Anti-blasphemy extremism “gaining momentum” in UK, report warns

A new report has warned UK ‘anti-blasphemy activism’ is becoming “increasingly radicalised” and being promoted by charities.

The report, published by the Commission for Countering Extremism, says responses to perceived acts of ‘blasphemy’ in the UK are “more organised than ever” and some of the most prominent voices involved have links to “violent anti-blasphemy extremists” in Pakistan.

The report also highlights the link between UK religious charities and anti-blasphemy extremism. The National Secular Society has consistently warned the charitable purpose of ‘the advancement of religion’ facilitates the promotion of extremism by charities. In September it referred Islamic Centre Leicester to the Commission after a sermon recorded at the centre suggested ‘blasphemers’ should be executed.

“Blasphemy flashpoints” linked to “new generation” of activists

Warning that responses to perceived acts of blasphemy are now “more organised than ever”, the report identifies major “blasphemy flashpoints” linked to a “new generation” of activists working to “make blasphemy a key issue of concern for British Muslims”.

Three incidents in particular are highlighted by the report: a teacher in Batley forced into hiding after allegedly showing pupils a drawing of Muhammad in 2021; screenings of the film ‘The Lady of Heaven’ cancelled following protests in 2022; and a pupil receiving death threats in 2023 after a Quran was lightly damaged at a Wakefield school.

Sectarian rhetoric and violence against Ahmadi Muslims, whose beliefs are viewed as ‘blasphemous’ by some other Muslims, are also identified in the report as a major part of UK anti-blasphemy activism.

Charities linked to anti-blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi extremism

The government should review the charitable status of organisations linked to “anti-blasphemy extremism’, the report recommends.

In 2021, the Charity Commission issued a warning to the charity Purpose of Life after it publicly named the teacher at the centre of the Batley school incident in an open letter “written in such a way as to be likely to inflame existing tensions within the local community”.

The report also refers to an investigation opened by the Charity Commission in 2019 after pamphlets urging Muslims to “kill Ahmadis” were found in Stockwell Green Mosque, a registered charity.

In March 2016, Ahmadi Muslim Asad Shah was murdered in Glasgow by Tanveer Ahmed, who cited anti-blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi groups and ideology as his inspiration for the attack.

The report also recommends that the government consider adopting anti-blasphemy extremism as a specific category of extremism in the UK, and proscribing groups associated with anti-blasphemy extremism.

One such group is Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right Islamist political party which dedicates itself to punishing perceived blasphemy. In 2018 it held disruptive protests across Pakistan after the Supreme Court ordered Asia Bibi, a Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy, to be freed.

NSS: ‘Action needed to defend against de facto blasphemy laws’

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: “The report is welcome recognition of the need to address the disturbing rise in anti-blasphemy incidents across the UK.

“Britain may have abolished blasphemy laws protecting Christianity, but vigilance is needed to ensure new blasphemy codes protecting Islam or any other religion are not imposed and enforced by intimidation or the threat of violence.

“A joint governmental and civil society response is needed to better champion freedom of expression as a positive value. The fundamental rights of individuals to criticise, question and mock all ideas, including religious beliefs, must be non-negotiable.”

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