The Scottish Parliament voted in favour of the controversial Hate Crime Bill yesterday despite a groundswell of opposition from civil society groups including the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO).
The NSO joined the efforts of the campaign group Free to Disagree last year, because we realised proposals in the Bill would have a significant impact on civil liberties and a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. We worked with our allies in playing a major part in pushing back against controversial elements of the Bill, with some success, and gave both oral and written evidence to the Scottish Justice Committee.
The NSO lobbied alongside the National Secular Society, Catholic Church, the Free Church of Scotland and The Humanists Society to secure an amendment to extend free speech for discussion of religion and belief. Expressions of ‘antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult’ towards religion are now protected, whereas prior to this only, ‘criticism and discussion’ was safeguarded when it came to matters of religion. This is more in line with parallel legislation in England & Wales and allows for more robust discussion, without fear of investigation or censorship.
Notably, the original Bill was drafted without including the need for ‘intent’ to bring a conviction, and the threshold was merely ‘stirring of hatred’ was ‘likely’ to occur – something that would have put actors, or those working in theatrical arts (amongst others) in real difficulty. Lobbying efforts succeeded and the ‘intent’ modification is included in the legislation.
Our Deputy-Director who led on our campaigning, was quoted on BBC Politics Live and in the stage three debate yesterday in Holyrood by the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Justice Liam Kerr MSP, who said:
‘Let me finish with a quote from Hardeep Singh, ‘for ordinary people there will be a serious ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. MSPs must therefore put free speech first when making the decisive vote on this ill-conceived legislation. The only way to do that is to vote against it. At decision time tonight presiding officer, the Scottish Conservatives will do just that’.’
As we pointed out in evidence to the Justice Committee, the Hate Crime Bill puts women who want to discuss women’s rights and transgender issues in real difficulty, as there is not enough free speech protection for them. It also does not protect conversations in the privacy of one’s home, as there is no dwelling defence – something that is included in legislation in England & Wales. There is now a risk conversations around the dinner table could be investigated.
Hardeep Singh said: ‘The Bill is deeply flawed and will no doubt be used by people to silence or attempt to criminalise critics. It may well lead to a culture of vexatious complaints and heralds a very dark moment for free speech in Scotland. Of course, we are disappointed it has passed, but are grateful to have worked with brave and principled individuals in the Free to Disagree campaign. Thanks to these joint efforts, there have been some important amendments which have helped improve the legislation during its passage.’
JUSTICE COMMITTEE HATE CRIME AND PUBLIC ORDER (SCOTLAND) BILL
SUPPLEMENTARY SUBMISSION FROM NETWORK OF SIKH ORGANISATIONS
The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is a registered charity no.1064544 that links more than 130 UK gurdwaras and other UK Sikh organisations in active cooperation to enhance the image and understanding of Sikhism in the UK.
This submission is supplementary to our original REF: J/S5/20/HC/1756 dated 17th September 2020 and our 2nd submission dated 16th November 2020 REF: J/S5/20/HC/1771, which followed the oral hearing on 10th November 2020 in which our Deputy-Director Hardeep Singh gave evidence to the Justice Committee alongside several other organisations. This 3rd submission is in response to consideration of options tabled for a new overarching free speech clause, which has been proposed by the Secretary for Justice.
1.1Previously agreed clause for protecting free speech when it comes to matters of religion and belief
We are surprised that only two of the options offered for review as a ‘catch all’ free speech provision by the Secretary for Justice, include an already agreed amendment when it comes to protecting free speech when discussing matters of religion and belief. This was approved unanimously by the committee last week and something we raised along with others in oral evidence to the Justice Committee, and in our previous written submissions. The new and controversial ‘stirring up hatred’ offences must include free speech clauses to protect speech beyond merely ‘criticism’ and ‘discussion’ of religion. The previously agreed amendment would have provided greater protection to expressions of ‘antipathy’, ‘ridicule’, ‘dislike’ or ‘insult’ of religion or belief and brought this free speech protection (in the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill) in line with an equivalent clause in section 29J of the Religious Hatred Act 2006[i] (England & Wales).
