What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque

At Patheos, JT Eberhard writes of a young British couple jailed for a year for harmlessly pranking mosque members with ‘easily removable’ bacon, whose small child will suffer in foster care while the parents ‘rot in jail’ ‘because this building and the people who own it are special’ – a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ for what was only strictly speaking vandalism.

There’s another story about three hooded white supremacists who trespassed on private religious property to intimidate Muslims, harassed the only man inside as he tried to pray, threw objects around and desecrated the area to cause occupants distress, humiliate them and make them feel unsafe. I find this one more plausible.

According to reports from yesterday and earlier today, three people were just convicted of a ‘racially motivated attack’ at Edinburgh Central Mosque on January 31 2013.

  • Chelsea Lambie (18) received a twelve month prison sentence sentence in a young offenders’ institute after denying involvement despite CCTV footage.
  • Douglas Cruikshank (39) received nine months in prison, having pled guilty and received nine months.
  • Wayne Stilwel (25) also pled guilty and received ten months’ imprisonment.

Quite a few secularists I know have described this story in terms similar to Eberhard’s, calling these ridiculous punishments for hanging bacon on doorknobs and causing ‘religious offence’.

I’m not going to debate the merits of the sentencing specifically – partly because that would become an abstract discussion of the prisons system, ‘hate crimes’ and the use of authoritarian penalties against them, and partly because there’s lots of information I don’t have. I haven’t read Sheriff Alistair Noble’s judgement, so don’t know if details influenced him that haven’t made the news; I don’t know what previous convictions Lambie, Cruikshank and Stilwel had, if any; I don’t know how their prison terms compare to those for similar harassment in non-religious contexts, assuming that comparison is useful here. Edit: Lambie is reported in the Daily Record as having been fined shortly prior to this incident for verbally abusing and harassing a Pakistani shopkeeper; Stilwel was breaching conditions of bail for a previous misdemeanour.] (Helen Dale, a lawyer operating in Scotland, also tells me ‘all custodial sentences in Scotland are automatically reduced by half as long as you don’t do something like try to set a prison guard on fire’.) 

But the view that nine to twelve month sentences were obviously, categorically ridiculous, and that the right response to what they did (as Eberhard put it) would be to ‘fine them £20 and make them polish the door handle’, relies on seeing it how he does as a trivial and harmless prank by innocent-enough young vandals. Reports suggest to me that this is extremely inaccurate.

From what I’ve seen, there’s no evidence Lambie and Cruikshank were a ‘UK couple’. Reports refer to them as a ‘pair’, which doesn’t imply a relationship, and the BBC, the Edinburgh Evening News and the Scotsman all describe the former being arrested at ‘her boyfriend’s’ home: if this was Cruickshank, presumably he’d have been referred to by name and the two would both have been arrested there. While Lambie is noted to have a ‘very young child’, Eberhard’s emphasis on this and her perceived relationship with Cruikshank suggests the sympathetic tableau of a nuclear family broken up by injustice.

This doesn’t sync up with reality. Lambie was by all accounts part of the far-right Scottish Defence League, as according to the Edinburgh Reporter and the Scotsman were both Cruikshank and Stilwel. The SDL is a regional offshoot of the English Defence League, whose own ex-leader describes it as having been dominated by violent neo-Nazis and which has been linked to numerous arson attacks on mosques. (‘Religion is so persecuted’, Eberhard writes mockingly. While that may not be true in general, UK Muslims are targeted systematically as a religious group by the racist far-right.) Ties have also been found between the SDL and white supremacist British National Party, whose current leader started out in the National Front.

When Lambie’s mobile phone was examined by authorities, sent messages reveal her having bragged of ‘Going to invade a mosque, because we can go where we want.’ She and her accomplices hoped to intimidate worshippers by telling them they’d entered it unbidden – orders of magnitude more disturbing, fairly obviously, than an immature couple’s misjudged practical joke. According to the Scotsman, ‘a man who was inside the mosque praying [described by EEN as the only person in the building] . . . heard something hitting the prayer room window’, and judging by EEN’s reference to a ‘glass partition’, this was an interior window. Whoever threw uncooked bacon at it, which had been bought a few hours beforehand, did indeed invade the premises.

The Edinburgh Reporter adds that the man had already ‘noticed the trio at the door appearing to wave at him and (assuming they were coming in to pray) returned to his worship’. Rather than ‘hanging bacon on door knobs and tossing a few strings inside’, Lambie, Cruikshank and Stilwel – all of whom were hiding their faces under hoods – threw an object at the window of the room where they knew he was. I can’t speak for JT, but if three hooded strangers walked into my private building, found me alone and started hurling things in my direction, I’d feel attacked.

