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Monday 11 December 2006

Brendan O’Neill

Time for a backlash against the hate-obsessed state?


After 7/7 we were warned of a possible pogrom against Muslims. If anything, prosecutions for anti-Muslim acts actually fell.

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After the bombings in London on 7 July 2005, the British state exerted at least as much energy keeping a watchful eye on the white hordes as it did trying to find out who detonated the bombs.

Many predicted a swift and unforgiving ‘Islamophobic backlash’. Police officers were posted outside mosques. A National Community Tensions Team set about monitoring anti-Muslim incidents around the country and provided intelligence to the government and police. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, issued a plea for calm, warning against that ‘temptation in some’ to make Muslims a ‘scapegoat’. Brian Paddick, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, called for everyone to keep their eyes peeled for hate on the streets (1).

Even doctors’ surgeries were enlisted in the post-7/7 spying game. One primary care trust sent an email the day after the bombings asking staff to watch out for signs of hate: ‘At a time of raised tensions such as this, it is important that all staff challenge racism and prejudice in a positive way.’ (2) A union official called on progressives to take a stand against the ‘backlash’ against ‘our Muslim brothers and sisters’ (3).

Backlash? What backlash? We now know that the post-7/7 fantasies of an anti-Muslim pogrom were just that: fantasises, fuelled by an excitable and unfounded view of the white working classes as ignorant and given to violent outbursts. Figures published by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) last week show that for the year 2005-2006 (which covers 1 April 2005 to 31 March 2006, thus including the aftermath of the bombings) there were prosecutions for 43 cases of religiously aggravated crime. That’s right, 43. Far from being a backlash, this figure is socially insignificant, representing a minuscule minority of overall crime for 2005-2006. The ‘backlash’ predicted by so many turned out to be a handful of mostly minor incidents carried out by drunks and losers.

As the Director of Public Prosecutions said as he presented the figures – sounding somewhat perplexed – ‘the fears of a large rise in offences appear to be unfounded’ (4).

Some of the headline coverage of the stats has chosen to focus on the percentage rise in prosecutions for religiously aggravated offences. ‘The Crown Prosecution Service’s Racist and Religious Incident Monitoring report for 2005-2006 shows an increase in prosecutions on the previous year for both types of offence’, says the CPS press release. ‘Religiously aggravated cases rose by 26.5 per cent.’ (5) That seems to be true. But in this instance, 26.5 per cent represents a mere nine cases: there was a rise from 34 prosecutions in religiously aggravated cases in 2004-2005 to 43 in 2005-2006.

Fewer than half of these religiously aggravated incidents in 2005-2006 can definitely be said to have targeted Muslims: of the 43 cases, Muslims were victims in 18 of them, Christians were victims in three, and a Sikh was a victim in one. In the remaining 21 cases, the actual or perceived religion of the victim was not known (more of which in a minute).

If you go you beyond the press release and dig into the CPS report, you’ll see that this means there were fewer prosecutions for religiously aggravated cases involving Muslims as victims in 2005-2006 than there were in 2004-2005. In 2004-2005, there were prosecutions for 34 cases of religiously aggravated crime, in which the victim’s actual or perceived religion was Islam in 23 cases; in 2005-2006, there were 43 cases of religiously aggravated crime, in which the victim’s actual or perceived religion was Islam in 18 cases. This means that the number of prosecuted anti-Muslim crimes fell from 23 to 18 in a year in which we were warned of an ominous rise in anti-Muslim hate.

Of the 43 cases in 2005-2006, around one quarter involved assault or harassment against the person. The charges prosecuted included: 21 for religiously aggravated public disorder (shouting in the street, etc); 10 for religiously aggravated criminal damage (graffiti, smashing windows, damaging religious buildings, etc); nine for religiously aggravated assault; and three for religiously aggravated harassment. So, 72.1 per cent of the prosecutions involved public disorder or damage, and 27.9 per cent (or 12 cases in real terms) involved assault or harassment (6).

It is worth asking what constitutes a religiously aggravated crime. When does public disorder become ‘religiously aggravated public disorder’? The CPS says it uses a ‘similar definition’ for religious incidents as the Macpherson report into the investigation of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence used to define a racist incident. So a religiously aggravated incident is an incident perceived to be religiously aggravated by the victim or any other person. With such a sweeping subjective definition of religiously aggravated crime – where it is the perception of the victim or any bystander that counts – the really shocking thing is that the police books aren’t overflowing with religiously aggravated whispers, allegations and prosecutions.

So subjective is the definition of a religiously aggravated offence that in 21 of the 43 prosecutions in 2005-2006, the actual or perceived religion of the victim was unknown. What can this mean? Presumably that some of the crimes were victimless; maybe, for example, someone was prosecuted for shouting generally anti-religious remarks in a public place. It is also noteworthy that the CPS report refers to a victim’s ‘actual or perceived religion’. This might mean that some of the ‘Muslim’ victims of religiously aggravated crimes were not Muslims, but rather were only perceived as such. Perhaps some were Sikhs verbally assaulted as if they were Muslims. It seems you can be a victim of Islamophobia even if you are not a Muslim.

