Blasphemy demos “are growing in radicalism”, warns a government commissioned report

Protests condemning acts of apparent blasphemy have become more frequent and radicalised, with Britain now facing an alarming rise in intimidation and threats of violence against those perceived to have insulted Islam.

Protests condemning acts of apparent blasphemy have become more frequent and radicalised, with Britain now facing an alarming rise in intimidation and threats of violence against those perceived to have insulted Islam, according to independent research commissioned by the government’s counterextremism chief, reports the Times.

The report, which will be published on Monday, was produced by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a researcher in terrorism and radicalisation, and exposes links between activists at the forefront of recent protests in the UK and an extremist Islamist political party in Pakistan whose members have regularly called for blasphemers to be beheaded.

Robin Simcox, the government’s counterextremism tsar, commissioned the research after three blasphemy flashpoints in the UK: the 2021 protests against a teacher in Batley, West Yorkshire, who received death threats and is still in hiding after showing pupils a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed; protests in Birmingham the following year over the screening of the film The Lady in Heaven, which depicted Mohammed’s daughter; and last year’s controversy in Wakefield, also in West Yorkshire, after a copy of the Quran was slightly damaged at a high school.

The report concluded that each incident was linked to “a new generation of UK-based anti-blasphemy activists who are working to make blasphemy a key issue of concern for British Muslims”.

It described as “most alarming” the emergence of a UK wing of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a political party that was temporarily banned there because of violent rallies and its support for mob executions of perceived blasphemers.

The report stresses that most UK-based blasphemy activists have rejected violence and condemn terrorist acts such as the 2015 shooting attack in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine, in which 17 people died. However, it says many are calling for stricter laws in the UK against blasphemy and seek to criminalise insults against Islam, which they present as part of a wider war on the faith by so-called enemies of Islam in the West.

It is unclear, the report says, whether TLP UK is officially recognised by the party’s leadership in Pakistan. While its social media output is aimed at British Muslims, it produces original media glorifying prominent TLP members including Khadim Rizvi, the late founder of TLP who had a long record of calling for and supporting vigilante violence and murder against accused blasphemers, as well as Islamist extremist Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged in Pakistan in 2016 for killing a politician over his opposition to blasphemy laws.

The report also linked supporters of TLP to each of the three blasphemy flashpoints in Britain in recent years in Batley, Wakefield and Birmingham, the last over a film that depicted the prophet’s daughter.

Last year, the FSU wrote to West Yorkshire police, urging them to delete the ‘non-crime hate incidents’ (or NCHIs) from the records of four pupils at a school in Wakefield who had been suspended over minor, accidental damage caused to a copy of the Quran.

Kettlethorpe High School imposed the suspension after a student (who happens to be autistic) reportedly brought a copy of the Quran into school “on a dare” having lost a game of Call of Duty with his mates. He and his three friends read aloud from it out on the school’s tennis courts, then walked back inside the school, where another pupil knocked it out of their hands and on to the floor. Apparently, it sustained a small tear and a smudged page.

For this, the four students were suspended, and the police were called in. At a subsequent meeting with irate ‘community leaders’ at the local Jamia Masjid Swafia Mosque, the police officer leading the investigation into the events at Kettlethorpe High School, Chief Inspector Andy Thornton, sat on a panel listening respectfully and occasionally nodding his head as one of the boys was criticised by an Imam and told that “the slightest bit of disrespect [against Islam and the Quran] is not accepted”.

Writing in the Times, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, described this meeting as “look[ing] more like a sharia law trial, inappropriately held at a mosque instead of a neutral setting”.

With the autistic boy’s mother also on the panel – dressed in a headscarf and modestly bowing her head, seemingly in an attempt to protect her son who had received death threats – the Imam went on to warn that the Muslim community wouldn’t tolerate any disrespect shown to the Quran and if necessary would defend its honour with their lives. “When it comes to the honour of the Quran we will stand and we will defend the honour of the Quran no matter what it takes,” he said. “The slightest bit of disrespect [to the Quran] is not accepted and it is not going to be tolerated at any point, in any city, in any country by any Muslim and that’s the fact of the matter.”

He continued: “The difficulty that we have in this incident is that these are not adults that have carried out this act. Had it been, for example, a teacher who had disrespected the holy Quran – had it been, let’s say, an adult that had thrown the holy Quran – then the matter would be different. We probably wouldn’t be sitting in the [mosque] right now, we’d probably be standing outside that school and voicing our concerns without any doubt whatsoever.”

At the time, the FSU wrote to Helen Stephenson, the CEO of the Charity Commission, asking her to open an investigation into Jamia Masjid Swafia. In our letter, we pointed out that as the mosque is a registered charity, the remarks likely constituted a breach of one of its charitable objects, namely, “promoting good community relations and cohesion between Muslims and non-Muslims”. (You can read our letter urging the Charity Commission to open an investigation into the mosque here).

Responding to our letter, a Charity Commission spokeswoman confirmed to the Times that the regulator has “opened a regulatory compliance case to assess concerns raised with us about Jamia Masjid Swafia”. She added: “We are carefully considering the issues raised to determine our next steps.”

It turns out our concerns were well founded.

As the government commissioned research report reveals, an imam at the mosque, Hafiz Abdul Qadir Naushahi, who attended that meeting, has a record of support for TLP and spoke at an event honouring Rizvi in Manchester in 2022. In June that year, the report says, the mosque hosted a popular Islamic poetry reciter and TLP supporter from Pakistan named Owais Qadri. The topic is unclear but his “close associations with TLP and his promotion at the mosque pose a risk of introducing TLP to more British audiences or normalising the group’s extreme positions in Pakistan, even if he visited as a poet”, it said.

The mosque has also hosted the Pakistani anti-blasphemy activist Hassan Haseeb ur Rehman, who has a record of praising and supporting Mumtaz Qadri.

The appearances of TLP supporters at the mosque “are a cause for concern due to the possibility that the mosque’s endorsement of such figures increases the likelihood of anti-blasphemy extremism being introduced to its audiences”, the report said.