MURDER is not always a crime of hate. There can be passion; or greed, for example, if the victim is killed during a robbery; or perverted pleasure in the exercise of power. The murderer of the 40-year-old Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah has been punished with a life sentence, of which he has been told that he will serve at least 29 years. Few would regard this as harsh. The Scottish court was disinclined to be more lenient, because the killer, who had pleaded guilty, had given no indication of remorse. This is one of the most terrible aspects of religious hatred: that it finds justification for impenitence. Mr Shah was murdered for being the wrong sort of Muslim: his Sunni killer took it upon himself to punish his victim for what he judged to be a blasphemous deviation from true Islam. Yet such an individual is not a disinterested ideologue who is merely deluded in identifying his duty. His crime has been called “religiously motivated”, but it was motivated by religious hatred. Religion and religious hatred are not synonymous.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recently published report Causes and Motivations of Hate Crime, from the University of Sussex, gathers research from diverse quarters to seek to understand what exactly is going on. There are many theories, and the definition of hate crime is not straightforward. The “protected” characteristics of race, religious belief, sexual orientation, disability, and transgender status categorise a range of crimes that can be seen as involving common factors of difference, prejudice, and intergroup emotions linked to perceptions of threat. One theory is that perpetrators can be “those who are most influenced by prevailing expectations of what is society’s ideal identity. They act to police the boundaries of the identity through verbal and physical violence against those seen as breaching dominant norms.” This could be one starting-point for seeing how the murder of someone described in conventional terms (by police) as “a peaceful family man” is in a continuum with victims who are chosen because their peaceful lifestyles are viewed as unconventional.
Since religious bodies are concerned with ideals of identity, they have a special responsibility in the area of hate crime. Muslims have their own questions to ask; and hate crime is international. It is evident that the Church of England is taking such matters seriously (News, 5 August) with its Hate-busters and Neighbour-lovers material published since a rise in xenophobic and racist incidents was reported after the EU referendum. Nevertheless, it would be appropriate if it took its own study further, and looked at all the protected areas together, and their theological implications. In recent years, René Girard’s work on scapegoating has provided food for reflection. The Church needs more than tips and stories to be sure that it is not contributing to these problems, and is, instead, in the forefront of countering the divisions in our society.