Several months ago I took a stroll through some rather scary youtube videos about the English Defense League. Basically, the United Kingdom has a racism problem. The country has a growing Muslim population, mostly a result of immigration, and the English Defense League and other groups have sprung up in reaction, reminiscent to the Ku Klux Klan. This is not about protecting the separation of church and state (it’s worth remembering that England actually does have an official church, the Anglican church). This is about xenophobia and racism.
So when I came upon JT Eberhard’s post about three British individuals given prison terms for invading and desecrating a mosque, I immediately assumed that this was the handiwork of the English Defense League and its associates. And perhaps for that very reason, I was surprised to see JT arguing that their sentencing (9 or 12 months) was unjust because all they’d done was stew about a few strips of bacon. And it’s not just JT—Richard Dawkins and other white atheists have jumped on board as well.
We often say that “intent is not magic,” but in some cases intent is actually important, and this is one of them. What Lambie, Cruikshank, and Stilwel did would be a crime regardless of their intent, but the fact that all three individuals were part of the Scottish Defense League, an offshoot of the English Defense League, and that one had previous arrests for religiously-motivated verbal abuse of a Pakistani shopkeeper suggests that the sentences they received were not in any sense an overreaction. This is not about some sort of silly prank—this is about calculated attempts to intimidate, harass, and terrorize Muslims, motivated by xenophobia and racism.
Lambie was by all accounts part of the far-right Scottish Defence League, as according to the Edinburgh Reporter and the Scotsman were both Cruikshank and Stilwel. The SDL is a regional offshoot of the English Defence League, whose own ex-leader describes it as having been dominated by violent neo-Nazis and which has been linked to numerous arson attacks on mosques. (‘Religion is so persecuted’, Eberhard writes mockingly. While that may not be true in general, UK Muslims are targeted systematically as a religious group by the racist far-right.) Ties have also been found between the SDL and white supremacist British National Party, whose current leader started out in the National Front.
Anti-Muslim hate crimes are on the rise in the UK and have become a serious problem. We talk in the U.S. about hate crimes against blacks. The problem in the UK is hate crimes against Muslims. This is where context matters. Before dismissing an incident like this as a silly prank, we need to understand the context of an incident like this if we want to understand the sentences meted out. I understand that JT may not have known this context when he argued that the sentences were too harsh, but that is why understanding the context is important. Lambie, Cruikshank, and Stilwel were not simply three individuals out on a lark. They were racist members of a racist organization with neo-Nazi ties motivated by their hatred (yes, hatred) of Muslims.
Now I am aware that race and religion are not the same thing. But in the context of racism and xenophobia as manifested in the UK today, they are treated as the same thing. Muslims are targeted by white supremacists because of both their race and their religion. And you know what? Neither is okay. It is not okay to target a group for intimidation and harassment for either their race or their religion.
Would JT and others have responded differently if a group of ne0-Nazis had invaded and vandalized a synagogue, and then been sentenced to a year in prison? Would it be obvious, then, that what happened was no laughing matter? I certainly hope so. We know that religious hatred and xenophobia can lead to genocide, and that hatred and othering can lead to discrimination and persecution. But what do we gain from knowing this without applying it in the present? We need to stand up against religious hatred and xenophobia, hatred and othering, rather than minimizing them or treating them as a joke.
I think atheist activists are sometimes too focused on those who would persecute atheism—and in some countries, atheism is indeed a crime worthy of death—to remember that in some countries religious individuals also face persecution. We talk about atheist bloggers being murdered in other countries over their unbelief, but there are also religious individuals of all sorts, including Muslims, who are murdered in various countries over their beliefs. We need to be willing to defend freedom of religion (and lack thereof) regardless of whose freedom we are talking about, and that includes calling out religious hate crimes rather than downplaying them.
Some may ask how we determine what is and is not a hate crime, and whether some religions might hold criticism of religion a hate crime. We can talk about how to define a hate crime, but there is in fact a difference between public criticism of religion and invading a marginalized community’s private space for the purpose of intimidation. Hatred, intimidation, violence—there is in fact a difference between a hate crime and simple criticism of religion. Your concern that simple criticism of religion may be banned in some future world should not stop you from condemning religious hate crimes.
If you want to read more, I’d very much recommend Avicenna’s No JT, It Isn’t Stupid, It’s Hate and Religious Diets and Freedom of Expression, as well as Sarah Jones’s Islamophobia Is Real and You Should Care and But I’m Just Criticizing Religion.