Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the Islamic Human Rights Commission

  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 We agree that the current blasphemy offences are outdated and recommend that the relevant provisions are altered and/or refined to protect religions from vilification.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Rights Commission agrees that the current offence of blasphemy that exclusively applies to the Christian religion is outdated and its practise has been virtually abandoned.

  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 Therefore there appears no reason to retain this outdated offence in its current form on the statute books.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 society.

  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 violence—from pushing, shoving, being spat at to violent attacks leaving victims hospitalised—which 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 non-religious offences.

  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 proceed.

  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 Rights.

  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.

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