivalent of the bishop there, in the absence of Sheikh Badawi. We are supposed to visit eight places up and down the country. In the last three places we visited, I have insisted that I am the one to do this listening exercise with Christian Asians. I met a pocket in Nelson and I met a pocket in Leicester last week. It is fascinating: they were speaking like any Muslim would speak about the discrimination they faced because of their faith. This protection is good for all these minorities. Minorities should not be bypassed and it is important that we realise that.

  Bishop of Portsmouth: I am very grateful for that. I know it is not strictly relevant to your evidence, but I am very grateful for that.


  427. I am going to go relentlessly back to the list of questions. I am afraid it is more law, but we cannot really avoid it. We perfectly well understand the BNP website situation and I dare say that will not be the last and if this is going to get onto the statute book then somebody else will have to object in due course. I do, however, want to explore the extent to which you are able to use what is already on the statute book. One of the things which was included in Section 39 was the Protection from Harassment Act. The Protection from Harassment Act needs a victim or a series of victims rather than a huge group, but it does have the double distinction of not only creating criminal offences, but it gives you a civil remedy as well so that you could stop people from going on doing whatever it is. If you took an individual mosque which was under attack, I wonder whether that is a sufficiently clear group of people who might be able to benefit from that legislation. Has this crossed your minds at all?
  (Dr Badawi) Yes, it certainly has; it has certainly crossed our minds. We feel that the law as it stands now does protect individuals, it protects specific, concrete cases. We should really like to extend it to the whole group. My own model is the Race Relations Act. If I say that Jews are whatever then I immediately get into the courts straight away, or if I say Blacks. I should like the same thing so that if my community is maligned in this fashion we can have some sort of protection under the law.

  428. I think you are asking us to use a very broad brush on an area where there is already a good deal of definition. I have already said that we take the point about the BNP website. I am not sure that in your evidence so far today you have taken account of the other remedies which are still available, the other criminal offences which are now available and whether these do not eat into the complaint you have made about the inadequacy of the criminal law. Yes, there is probably an area left, but have you really thought of the dividing line between what you have already in Section 39 and what you want?
  (Dr Badawi) The dividing line is that whereas Section 39 can give protection to specific and concrete cases, it does not give protection in the broad sense. If I attack a Jew, or a Black, or a Sikh personally, then that is very simple, but if I attack the Sikhs in general I would still be breaking the law. At the moment the dividing line allows me, a Muslim, to seek protection. If I am attacked as a person or a particular concrete case happens, then I can get the protection of the law, but if the attack is on my community, then we use the expression Islamophobic and we do not have protection and that is what we want.

  429. That is the gap which has to be filled.
  (Dr Badawi) Yes, that is the gap.

  430. That is the gap which also has to be filled in a way which allows for the freedom of speech which falls short of an attack upon the community.
  (Dr Badawi) Absolutely; it is something we must have.
  (Mr Versi) Last year, during the Anti-terrorism Bill debate on incitement to religious hatred in the House of Common, the Home Secretary refuted the concern that freedom of expression would be curtailed by the legislation.

  Chairman: That is very helpful.

Lord Avebury

  431. It would still be very useful, notwithstanding the reply, which we perfectly understand, to know whether individual mosques have in fact invoked the protection of Section 2 of the Protection from Harassment Act. Is it possible that you could make enquiries to see whether any mosques thought of using the civil remedies?
  (Mr Nahdi) No, no mosque has used this. Again, it is part of the legal process and most members of our community are not very comfortable with the law. It took 25 to 27 years for the Race Relations Act even to receive a handful of complaints through the law about race. Our community fears anything to do with the law. The very process of instigating something like that is traumatic for us. It has not been part of the issue. Another issue is this confusion. There are many Muslim individuals and groups which have gone for "race" because there has been so much input into making it understandable and reaching out to make people understand under the Race Relations Act. When it comes to a religious thing you have to understand the mentality of austerity in which Muslims lead their daily lives here. They feel it is a crime even to stand up and say they are a Muslim. When there is a bomb in Bali it numbs the whole community in Britain. My children refused to go to school the next day. This is how immediate the environment is which has created this hostility. You can imagine in the mosques . . . The other thing is that it is also a question of whether it will be a good thing, because if somebody throws a pig's head into a mosque courtyard would the law cover that?


  432. That happened in Exeter, did it not, and it was prosecuted under criminal damage for some reason.
  (Mr Versi) Yes.
  (Dr Badawi) In terms of the mosques, we have set up a committee in the Imams' Council to receive complaints for law suits. We receive them and we passed them to the Home Secretary when Jack Straw was Home Secretary. I passed him 20 complaints from mosques and requested that they should be given funds to have cameras and what have you for their protection. To be frank, when I arrived in this country the National Front was attacking our institutions and my advice to the community was not to complain, not to give them publicity, not to allow them to feel that they had in any way affected us. This was a policy which I followed and I discovered later on that probably in the long term it was unwise and we should have sought protection right from the start. My fear was the copycat effect and that other groups would start attacking us. Then I asked them to report to me and I passed this to the Home Secretary. We certainly have complaints from various mosques, complaints sometimes about physical criminal damage which are straightforward under the law, but also incitement, which really was the frightening thing, when people come near a mosque and incite people and talk in an insulting way to others. This was happening quite often. Individuals, particularly women, going to worship were also insulted and people said, "Oh, these Muslims" and what have you and one of my students in my college was wearing the Hijab and she is a graduate of one of the quite respectable British universities and she was called a terrorist. They just said "Terrorist". We do have a lot of this happening in mosques, individuals, it happens all over the place.

  433. I am going to draw this session to a close because I have a rule about half past one: it being time for food for our witnesses as well as ourselves. What would help, really help me at any rate, would be if we could have The Muslim News September 2002 instead of 2001 so we can see what has happened recently, since the 2001 Act came into force. The sort of cases you have just been talking about, but brought up to date so we can see what is going on currently and where the gaps are. Do you think you could do that for us?
  (Dr Badawi) We can do that.

  434. It would be a huge help, because this is out of date, this pre-dated the new legislation. What we want is a picture of what is happening now. Could you do that?
  (Dr Badawi) Yes, we will do that.
  (Mr Abdulla) I have some background documents. May I circulate these?

  Chairman: We should very much like to have them. May I thank all four of you for the amount of trouble you have taken. I think you have helped us enormously. We are getting to the stage of having to try to define some of these things and you have helped us very much in our attempts so to do. Thank you very much for coming.

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