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Published in the 16-30 Apr 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Muslims misled over religious hatred law

By Ghayasuddin Siddiqui

The Milli Gazette Online 

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill which deals, interalia, with incitement to religious hatred, comes before the House of Lords on Monday, 14 March 2005. There is much confusion within the Muslim community and elsewhere as to what the proposed law is intended to achieve. The core question is whether it be intended to protect the belief or the believer. Moreover, in the process does it encroach upon the freedom of speech?

Muslims, for all manner of historic reasons, feel themselves marginalized and insecure in their present environment. It is significant that 80% or over of our people come from a rural background. It was only to be expected that it would take time before they began to feel at ease with their new environment and be able to contribute to the wider society with what they can drive from their own Islamic heritage. The knowledge generated in centres of learning in Muslim Spain and elsewhere led to the Renaissance in Europe. The Ottoman’s controlled an enormous empire based on the identity of state and religion with the chief legal figure Shaikh al-Islam, appointed by the Caliph. The defence of Islam was done best by scholars skilled in polemics who were able to confute arguments advanced by the adversaries of Islam.

The decline in the level of discourse was a major factor in the eventual collapse of Islam as a world power. Muslims are no strangers to the phenomenon of migration either. Only a few years after the Prophet embarked on his ministry the nascent Muslim community in Mecca found their lives intolerable. At this moment it was to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia that Muslims looked for protection, and they found that Christians and Muslims had much in common.
Apropos, Muslims do not wish to be a part of any exercise that infringes the principle of freedom of speech. Liberty and freedom of speech are values that must be cherished because they guarantee an environment suitable for debate and understanding. Muslims do not want to be a special case either, only equality with others before the law. Sufficient legal standards are already in place to cover threats or insults liable to cause disorder or to distress religious groups. A 2001 amendment to the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act extended the offence of causing alarm or distress to include cases that are racially or religiously aggravated. Mark Norwood, a BNP activist in a small town Gobowen, in Shropshire, was convicted under this Act for displaying in his shop window a poster reading, ‘Islam out of Britain’, alongside a photograph of the World Trade Centre in flames. Even more importantly, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the conviction. The court held that the right of freedom of _expression was limited to ‘objectively reasonable conduct’. 

Whilst we welcome the Government’s desire to plug all possible gaps in the law which could be exploited to stir up hatred, we need to be convinced that the law would achieve the desired goal. Certain ambiguous statements by Government ministers have heightened expectation within the Muslim community that the Government is enacting a law that shall not only protect the believer but also the belief.

The Government’s proposed solution is its new Schedule 10 to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. This criminalises speech, publication or performance ‘likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom they are … likely to stir up racial or religious hatred’. Religious hatred is considered ‘hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief’. But how will such a law operate in practice? People will complain when in their view the law has been contravened. The complaint will be investigated by the police for consideration by the Crown Prosecution Service for them to decide whether to pass it on to the Attorney General for a decision on prosecution. Naturally, only a handful of complaints will ever reach the court. This will disappoint a community labouring under the misapprehension that they are now protected against abuse of their religious belief. In Australia, the Victorian State has a similar law. The experience of a Muslim activist, Amir Butler, Executive Director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee, who was the main advocate of this legislation, is instructive. He has now declared opposition to the law because he has found that ‘at every major Islamic lecture I have attended since litigation began there have been small groups of evangelical Christians, with notepads and pens, jotting down any comments that might later be used as evidence in the present case or presumably future cases’.

In addition to taking the blame of being responsible for supporting the infringement of free speech, Muslim groups will find themselves under the spotlight more than ever before if this law is enacted. It is also not inconceivable that they may be its first victims.

The way forward is not to proceed with Government’s proposal but to call for the support of the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris’s amendment changing the law on incitement to racial hatred to include ‘reference to a religion or other belief system or a person’s membership or presumed membership of a religious group or other belief system as a pretext for stirring up racial hatred against a racial group’.

Muslims have to realise that the Labour Party’s solution is neither practicable nor in their best interests; it may even be an election gimmick. They have to recognise that their best course of action is not to be seen as a problem, a threat or an alien presence; they are part of a genuine European phenomenon, and ultimately their status in society will be determined by their pursuance of excellence in all fields of endeavours.

Dr. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui is Leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, drsiddiqui@talk21.com 

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