A couple of weeks ago, a Times reporter asked me if Pastor Terry Jones, who at the time was creating a stir with threats he would burn a Koran, would be arrested if he did so in the UK. I told them it was unlikely, unless he had gone out of his way to do so in front of a mosque on Friday, or in a location with a lot of Muslims around, in which case the Public Order Act could be brought into play, and/or the Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred Act.
I was half right. The Gateshead men, apparently English Defence League supporters, were arrested on suspicion of inciting racial hatred. Not religious hatred.
Legally speaking, it is at least technically possible to arrest someone of incitement to religious hatred. So why did the police not use this power in a case where the target was a religious text?
Back in 2005, when the Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was being debated, secularists campaigning against the bill (of whom I was one — I was working at New Humanist magazine at the time) worked to make the bill pretty much unworkable in practice. Consequently, Section 29j of the Act states:
Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.
We were quite pleased with this. And possibly right to be, as there have been very few actions under this legislation since it was introduced in 2006.
So are the police not even using this legislation? Were the Gateshead arrests made under the guise of racial hatred because they felt more likely to secure a conviction?
A source tells me the police are claiming that the burning of the Koran itself is the crux of the arrest: not the posting on YouTube. But I cannot imagine how the burning of a book, no matter how precious that book is to some people, is a crime in and of itself. And I certainly don’t understand how it’s a race crime.