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Tackling Religious Hatred: Report of Cross-Party Working Group on Religious Hatred



Chapter 2 The Issues

2.01 Religious hatred matters because its effects may range from violence against those perceived to have different religious views, to more insidious and less visible discrimination and unfair treatment.

Defining the extent of the problem - research

2.02 There is little accessible research on sectarianism, religious hatred and discrimination in contemporary Scotland. Although the courts can take into account religious or sectarian motivation as an aggravating factor to a common law crime, which can increase the sentence imposed, details of such cases are not routinely collected. This lack of data makes it difficult to estimate the number of cases involving religious hatred or to gauge the wider extent of the problem. It also makes it difficult to establish a baseline for the purpose of evaluating the success of any initiatives to combat religious hatred. Such a baseline is essential to inform ongoing work for the future.

2.03 The results of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey for 2001, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, are to be published in early 2003. The Survey includes questions on religious attitudes and the resultant data may provide a useful picture of Scottish opinions.

Religion, culture, politics and violence

2.04 During our deliberations, we have recognised that religion may be only one factor in an interconnected cultural, political, territorial and ethnic identity. Some religious groups have been subjected to intolerance and oppression throughout their history. Political and cultural differences may have been historically based on religious differences but it can still be hard to identify an informed religious perspective in a so-called "sectarian" attack. Focusing on religious differences can be a way of expressing cultural intolerance or racist attitudes. It may even be difficult to disentangle whether religious, racist or cultural beliefs are an impetus to harmful or violent behaviour, or simply a cloak. In many cases, religious difference might be the pretext for, rather than the cause of, an assault. The situation can become further complicated when intense rivalry between supporters of certain football clubs becomes a factor in behaviour associated with sectarianism.

Race Relations and Equal Opportunities

2.05 Some religious groups such as Jews and Sikhs have been afforded protection by case law development around race relations legislation, because they are in effect judged to be racial groupings. Hindus, Muslims and Christians do not have that protection. The crucial distinction is apparently between those who can trace their descent from a common geographical origin and are therefore protected as an ethnic or racial group, and those who can only trace their beliefs from a common origin and as a religious group are not protected. A feature of those religions that trace their belief to a common origin is that they not only allow conversion to the religion but may also encourage it. The effect of this is that followers can be found all over the world and are not therefore defined by their descent from a common geographical origin. Thus there are white Muslim converts, African Muslims, Bosnian Muslims and so on. From the evidence presented to us, we understand that many members of ethnic minorities do not know whether they are being discriminated against or attacked because of their race, their religion or their culture. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the USA on 11 September 2001, there were reports that Muslim people in Scotland were being subjected to new harassment and intimidation. Sikhs and Hindus were apparently also targeted. Some Muslims have expressed the view that they now do not know whether they are being viewed as the victims or the perpetrators of religious hatred. Among the religious groupings we spoke to, some of those with a strong racial sub-identity felt that new legislation to try to tackle religious hatred might be desirable.

2.06 Equal Opportunities legislation is a matter reserved to the Westminster Parliament under the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998. The UK Government is preparing to produce new legislation to implement its obligations under Article 13 of the Treaty of Amsterdam (see paragraph 1.07 above). It has announced a major review of equality to look in depth at the possibility of a more unified approach to equality issues across the UK. The review will include the possibility of a single equality commission and the creation of interim arrangements relating to sexual orientation, religion and age under the new legislation. It will also include a review of anti-discrimination legislation.

2.07 The criminal law in Scotland is of course a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament to handle. In our examination of the issue of religious hatred, we have concentrated on the criminal law.

Freedom of Speech

2.08 In a multicultural and multi-religious society we have a responsibility to respect the rights of others to practice their own religions. But it can be difficult to draw a line between allowing free expression of religious differences on the one hand and, on the other hand, outlawing any expressions of intolerance which might lead to insulting behaviour or violence.

2.09 Some individuals we spoke to, while supporting the right of people to hold and profess their own religion without fear, were worried at the possible implications of an offence of incitement to religious hatred. They were concerned that such an offence might, for example, make it difficult to preach the superiority of one faith over another, to try to "convert" others to a different faith, or indeed to criticise the practices of any particular religious group. The faith representatives we spoke to noted that there can also be different points of view within a religious grouping. While the majority of members of a religious grouping might consider themselves "moderate" or "mainstream", media attention given to the views and activities of extremist fringe groups can skew public perception of the religious grouping as a whole. It is our view that society needs to safeguard the right of people to hold and express their own religious opinions, while at the same time ensuring that they do not result in actions which have an adverse effect on the lives of others.