The police and other bodies positively trawled for evidence of anti-Muslim hate post-7/7. London’s Metropolitan Police published a leaflet titled ‘Communities Together Can Help Fight the Effects of Terrorism in London’ – and by ‘effects of terrorism’ they didn’t mean injuries or rubble, but that imagined anti-religious backlash. The Met promised to respond ‘quickly and robustly’ to prejudice and hate, and provided phone numbers for different organisations for those who felt ‘vulnerable, confused and angry’ or believed they may have been ‘a victim of prejudice’. The Islamic Human Rights Commission ran ads on an Islamic TV channel encouraging Muslims to report harassment, which can be ‘anything from verbal abuse, nasty looks to physical assault.’ The Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism also encouraged more reporting of anti-Muslim incidents, and said Islamophobia can include anything from physical assault to not being shown ‘respect’ in public life (7).

Taking into account the widespread predictions of an anti-Muslim backlash, the open-ended definition of a religiously aggravated crime, and the cynical hunt by the police and unelected, self-serving groups for any hint of harassment or danger post-7/7, it is fairly remarkable that the number of prosecutions of religiously aggravated offences in 2005-2006 was only 43, and 18 for cases where Muslims were known to be the victims. Post-7/7, while the government, police, church and various worthy self-defined community groups feverishly predicted a rise in hateful violence, the vast mass of the population seem to have remained peaceable and tolerant, simply getting on with their everyday lives.

Looking at the nature of some of the religiously aggravated crimes of 2005-2006, it is clear that anti-religious hatred is not a real social force but rather something indulged in by sad and often drunk individuals. Look at the cases highlighted in the CPS press release, presumably because they were seen as among the most dramatic. One incident of religiously aggravated common assault involved a defendant who refused to pay for his meal in an Indian restaurant and then subsequently submitted a waiter (who was Muslim) to verbal abuse and physical assault. In another, a Turkish Muslim woman and her teenage daughter were waiting at a bus-stop when a drunk shouted abuse at them and spat on the ground near where they were sitting; as the women boarded the bus the man spat in their direction and ‘his spittle [made] contact with their upper body clothing’ (8).

These are nasty incidents, and it sounds as though both men need to be put firmly in their place. But they also sound like the kind of inebriated incidents that happen fairly frequently around the country. I’ve witnessed numerous arguments and scuffles in Indian restaurants on Saturday nights, often involving a bunch of drunks making ignorant racist remarks at waiters. And who hasn’t had that uncomfortable feeling of being approached by a drunken loudmouth, often shouting and swinging his fists, while waiting at a bus-stop or sitting on a train? These two religiously aggravated incidents – flagged up in the CPS press release as examples for journalists to use – reveal nothing about society at large. Rather they show what most of us already know: there are some dickheads out there.

The two cases do, however, highlight dangers behind the authorities’ religious hatred agenda. The man who refused to pay for his meal in an Indian restaurant and shouted at the waiter was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment – six months. The judge admitted that ‘it would not have been custody if the offence [had] not been religiously aggravated’. The drunk at the bus-stop was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment (9). Here, the authorities are explicitly punishing people not only for what they do, but also for what they think; not only for their actions, but also for their thoughts, for the fact that they ‘hated’ someone. This takes us into the realm of thought crime, where a man who pushes an Indian waiter and calls him a ‘fucking cunt’ is likely to be get a slap on the wrists, while the man who pushes the waiter and calls him a ‘Muslim cunt’ can be thrown in jail for six months. It may be a crime to push a waiter; but should it be a crime to hate a waiter or his religion?

Finally, as in most hate crime debates, the aim of this overzealous punishment of individuals who commit religiously aggravated crimes seems to be to ‘send a message’ to the rest of us. The authorities are using these cases to tell us they are serious about stamping out religious hatred and ‘hate speech’. This degrades the law and any idea of natural justice. Individual cases are effectively turned into showtrials, as the law is used to correct what are seen as backward attitudes among the populace. Individuals are punished particularly harshly for something they said or thought while committing a crime, while the rest of us are patronised by police officials and judges who think we are backward and prejudiced. This is less about justice, and more about social engineering – and such a project is far more poisonous and divisive than anything a pissed-up buffoon could do on a Saturday night.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Police pledge tough action as race hate attacks rise, Guardian, 12 July 2005

(2) See Who’s whipping up Islamophobia?, by Josie Appleton

(3) Fight racism and Islamophobia, The Socialist, 14 July 2005

(4) Race crime charges rise by 28 per cent, BBC News, 4 December 2006

(5) CPS racist and religious crime data shows rise in prosecutions, CPS, 4 December 2006

(6) Racist and Religious Incident Monitoring Report 2005-2006, CPS, December 2006

(7) ‘Communities Together Can Help Fight the Effects of Terrorism in London’, Metropolitan Police leaflet, London

(8) Racist and Religious Incident Monitoring Report 2005-2006, CPS, December 2006

(9) Racist and Religious Incident Monitoring Report 2005-2006, CPS, December 2006

 


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