Thursday, 23 September 2010

Is burning the Qur'an a crime?

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The BBC reports that six men from Gateshead have been arrested for inciting racial hatred, and bailed pending further inquiries, after burning a copy of the Qur'an – an event they filmed and subsequently posted on YouTube.

It's a breathtaking display of moronic behaviour and intolerance, and I'd be lying if I said I felt any real sympathy for the culprits, but the fact of some men getting arrested for burning a book does pose some difficult questions. If they'd done it outside a mosque, I'd personally have no problem with them being arrested for incitement, but it seems they have been arrested for the straightforward "crime" of burning a copy of the Qur'an, with the location and audience not being relevant – writing over at Index on Censorship, Padraig Reidy suggests that the arrests aren't even based on the video being posted online, but rather the simple fact of a Qur'an being set on fire.

Does this mean it is considered illegal in this country to burn the Qur'an? In which case, we should probably be told which other books are protected from fire. And if this is about the act of burning, rather than the act of posting the act of burning on YouTube, then does that mean that if a Qur'an is burned in a forest and no one sees it, it's incitement to hatred?

Even if this is about the posting on YouTube, we're still in very difficult territory as to what constitutes incitement. YouTube isn't aimed at a specific audience, so it must be about the act of making it public. In which case, is disseminating images of a Qur'an on fire incitement to hatred? As I say, if someone deliberately burned a Qur'an right in front of some Muslims, outside a mosque, say, or outside their houses, in order to intimidate them, or provoke violence, then I could see why that would be incitement. But anything more general than that raises some tough questions regarding civil liberties.

Furthermore, the men haven't been arrested for inciting religious hatred, but rather inciting racial hatred. It's hard to see how burning a Qur'an counts as a race crime. As Padraig at Index points out, is this because the 2005 Racial and Religious Hatred Act includes a clause, lobbied for by humanists and secularists, protecting "expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions"? Clearly under the "religious" part of this law, Qur'an burning would be legal – is this why the police have used the "racial" part instead?
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