During the oral evidence session on 10th November 2020 Anthony Horan Director, Catholic Parliamentary Office of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, Neil Barber, spokesperson for Scotland, National Secular Society (NSS) , Kieran Turner, Public Policy Officer, Scotland, Evangelical Alliance, and our Deputy-Director Hardeep Singh all supported the echoing of freedom of speech provisions in English law, when it comes to religion and belief.[ii] This was later agreed as an amendment by the committee. It is frankly remarkable how this now appears to have been rescinded in two of, ‘four options for freedom of expression provision.’[iii] We are not alone in our astonishment and disappointment at this development – our allies in the Free to Disagree Campaign, the NSS have rightly described this development as ‘perplexing and farcical.’[iv]
1.2 More time is required to consider the ‘catch all’ free speech clauses
We are alarmed by the speed in which this critical part of the public consultation is now being conducted. Our Deputy-Director was a signatory to a letter calling for deferring scrutiny of the draft stirring up hatred offences proposals until after the May election.[v] This stage of the public consultation was announced on 18th February 2021, and evidence in response to the ‘catch all’ free speech provision has been given the deadline of 10:00 Monday 22nd February 2021. This is only two working days and simply not sufficient notice to provide these ‘catch all’ free speech clauses the attention they deserve. There are also questions as to why the free speech defence for religion and belief (in two of the proposed provisions) which mirrors English law, has not been expanded to other protected characteristics in which only ‘discussion or criticism’ is protected. This not only creates a clear hierarchy of free speech defences but puts those who for example, want to air strong opinions on transgender issues/women’s rights in serious difficulty if this legislation is enacted.
1.3Parliamentary scrutiny and procedure on previously agreed free speech clause for religion and belief
We would also like to understand the mechanism and process by which the previously agreed free speech clause for religion and belief, has essentially been shelved in all but two of the proposed ‘catch all’ clauses. It would indeed be helpful if an explanation is provided by the Secretary for Justice during the oral evidence session scheduled at 14:30 on 22nd February 2021.
The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is a registered charity no.1064544 that links more than 130 UK gurdwaras and other UK Sikh organisations in active cooperation to enhance the image and understanding of Sikhism in the UK.
What is good about the proposed legislation?
To start on a positive note – the blasphemy law will be repealed. This is something that has not been used in Scotland for over 175 years. The second thing which is noteworthy is age will become a protected characteristic under these proposals – this in our view is indeed a positive step. The Bill will thus extend protective characteristics to the following:
Age, Disability, Race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origins, Religion, Sexual orientation, Transgender identity, Variations in sex characteristics.
Could this Bill censor debate on matters of public interest?
We believe the answer to this is yes. The offences relating to ‘stirring up hatred’[i] in the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill are a real cause for concern and have serious consequences on being able to speak freely on matters of public interest – be it the ongoing debate around ‘transgender identity’, or matters of religious extremism, in particular in relation to the debate around Islam, and support for violent jihad by some in the Muslim community.
The Bill aims introduces these new offences related to ‘stirring up hatred’ in respect of the characteristics of age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and variations in sex characteristics. It is the vague elements of this Bill which are dangerous because they are open to wide interpretation and are highly subjective. Most controversially, a person will not even have to show intent to ‘stir up hatred’. It will be enough that his behaviour or communications are considered ‘threatening’ or ‘abusive’ and that a court deems it ‘likely that hatred will be stirred up’.[ii] This could result in a seven-year prison stretch. We believe this is repressive and insidious, and not befitting of a Western democratic nation. In its current form the Bill would make Scotland one of the most hostile places for free speech in Europe.
