Demo against the SDL, Edinburgh, 20 February 2010
Demo against the SDL, Edinburgh, 20 February 2010

A teenage girl and a 39-year old man who desecrated Edinburgh Central Mosque with strips of bacon have been given custodial sentences at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.

Both of them were said in court to be linked to the SDL. Richard Dawkins called the sentences “law gone mad.” Richard Dawkins is sometimes an idiot. But I have serious reservations of my own about the sentences.

I visit Edinburgh Central Mosque from time to time. It is normally a pleasant experience, so it is upsetting to hear about this kind of abuse. But I am not a religious person. My feelings are a poor guide to the impact of the incident on Muslims.

To devout atheists like Richard Dawkins, I’d begin by suggesting a simple mental exercise. Think of a place of natural beauty to which you are particularly attached. Then think of finding one day that rubbish of an especially obnoxious kind has been dumped there. Add to that the way that you would feel if rubbish that you and your family find particularly disgusting had been left inside your home, with the clear intention of causing you distress.

This sort of mental muscle-flexing would be an interesting exercise, and maybe even kind of important, if we lived in a parallel universe where racism, colonialism and fascism didn’t exist. Now let’s return to our own world.

When British forces smashed India’s great rebellion of 1857, Muslim prisoners were routinely smeared with pork-fat before execution. The rebel leader Nazir Khan was stuffed with pork and flogged before being hanged.

In the years before the Holocaust, Jewish children in Poland were bullied by being forced to eat pork. The same kind of torture  was sometimes inflicted on victims of the Holocaust. For example, Rabbi Abraham Hacohen Levin of Papile, Lithuana was forced to consume pork soup before being murdered in advance of the Nazi invasion. The Nazi camps were a different world, of course. Prisoners starved, and ate what they could get.

Barbaric fetishism

In our own time, prisoners held by the US at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were forced to eat pork as part of a torture regime that also involved sexual abuse, beatings, mock executions, sleep deprivation, deprivation of food and water various other forms of ill-treatment.

The people who desecrated Edinburgh Central Mosque may not have known about these things. But they were evidently immersed in a long British tradition that sneeringly imputes to others a set of supposedly quaint and irrational beliefs, while at the same time practising a barbaric fetishism that ranges from yahoo pranks to the most unspeakable atrocities.

There is another matter that Richard Dawkins may not know, but that most people with links to Edinburgh’s Muslim community know very well. The mosque in Annandale Street, a mile or so from Central Mosque and rather closer to where I live in Leith, was badly damaged in an arson attack in October 2001. A 16 year-old youth appeared at a private hearing in Edinburgh Sheriff Court shortly afterwards. Far-right parties were not very prominent in Edinburgh at that time, and I am inclined to suspect that the perpetrator was mainly influenced by the “clash of civilizations” ideology promoted by government and media figures after the 9/11 attacks.

The political situation today is in some respects more worrying than in those strange, unsettled weeks after 9/11. The Scottish Defence League (SDL) and English Defence League (EDL) didn’t exist in 2001. They operate formally as racist propaganda groups and informally, along with other allies, as street-fighting groups. Despite some setbacks in the last year or two, they are active today. Britain First didn’t exist in 2001, but is now active as a would-be street-fighting group apparently organised on fairly disciplined para-military lines. 1711 Edinburgh people voted for either Britain First or the BNP in this year’s European election. UKIP was well-established but rather marginal in 2001, but now commands very wide electoral support. It is not a street-fighting party, but it nevertheless promotes racist views. 10,922 Edinburgh people voted for it in the European election.

In December 2012 a pig’s head was left outside a community centre used by Muslims in the Thurnby Lodge area of Leicester. The perpetrator was given a 12-week suspended sentence.

More importantly for people in Scotland, a demonstration held by about 10 SDL members in the Pollockshields area of Glasgow on 20 January 2013 was “facilitated” by several hundred police, with the result that people in the area – which has a substantial Muslim population – were unable to go about their normal business. Some people were refused access to their own homes.

