Peter Crawford is in court following an incident in which he ripped out pages from the Qur’an in front of Muslims giving out literature at a Da’wah stall. He tore out pages from his own copy of the book, and then threw it to the ground, telling them it was a load of bullshit. This is certainly an offensive and upsetting thing to do – and might even have seemed threatening. (Reports differ as to whether he made a gun type gesture with his hand.) The specific accusation against him is that he was:
causing religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress, by demonstrating hostility based on membership of a particular religious group, Islam.
In so far as this is a crime, it seems possible that he should indeed be found guilty. But it’s irritating, as an atheist, that certain categories of idea should be protected in this way, when no one would be prosecuted (I assume) for tearing up Marx or Richard Dawkins. And in practice it seems that what is being decided isn’t hostility based on ‘membership of a particular religious group’ but hostility to an idea:
Mr Quyyum agreed that apart from a hand gesture – which Mr Newcombe suggested was the pointing of a finger rather than a gun gesture – the defendant did not threaten or provoke any violence.
Another stall volunteer, Zahid Hussein, said: “I saw him ripping up the book. I was in shock, disgusted. It’s our life, our way of life and we live by that book – it’s very sacred.”
“I’m not against the people, just their religion,” [Crawford] said.
James Bide-Thomas, prosecuting, said: “The real issue is whether Crawford was insulting and whether it was a crime that we say he committed.
“It’s tradition in this country of freedom of speech and people are entitled to say what they want, as long as it’s not illegal in relation to the law, which prevents people going out to cause harassment, alarm or distress by insulting behaviour, basically upsetting people.
“It’s for you to decide whether what he did was insulting or whether it was a legitimate piece of freedom of speech being exercised or if what he did was deliberately calculated to upset the people from the Islamic Information Centre.”
Given that so many Muslims are highly sensitive to any criticism of their religion, or of Muhammad, it becomes difficult to know how one might legitimately exercise one’s freedom of speech with regard to Islam (at least in an environment where Muslims were present) without accusations that one’s words could be seen as being deliberately calculated to upset Muslims. (Clearly though, many Muslims would accept strongly worded critiques while drawing the line at vandalising the Qur’an.)
Although, I don’t think this is the best reason to oppose taking Crawford to court, one objection which might be made to such a step is that it is counterproductive. If there had been no prosecution, then we wouldn’t need to worry about free speech and could instead think further about Crawford’s actions. We might perhaps sceptically interrogate his claim that he is just as hostile to the Bible as to the Qur’an, or relate this incident to other cases in which Muslim buildings and events have been targeted by hooligans, or worse. The verdict is likely to be announced later today.