Additionally, the Bill also introduces offences of ‘possession of inflammatory material’,[iii] and the same issues apply here around subjectivity with the drafting of the legislation. We understand the only difference being the threshold for the conduct is that the material is ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’.
Self-censorship or prison
We believe these proposals could lead to an environment of self-censorship, or worst still a seven-year prison stretch for those who choose to express strong and legitimate opinions on controversial, but important issues. Offence archaeologists could wade through historical social media postings to garner evidence which may infringe the proposed legislation – this would amplify the curtailment of free and open discussion and have a chilling effect. It has been suggested the introduction of this legislation could result in the likes of J K Rowling facing proceedings for her position on transgenderism.[iv] This is because her views (which she has every right to freely express) could be viewed as ‘threatening’ and ‘abusive’ by transgender campaigners and therefore subject to a criminal complaint. The legislation would also have consequences for investigative journalists, historians and commentators who express criticism of Islam, expose Islamic extremism, or discuss the behaviour of Muslim extremists. For a start, the republication of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, would almost certainly be viewed as ‘inflammatory’ under the offence of ‘possession of inflammatory material’.[v]
Moreover, activists or groups who want to shut down opponents could easily interpret criticism of ideology or doctrine as an attack on their community. We have already seen an indication of what this might look like, with the publication of the APPG on British Muslim’s Islamophobia Defined report, which sought to secure a legally binding definition of ‘Islamophobia’. The APPG report asserts:
‘the recourse to the notion of free speech and a supposed right to criticise Islam results in nothing more than another subtle form of anti-Muslim racism whereby the criticism humiliates, marginalises, and stigmatises Muslims’.[vi]
The Scottish government and the Minister behind this Bill, Humza Yousaf, gives reassurances the Bill will not hamper free speech. However, if the same convoluted APPG reasoning is extended to this legislation, then it is indeed a slippery slope, which could incentivise various groups to weaponize the vague ‘threatening’ and ‘abusive’ (and ‘insulting’ for ‘possession of inflammatory material’) elements of this legislation to silence, persecute, or worst still attempt to imprison critics, by dragging them through the criminal courts for expressing legitimate opinions.
Following significant opposition to these proposals, we are pleased to hear Mr Yousaf is considering withdrawing clauses which will chill free speech, and agree unequivocally with the Scottish Police Federation who say the Bill could absurdly leave officers in a position where they have to determine what passes as free speech, or not.
They say: ‘concern the Bill seeks to criminalise the mere likelihood of ‘stirring up hatred’ by creating an offence of threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour, such offence to include both speech and conduct. This complicates the law and is in our opinion, too vague to be implemented’.[vii]
We note that people involved in the acting and legal industry in Scotland are equally concerned for the implications on free speech, and have asked the Scottish government for clarity on the massive ‘grey area’ for what exactly is ‘likely’ to stir up hatred as part of an acting performance.[viii] As it stands, if the Bill is passed an actor could be prosecuted for playing a character with bigoted views, because language in a script can fall foul of ‘likely to stir up hatred’, as charges could be brought regardless of intent.
How the proposed legislation will impact freedom of belief
All faiths have the right to express their beliefs, but this extends to the right of faith groups to hold critical views of the practices of others, without censure or the threat of prosecution.
According to the Rehat Maryada, or Sikh code of conduct, halal, and any other ritually slaughtered meat (like kosher) is strictly forbidden. The method of slaughter is considered inhumane (especially non-stun slaughter) but Sikhs also take the view that it is superstitious to believe reciting prayers whilst sacrificing an animal will serve to make it acceptable for consumption in the eyes of a lifegiving, nurturing and benevolent Creator. Many Sikhs are thus strict vegetarians, but those who consume meat are encouraged to eat an animal killed instantaneously with one blow – a method referred to as jhatka. If this legislation is passed then you can see how it could elicit complaints about criticism of such religious practices as ‘Islamophobia’, which in turn could be seen sufficient to meet the litmus of ‘stirring up hatred’, with no need for intent. The same would apply to criticism within Sikh teachings against any form of idol worship – which could elicit complaint from Hindus who adhere to this practice.
