18 July 2023

Britain must do much more to tackle ‘anti-blasphemy’ Islamist zealots


Is blasphemy a national security threat to the UK?

The Henry Jackson Society (HJS) think so. Their soon to be published report, trailed by the Telegraph yesterday, found that Muslim anti-blasphemy preachers imported from Pakistan and Bangladesh had accelerated and toxified the response to perceived insults against Islam. Pakistan’s existing blasphemy laws, made even harsher this year, make insulting the Prophet Muhammed or any of his family in effect a capital crime, often without the necessity of a trial because those accused are abducted and murdered by lynch mobs before the justice system gets anywhere near them. 

These forms of legal intolerance are often weaponised to settle political scores or intimidate others by false accusation. And the consequences, when paired with institutional timidity, can be horrific.

France was outraged in 2020 when teacher Samuel Paty was tracked down by an Islamist extremist and beheaded, with the attacker then shot dead by police. His assailant had been mobilised by factually twisted and deliberately inflammatory disinformation from local religious activists about a civics lesson Paty had taught, which featured a cartoon of Muhammed. The school at first caved in to demands that an inspector examine Paty’s behaviour, which lent credence to completely untrue and ultimately lethal allegations that he was deliberately disrespecting Islam. 

While France is convulsed with problems of social and religious cohesion, similar tensions are playing out here, with a similar lack of spine from local and national authorities, not to mention politicians. Three years ago, Batley Grammar school – not a religious school, but a state-funded secondary – was besieged by a mob after a teacher there used an image of the Prophet during an RE lesson. The head teacher condemned the practice, perfectly legal and proper in a liberal democracy, as ‘completely unacceptable’. Three years later the teacher has been given a new identity but is still in hiding, such is his fear of retribution.

You might be forgiven for thinking the fear ought to be held by religious zealots who seem to act with impunity – whether it’s interfering with education or, in another case, making a cinema chain give in almost immediately to protests against a ‘blasphemous’ film. While the great majority of Britain’s Muslims would say there is no contradiction between their religion and modern Britain, a significant and noisy minority think there is. And particularly in deprived parts of northern England, away from the metropolitan gaze, religiosity allows marginalised communities to punch above their weight. Suburban separatism and political Islam combine in ways that provide the pretext for intolerance and, perhaps, violent extremism. 

Again, uncorrected misinformation and the appearance official collusion are important ingredients to a culture of impunity. In a Wakefield school, the slight accidental damage to a Koran led to a distasteful and entirely unnecessary ‘show trial’, where a senior police officer shared a stage with headmaster in front of a packed community hall, each competing with the other to deprecate what emerged as a thoughtless act by a child with high-functioning autism. This happened in front of the boy’s mother, who was forced to have her own struggle session televised. He later received death threats because of rumours the book had been set on fire. Again, the reaction of authorities here was grossly disproportionate to any offence intended. 

It bears repeating that religiosity, however keenly felt, has no special right to protection in this country. While religion and belief are protected characteristics within the Equality Act, this only means that people may not be unlawfully discriminated against because of their faith. It does not absolve any faith from criticism, ridicule or abuse, providing such behaviour is within the law – i.e. that it does not incite others to violence. But such rights also come with responsibilities in a modern secular society – not least the responsibility to be tolerant of other beliefs, and accept this as one of the duties that make rights real. 

My Counter Extremism Project colleague Liam Duffy has written compellingly about 71 Islamist attacks or plots, all of which can be connected with perceived blasphemy. As he says, attacks that appear to be ‘just revenge’ for insulting the Prophet or the religion of Islam are likely to elicit more sympathy than apparently motiveless lone actor terror attacks. We have seen this phenomenon in murderous action here.

In Scotland in March 2016, a Glasgow newsagent Asad Shah, a member of the minority Ahmadiyya sect, was targeted and stabbed to death by a Sunni Muslim because he had supposedly blasphemed by suggesting he was a ‘prophet’. Tanveer Ahmed had driven all the way from Bradford to confront Mr Shah for ‘disrespecting Islam’. While Ahmed was sentenced to 27 years in prison for this crime, his sentence would have been even more severe had it not failed the test of ‘religious aggravation’. That such a murder was not construed as religiously aggravated seems entirely perverse.

We need to do much more to stand up to religious zealots who undermine community cohesion and peaceful coexistence in this country. Unfortunately, as the HJS report finds, local authorities and national politicians often find themselves torn between their wider societal obligations and conflicting sectional interests on the doorstep.

Banning foreign hate preachers from entering the UK would be a start. Since 2014, schools have been required to promote British values, including mutual respect and tolerance for different faiths, to little obvious effect. Perhaps the incoming new Ofsted chief might make this one of their inspection priorities.

Senior Government hand-wringing won’t do either. Unlike most civilised countries we seem incapable of proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Council (IRGC), the boot boys of a murderous regime in Iran that targets women for death in the name of ultra conservative religiosity. It is currently on a blasphemy killing spree of hangings to intimidate the population. The Home Office is currently reviewing its ‘religious workers’ visa scheme because of fears that extremist Iranian clerics are using it as a back door into Britain posing a national security risk.

One of the apparent reasons for the foot-dragging on IRGC proscription is that we would lose diplomatic leverage. But as we have seen all too often in this country and around the world, you can’t negotiate with fanatics, and you shouldn’t try to.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.