Libel claims are often associated with top-level political figures or celebrities, like the now infamous fanfare of the Plebgate saga. There is, however, a significant trend in ‘religious libel’ cases in the UK, involving claims brought or defended by adherents of British minority faiths.
These actions can in simple terms be classified into three types. First, cases where there are general allegations of wrongdoing, and parties affiliated with a faith identity. Second, the post 9/11 cases, where individuals, organisations or charities are accused of sympathising, supporting or funding Islamic extremism or being ‘extremist’ themselves. The final category involves doctrinal disputes, where claims involve criticism of groups referred to as ‘sects’ or ‘cults’.
Religion is increasingly finding its way into the libel courts in England and Wales, and it’s not surprising. Demographic changes have a significant part to play. The 2011 census revealed that 33.2 million individuals identified themselves as Christians, but 2.7 million identified themselves as Muslims, 817,000 as Hindus and 423,429 as Sikhs. The British Jewish population was 263,346.
Furthermore, religious commentators, adherents and those with an academic interest are not immune to risks involved in tweeting or publishing on Facebook. There were only six libel cases resulting from social media in 2012-13, but 26 in 2013-14.
Unlike ordinary people, religious groups and their leaders are often far from impecunious. Many have the resources to fund otherwise prohibitively exorbitant legal costs associated with libel proceedings.
Since the 9/11 terror attacks, we have also seen a predictable increase in news, comment, analysis and features on various aspects of Islamic extremism, counter-terrorism and ‘the enemy within’. The press doesn’t always get it right, and there have been occasions where individuals are falsely accused of being associated with extremism, having obtained vindication through the courts.
Newspaper articles in which adherents of faith groups have been accused of ‘brainwashing’; the uncovering of inimical activities of an ‘accused cult leader’; a bus driver accused of fanaticism; and a think tank publishing a report entitled ‘The hijacking of British Islam’ are all examples of when the libel courts have been asked to rule on issues related to religion.
The Muslim campaigner
A broadsheet opinion piece following the aftermath of Fusilier Lee Rigby’s beheading became the subject of the most recent post 9/11 action. Mughal v Telegraph  EWHC 1371 (QB) was incidentally one of the first cases to be adjudicated under the Defamation Act 2013. The claimant, Fiyaz Mughal, a Muslim campaigner, brought proceedings over an article written by Charles Moore, the Daily Telegraph columnist. Moore’s article published on 15 June 2013 was titled: ‘We are too weak to face up to the extremism in our midst… Despite the Woolwich outrage, David Cameron has failed to act against Islamist terrorism.’
The claimant’s lawyers submitted that the article branded their client as “a Muslim extremist” who was “more extremist in his views and actions than the far-right extremists who are activists within the English Defence League (EDL) and/or a hypocrite, as he falsely portrays himself as an individual who is anti-extremist”.
Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled in favour of the Telegraph; section 29 of the judgment states: “The meaning of the words complained of is not that the claimant is more extreme in his views and actions than the EDL, and it is not that he is a hypocrite. The words complained of are part of a public debate clearly identified as comment, or the opinion of the author, to the effect that the views that the claimant expresses, and for which he has received public honours, are not violent views, but are views that tend nevertheless to have dangerous consequences. That is not defamatory of the claimant. The criticism is as to the effect of his views. It is not of his character.”
The Hindu volunteer
The most recent decision was in the case of Sharma v Sharma  EWHC 3349 (QB) which involved adherents of Britain’s second-largest minority faith, Hinduism. Mr Satish Sharma, general secretary and volunteer of the National Council of Hindu Temples UK, brought proceedings following the dissemination of two emails in which a Hindu priest, Dr Raj Pandit Sharma (no relation to Mr Sharma), implied he had obtained funds from criminal activities. The emails were distributed to 28 UK Hindu temples, members of the House of Lords, MPs and others. Dr Sharma, described by the judge as a “well-known priest”, gave expert evidence at the 2009 funeral pyre judicial review, represented Hindus during the Remembrance Sunday ceremony in 2011 and was a regular guest on the BBC’s Sunday morning debate show, The Big Questions.
Notably, in the ruling Judge Moloney QC talked of the important principle of ‘percolation’, the way in which emails spread far beyond their initial recipients. Mr Sharma was awarded £45,000 in libel damages and legal costs of almost £25,000.
The Sikh ‘holy man’
New religious movements (NRMs), often with wealthy charismatic leaders, have been claimants in defamation actions. In recent years these cases have involved a schism within Sikhism. His Holiness v Singh  EWHC 1294 (QB) involved a libel action brought by an Indian ‘holy man’, His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh ji Maharaj, leader of a group called the Nirmal Sikh Faith. He brought legal proceedings over an article headlined ‘Cult Divides Sikh Congregation in High Wycombe’. The article discussed political infighting in British Sikh temples (gurdwaras), and centred on a dispute concerning the authority of the Punjab-based Indian national.
The case was ‘permanently stayed’ by Mr Justice Eady, based on the principle of ‘non-justiciability’, whereby secular courts abstain from adjudicating matters of religious doctrine or dispute. Mr Justice Eady quoted Munby J in Sulamain v Jaffali  EWHC 556 (Fam)
“Religion… is not the business of government or of the secular courts. So the starting point of the law is an essentially agnostic view of religious beliefs and a tolerant indulgence to religious and cultural diversity… It is not for a judge to weigh one religion against another. All are entitled to equal respect.”
In the same year, another case involving a follower of the ‘holy man’ and journalists, Shergill v Purewal  EWHC 3610 (QB), was ‘stayed’ by Sir Charles Gray, based on the same principle. In some instances, notably doctrinal disputes, it is clear we shouldn’t bring God into court.
A ‘toxic blend’
Professor Alastair Mullis, head of the law school at the University of Leeds, has co-authored a research paper with Dr Andrew Scott from the LSE – ‘How to Know the Truth: Accommodating Religious Belief in the Law of Libel’. He says:
“The terrible events of 9/11 and 7/7 and the rise of Twitter and other social media have created a potentially toxic blend in which bigots, ‘fundamentalist’ religious people and the unwary all swim. A fertile ground for new libel claims exists and those who enter the fray need to recognise that what they say may end up being pored over by a libel expert.”
We will inevitably see more cases involving religion in our libel courts. Reports on those alleged to be involved with Islamic extremism and charismatic NRM leaders, along with the increased use of social media, provide ample opportunity for the issuing of further defamation writs. Religious practitioners with deep pockets want to manage reputations just like everyone else. They should also expect to be held accountable for their transgressions. Thanks to the new Defamation Act 2013, it is likely a judge alone will hear future cases as happened in Plebgate. It will also be necessary for claimants to demonstrate ‘serious harm’ to their reputation before a claim can progress through the courts.
Hardeep Singh is a freelance journalist and was the defendant in His Holiness v Singh. He tweets at @singhtwo2.
This is post originally appeared in LegalWeek and is reproduced with permission and thanks.