Both Sikhs and Hindus may well find themselves in a quandary when it comes to recounting parts of their history, especially persecution under Muslim rulers (The Mughals) in medieval India. Every year, Sikhs commemorate the martyrdom anniversary of two Gurus (Shaheedi Gurpurabs) Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur, and countless others who were executed on the order of Mughal Emperors. An indication of where this could all lead has been previously provided with the APPG on British Muslims report Islamophobia Defined, where: ‘claims of Muslims spreading Islam by the sword or subjugating minority groups under their rule’[ix] may be ‘Islamophobic’. Alongside prominent historian Tom Holland,[x] we warned these proposals could censor discussion of historical facts, such as the gruesome aspects of the Mughal and Ottoman Empires or the Moor conquests, not to mention the crimes of modern-day ISIS. We fear this Bill will have a similar impact on British Sikhs, and gurdwaras who often adorn their walls with images of our hallowed martyrs or shaheeds.
Depictions of our history could be viewed as ‘abusive’ and ‘threatening’ or ‘inflammatory’ by those with a grievance and absurdly criminalised. Charges could be brought regardless of intent – in this case simply marking our history and honouring our shaheeds. Last year there was an attempt by the BBC to censor our Director, Lord Singh of Wimbledon for merely mentioning the martyrdom of our ninth Guru[xi] – Guru Tegh Bahadur who gave his life standing up for the freedom of belief of Hindus, who were being forcefully converted to Islam.
We believe if this Bill passes then it could give a free pass to those who want to censor inconvenient chapters in history and curtail the freedom of religious belief of faiths (other than their own), which would result in pitting one religious group against another.
Core teachings of Abrahamic traditions which promote supremacy of their prophets over others, and the notion they are the only path to God, could be in difficulty. In John 14, Jesus said to His disciples, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’
For vexatious complainants, this passage alone from the Bible could be viewed as ‘insulting’ and ‘inflammatory’ to their belief in another religious tradition.
In a submission to the Scottish government in opposition to this Bill, The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland write:
‘My main concern in this is the preaching of the Gospel, which involves declaring the truth in spiritual matters. There are such things as right and wrong in human life, and it is the duty of Christian ministers to explain these things. Among the many things that are wrong – such as lying, stealing, murder, adultery, abortion (in most cases), pride, and hatred of our fellow-men – are sodomy and false religion (such as Islam).’[xii]
The contents of this part of their submission could be viewed as ‘insulting’ to Muslims in itself.
They go onto say: ‘This bill would make the persecution of Scottish Christians for maintaining the truths of Christianity much more likely. Anyone who hears a Christian say something that he does not like (e.g. that his homosexual or transgender conduct is sinful) could claim that what was said was abusive (perhaps even just reading a passage from the Bible) and could have the Christian punished.’[xiii]
If the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime and Public Order Bill is passed unchallenged, some religious scriptures could be viewed as ‘inflammatory’ themselves, especially when they incite hatred and violence against ‘non-believers’.
We oppose the controversial clauses in this Bill and urge the Scottish government to withdraw them or Scotland will be transformed into one of the most hostile places for free speech in Europe.
The above image of the Mayor of London being greeted at Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall with the backdrop of the martyrdom of the Chote Sahibzade (sons of Guru Gobind Singh) could be deemed ‘Islamophobic’ by the APPG on British Muslims definition of Islamophobia – a definition City Hall has adopted.