The incident at Edinburgh Central Mosque occurred in the early hours of 31 January 2013. Three people – Douglas Cruikshank, Wayne Stilwel and Chelsea Lambie – wrapped strips of bacon around door handles and slapped slices of bacon onto a window. Wayne Stilwel was 24 years old, Douglas Cruikshank was 37 and Chelsea Lambie was 17.

Richard Dawkins asks: “Who (apart from the pig) is damaged by bacon?” He might as easily ask of someone who has received a horse’s head from a suspected Mafia sidekick: “Who (apart from the horse) is damaged by the head?”

The murder of  British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013 was followed by a surge in anti-Muslim hate crime, including arson attacks on mosques. A Ukrainian right-wing extremist, Pavlo Lapshyn, murdered an elderly Muslim man in Birmingham and carried out a series of bomb attacks on Birmingham mosques. Two ex-soldiers threw petrol bombs at a mosque in Grimsby. Another ex-serviceman attempted to set fire to a mosque in Rhyl. A mosque in Muswell Hill, London, was destroyed by fire in suspicious circumstances. There were numerous reports of violence, harassment and abuse directed against Muslims.

Arson

When a public meeting was held in Edinburgh Central Mosque on 2 July to discuss these matters, the SDL held a protest outside. A couple of days before the meeting Aberdeen SDL member Derek Phinn posted a Facebook comment that said: “burn the mosque down when the meeting is ongoing.” He was subsequently jailed for 12 months.

In August 2013 Wayne Stilwel, from Gorebridge, pleaded guilty at Edinburgh Sheriff Court to threatening and abusive behaviour over the bacon incident at Edinburgh Central Mosque. He was subsequently given a 10 month jail sentence. Douglas Cruikshank, from Galashiels, and Chelsea Lambie, from Paisley denied similar charges and went to trial in April. Cruikshank changed his plea to guilty on the final day of evidence, after prosecutors agreed to drop a charge of racial aggravation. The jury took just over an hour to return a majority verdict of guilty on Lambie.

Cruikshank and Lambie were sentenced by Sheriff Alastair Noble on 20 June. Cruikshank was given a 9 month prison sentence, and Lambie was given a 12 month sentence in a young offenders institution. In reaching his decision, the sheriff was influenced by the fact that Cruikshank had been trying for months to plead guilty, subject to the prosecution agreeing to drop the charge of racial aggravation, whereas Lambie had maintained her innocence.

Pawns in the game

It is commonplace – and I think contrary to the interests of justice – for courts to penalise a not-guilty plea. In this case it meant that Douglas Cruikshank benefited from his success at manoeuvring the prosecution into dropping the racial aggravation charge – a charge that prosecutors are already far too reluctant to use in relation to expressions of anti-Muslim hate. Chelsea Lambie was on the other hand penalised for her efforts to deny responsibility for her actions, even though her youth and the fact that she has a very young child might be thought to explain her response. She is now facing a longer sentence than a man twice her age. It is difficult to believe that this will improve her attitude to Islam or Muslims.

The sentences on all three of the culprits – but especially Chelsea Lambie – are rather severe. If Muslims carried out comparable abuse at a church or a synagogue they would no doubt be punished at least as severely. There would very likely also be a blaze of hysterical media interest, and perhaps an announcement of  a new government programme to deal with the problem. It would be very easy to see the sentences handed down by Sheriff Alastair Noble as a welcome bit of balance. But it would be a mistake.

It has become commonplace and acceptable for political leaders and public figures to make statements that promote and encourage a racist outlook. Scottish political leaders have so far resisted this trend, but statements by UK figures inevitably have an impact on public life in Scotland.

In Scotland, as in England, far-right groups use slogans and propaganda methods that are calculated not just to promote a racist outlook but to assist in the creation of street armies of the right. The courts seem unable or unwilling to tackle this issue.

Alastair Noble’s sentencing decision may be a sign that the courts will try instead to keep a lid on consequences that seem to the authorities to be disruptive. This is a strategy that will help no one but those who wish to nurture a manageable form of racism.

This is no time for excessive leniency towards activists and wannabes of the far right. But Douglas Cruikshank, Wayne Stilwel and Chelsea Lambie are only pawns in the game.

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