Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony

  We would like to submit the following evidence on behalf of our organisation known as Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony on "Religious Offences" for your Select Committee consideration:

  1.  The existing religious offences (notably blasphemy) laws should not be abolished but amended and extended to all major faiths practiced in the United Kingdom. We strongly recommend that new religious offence laws be created (such as incitement of religious hatred) which may be based on "Prevention of Incitement to Hatred Act (Northern Ireland) 1970". We also believe that there is significant mischief that is not covered by existing laws, and that technical problems of providing sufficiently tight definitions can be overcome so that laws be effective and workable.

  2.  The Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony was established in 1980 to work for the welfare of British Muslims and to promote better understanding in our multi-cultural and multi-faith society about different cultures and faith traditions. We believe that serving for and sharing in the common good of our society as a whole for better religious and racial harmony is the only way forward. We strongly recommend that faith communities must be valued and appreciated for their charitable and voluntary work and protected against vilification and incitement to religious hatred. This is a necessary prerequisite for creating a better and harmonious society.

  3.  There is urgent need to strengthen our British laws in three areas:

    (a)  Outlaw religious discrimination as established in Employment Tribunal judgment in CRE v Precision Engineering;

    (b)  Enact against incitement to religious hatred; and

    (c)  Laws against sacrilege and abuse of religious sanctities.

  The most outstanding example is filth against Muslims in Penguin's infamous book "Satanic Verses". In case of R v Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate, ex parte Choudhury (1991), where the court declared that current laws of Blasphemy do not extend to religions other than of Anglican Christianity.

  4.  British Muslims are representatives of a rich diversity of heritages drawn from many ethnic backgrounds and cultures. A microcosm of British society, Muslims are a multi-cultural community, united through strong ties of faith identity that transcend ethnic boundaries. British Muslims seek to play a constructive role in British society as concerned and responsible citizens. We believe that repealing the existing law will give a negative message, one that implies that "religion does not matter".

  5.  For many Muslims, religion—and not only ethnicity—forms the basis of their primary identity. In terms of service provision across the whole range of public services, faith-based needs are often more relevant than those based on ethnicity. Statistics provided by the religious question of the 2001 Census should lead to a more equitable allocation of public services, and provide baselines for monitoring representation and social exclusion. Ethnicity plays an important role, but the rightful place of a faith-based identity needs to be recognised. For many of Britain's Muslims, discrimination can take the form of insults or intimidation, or it can mean being refused a job or a place at school. It is particularly acute when Muslim women wear the headscarf, or hijab, or when men grow a beard and the outward signs of their faith often make them easy targets of abuse. These practicing Muslims should have protection in law against the violation of their religious identities and human dignity.

  6.  The Muslim community welcomed the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. However, the Human Rights Act 1998 falls short of providing adequate protection from religious discrimination. Muslims have no protection against having their faith reviled and ridiculed in a scurrilous and contemptuous fashion. Our legal framework does not envisage a situation in which an offence of sacrilege could be committed against religious people other than the Anglican faith. Subsequently there is no recourse or redress in our British legal system. The specific legal recognition of Jews and Sikhs accords them a level of protection denied to peoples of other faiths—particularly Muslims— who are consequently vulnerable to discrimination and harassment motivated not only by race but by religion. The Law Commission's working paper 79 on "offences against religion and public worship" expressed similar views. The evil of Islamophobia is now broadly acknowledged as a pervasive and powerful negative force in society. Our Government cannot ignore the real fears of its Muslim citizens. Legislation banning all forms of religious discrimination, harassment, and incitement to hatred must be its priority. Appropriate laws must be urgently enacted.

  7.  The Muslim Community seeks equality of treatment. In Northern Ireland there is a law that prohibits incitement to religious hatred. There is no legal or other sound reason not to have such a law in Great Britain, since the laws on incitement to racial hatred cover only some religious groups and not all. Again it would seem clear that by not having a law on incitement to religious hatred the United Kingdom is in breach of its international obligations. We draw your attention towards reports of the Committee of the United Nations on elimination of all forms of racism. In international legislation Islamophobia is an agreed and is considered as the worst manifestation of cultural racism. For further information please see report on "Islamophobia" published by the Runnnymede Trust 1997, as well as the two follow-up reports by the Commission on the British Muslims and Islamophobia known as "Addressing the Challenge of Islamophobia" (1999) and "Addressing prejudice and Islamophobia: post 11 September 2001" published in Autumn 2001.

  8.  We would like to submit in our evidence the following three academic's written opinions, which are widely available to further our arguments:

    (1)  "Protect Both Gods and Books" by Simon Lee, a professor of Jurisprudence at Queen's University Belfast. Faber published this article in "Free Speech" Reproduced in UKACIA document "Need for Reform" 1993.

    (2)  "Towards Legislative Reform of the Blasphemy and Racial Hatred Laws" by Sebastian Poulter published in UKACIA document "Need for Reform" 1993.

    (3)  "Muslim Incitement to Hatred and the Law", by Dr Tariq Mood Professor of Sociology Bristol University published in UKACIA document "Need for Reform" 1993.

5 July 2002

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