In a recent House of Lords debate the APPG Islamophobia definition which was previously rejected by the government was again discussed. Our Director Lord Singh, responded:
‘My Lords, emotive definitions such as Islamophobia are simply constraints on freedom of speech. A phobia is a fear, and the best way to combat irrational fear or prejudice suffered by all religions and beliefs is through healthy, open discussion. Will the Minister endorse the commitment given last week by Heather Wheeler, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, to protect all religions and beliefs without fear or favour?’[i]
The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is committed to parity in all areas of policy for all faiths and communities. In a recent debate on anti-Semitism Lord Singh made this very point when he said:
‘My Lords, anti-Semitism is evil and should be combated in every possible way, but will the Minister make it clear that the Government are equally committed to tackling hate crimes against all communities, even those of non-Abrahamic faiths?’[ii]
Despite the pleas for a level playing field, when it comes to resources and policy around hate crime, we’ve consistently stressed in evidence[iii][iv]to the government our concern about the marginalisation of non-Abrahamic faiths. Sikhs have suffered significantly since 9/11 due to the negative reverberations of Islamism, yet we remain an afterthought and are subsumed within the broader ‘Islamophobia’ debate. We’ve previously referred to the government’s failure in addressing this in both Action Against Hate (2016) and Action Against Hate ‘refresh’ (2018) – the government’s four-year hate crime action plan.
Current legislation is enough to protect all faiths from crimes motivated by hatred. We believe the Equalities Act 2010 provides equal protection under law for all racial and religious groups, and those pushing for special definitions like ‘Islamophobia’ an amorphous term – aim to push the boundaries of ‘hate’ to beyond anti-Muslim prejudice, to any discussion of inconvenient aspects of religion and doctrine – which we must all be free to discuss without fear of prosecution or arrest. The same applies to use of the word ‘anti-Semitism’ when it is used to deliberately shut down legitimate discussion about Israel.
Remarkably, we were the only Sikh organisation who realised that under proposals put forward by the APPG, merely discussing aspects of Sikh history (like the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur) could be deemed ‘Islamophobic’ equated to ‘racism’, and quite possibly criminalised.[v] This in turn would cause immediate problems for our gurdwaras who have pictures of shaheeds or martyrs hanging on their walls. Prominent historians like Tom Holland understood the consequences,[vi] meanwhile some prominent Sikhs ignorantly supported the definition.[vii]
Our Director and Deputy-Director were signatories to an open letter to the then home secretary opposing the APPG definition last year.[viii] However, despite the government rightly rejecting it, it has since been adopted by many councils across the country, with more looking to do so this year. Like others, we remain concerned that this definition could serve as a backdoor blasphemy law, and maintain that ‘anti-Muslim’, like ‘anti-Sikh’ or ‘anti-Hindu’ hate is much clearer language, and something already protected under existing legislation.
We have been overwhelmed by supportive messages for our Director following the front-page headline in TheTimes last month – ‘Sikh peer leaves BBC Radio 4 show with swipe at ‘thought police’’. The solidarity has come from all over the world, from Sikhs and people of other faiths and none – including Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus. It is a matter of grave concern that an overzealous producer had the temerity to insult Sikhism by attempting to censor the sacrifice of our 9th Guru, Tegh Bahadur, who gave his life standing up for freedom of religious belief in the face of tyranny. In an increasingly fractured society, it is these very values that must be celebrated and promoted – not censored by the ‘thought’ police.
The story was covered across the media including in the Sun, Express, Telegraph, Daily Mail, Times of India and many more.
You can read Lord Singh’s opinion editorial in the Mail on Sunday here and our Deputy-Director Hardeep Singh wrote an article for the Spectator.
We are pursuing a complaint against the BBC for the insult to Sikh teachings and cannot do this without your support.
We are grateful for those that contacted us with messages of solidarity including the following:
‘Lord Singh is a Sikh ambassador, who speaks about the teachings of Guru’s with passion. The Sikh Guru’s taught equality, truthfulness and honesty, they fought and sacrificed their life for freedom of worship and other injustices, regardless of who they were.’ Kuldip M
‘Lord Singh is not alone and with support we need to highlight the orchestrated bias within the BBC’ Manjit B.