Football-related sectarianism

2.10 One of the most readily discernible expressions of intolerance in Scotland today, and arguably one which is most often likely to result in violence, is the manifestation of sectarianism in the rivalry between supporters of various football clubs in Scotland. This receives considerable media coverage. Although particularly rife between supporters of the Glasgow teams Rangers and Celtic, it is also evident in the rivalries between a number of other clubs. Sectarian fan rivalry is a muddled combination of Catholic/Protestant religious differences, Northern Ireland politics and nationalistic iconography. Supporter fanzines and websites may be a potential source of sectarian material; sectarian banners, badges and stickers are also manufactured and distributed. We heard concerns that street traders were selling offensive sectarian material. We wrote to Glasgow City Council as the licensing body to ask for their commentary. They replied that they license street traders "to sell football memorabilia which means solely that they can only sell merchandise relating to football i.e. scarves, hats, etc." The Council has written to the traders reminding them of the conditions of their licence and Strathclyde Police have been asked to assist in monitoring the traders.

2.11 Working Group representatives took the opportunity to see police operations at Old Firm games at Celtic Park and at Ibrox. The fans' rivalry is expressed in many ways: chanting, singing, insults, gestures and banners. Some of these crystallise the difficulty of defining an offence of religious hatred. For example, gestures include Celtic fans ostentatiously making the "sign of the cross" at the Rangers fans. The sign of the cross in itself is an expression of the Roman Catholic faith; however, using it to alarm, upset or provoke others might be a breach of the peace at common law. Similarly, the singing of loyalist songs like "The Sash" or "Derry's Walls" which celebrate the triumph of William of Orange, could be viewed as an expression of cultural solidarity, or as an attempt to insult and intimidate the opposition.

2.12 There is a great deal the clubs themselves can do to deal with sectarian behaviour among their supporters. We understand that it may be possible, through the scrutiny of video recordings after a match, to identify particularly provocative behaviour by season ticket holders. The club could take steps to deal with the individuals involved without taking action that might be counter-productive during a game. They could, for example, take away their season tickets for a specified or indefinite period. They could also take steps to publicise the action they have taken. We heard evidence that clubs do not take action often enough against fans misbehaving and that they do not adequately publicise ticket forfeiture. The threat of a ban and/or removal of a season ticket imposed by a club is viewed by some supporters as a greater incentive to behave than the prospect of a fine or a prison sentence.

2.13 In September 2002, Celtic Football Club wrote to its supporters objecting to the sectarian chanting which disrupted the minute's silence in memory of the victims of the atrocities in the USA the previous year. Both Celtic and Rangers participate in anti-sectarianism initiatives. While it is clear that the clubs are working to distance themselves from sectarianism, equally no-one can doubt that it exists among some elements of their fan base.

2.14 Verbal expressions of sectarianism, depending on the circumstances, might well be viewed as intimidating behaviour. Even more sickeningly, some individuals take their emotions to the extreme of violent assaults on others.

2.15 Football can, of course, be a focus for disorder whether or not sectarianism is involved. We understand, for example, that other fixtures can cause greater difficulties for the police in Glasgow than Old Firm matches.

2.16 Police forces throughout Scotland already participate in various arrangements to co-ordinate effective policing of football matches and are working to address gaps that exist. For example, a football sub-committee under the auspices of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland meets quarterly, and has a liaison arrangement with representatives of football authorities.

2.17 At present there seems to be no formal mechanism for the police to inform clubs about supporters who are arrested inside a club's ground, still less of offences which might take place in the surrounding streets. The clubs are not informed about such behaviour and accordingly can take no action against such supporters. Likewise the Procurator Fiscal does not inform the club of any action against one of its supporters.

2.18 While we spent quite some time examining football-related sectarianism, we are also very clear that it is by no means the only manifestation of religious hatred in Scotland.

Summary of Key Issues

2.19 In summary, then, the main issues are:

  • the need to acknowledge that manifestations of religious intolerance or hatred in Scottish society are not acceptable;
  • the need for contemporary research to define the extent of the problem, to track changes in attitudes and to evaluate projects and programmes seeking to effect a longer-term change;
  • safeguarding freedom of speech;
  • dealing with cultural sectarianism and violence in the particular context of football matches.