He states momentously that the slices of meat, which stuck to the window and door handles, would have been simple to remove. If someone were to break into his house and smear doorknobs and walls with faeces, cleaning it up would be equally simple; it would also be humiliating and distressing. As a vegetarian, having to handle raw meat would cause me the same kind of disgust. As an atheist, of course I don’t think Islamic pork taboos are sensible or philosophically sound, but mosques have every right to abide by them. Invading someone’s private building to strew the area in it and force them to handle it against their will, knowing it will cause them humiliation and distress, is still an act of harassment.

I’ve written plenty in opposition to public censorship on grounds of ‘religious offence’. A religious ban on bacon from shared secular space would have me up in arms. But one doesn’t have to accept religious doctrine to see desecrating private houses of worship as an intimidation tactic; look at how the Nazis went about it. (I remind you, before I’m accused of Godwinning, that the perpetrators belonged to a group with clear neo-Nazi ties.) This, on top of invading the building to make those there feel unsafe, throwing objects around and harassing someone alone there.

Whatever we say about the sentencing, this wasn’t anything like as trivial as Eberhard and others have suggested.

What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque

24 thoughts on “What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque

  1. 1

    Well said.

    Similarly, creating satirical cartoons about Islam or Christianity or both is one thing, and shoving them in someone’s face with menaces is quite another.

  2. 3

    Without detracting from your point, a terminological nitpick: Harassment, vandalism, contemptuousness, intimidation, sure… but desecration is very much a religious offence, much as is blasphemy.

    1. 3.1

      Yes, and I use it because of that. When we’re talking about how someone treats a religious area who’s invaded it in order to abuse the congregation, assuming their viewpoint seems correct to me.

  3. 5

    Thanks for the additional information on this story. I assumed it had be more to it then what seemed like a prank.

    Side note: I don’t know if it was your intention but I don’t think it was necessary to make the post about how wrong JT was. All you really needed to say is JT wrote such and such and here are the other facts you might not know.

  4. 7

    I don’t agree with you, cadfile.

    If someone takes a story which involves entering private property with the intention of committing a crime, intimidation of an individual and vandalism, all quite possibly as part of a campaign of racially or religiously motivated hate and by known activists – all that is clear from the sketchiest of accounts – and tries to pass it off as a “prank” then that person deserves scorn.

    Quite probably a good deal more scorn than Eberhard got here.

  5. 8


    Side note: I don’t know if it was your intention but I don’t think it was necessary to make the post about how wrong JT was. All you really needed to say is JT wrote such and such and here are the other facts you might not know.

    Why? Would you let, say, Fox News get away with peddling misinformation?

    That’s even ignoring the JT’s history of rushing in with uninformed judgements.

  6. 9

    It is VERY important to talk about how wrong JT was. It is NOT OK for JT to stake out a position based on so much ignorance and lack of empathy. The more this shit happens the less I want to have anything to do with movement atheists. THIS sort of thing happens because so called leading lights like Dawkins have a piss poor understanding of history and social dynamics – which allows them to find themselves on the same side of things all to often with far right white supremacists and hard nationalists.

    It is not a good look. And others should be embarrassed or have some sense of shame about it – rather than remain ignorant of the implications. There is a far right upsurge going on…and the people who will actually be harmed by it are people of color – regardless of what religion they do or do not subscribe to.

    I suppose it will have to happen to one of our own – say a Pakistani atheist in London mistaken for a Muslim – before any of us pay enough attention to what is happening to be responsibly engaged in these politics.

  7. 10

    Good detailed piece, Alex. I don’t know if there’s that much intimidation of Muslims in Edinburgh, but after 9/11 the Pakistan Association’s Centre mosque in Leith was fire bombed. It wasn’t a big domed affair, just a community centre – more like a private house. There was a newsagents in Lothian Road run by South Asians which up to very recently had a poster about racist attacks being reported to the police. So it does happen, though whether it’s common like, say, London in the 70s, I don’t know. I imagine the guy in the mosque would have felt really scared by such a visitation.

    So crappy to pass this off as a “prank”.

  8. 11

    I was not trying to argue that what JT wrote was correct or to defend what he wrote. I only had a concern about a huge assumption, based on the this post and JT’s, that it obvious JT had all the information and intentionally dismissed the incident as a prank.

    From the information in both posts I don’t see how such an assumption could be drawn.

    I wouldn’t mind reading more detail about how different religious bigotry law is in Europe compared to the US because when I first heard the story before I read JT’s post I too dismissed it as a mere prank.

    It has been a lot harder, as we atheists know, to argue from the position of feelings rather than concrete specific events to reduce religious bigotry here.

    Instead it appeared to me to be a post about JT.

  9. 12

    @cadfile (#11)
    The sensible assumption when you hear about vandalism of a mosque using bacon is that it’s a hate crime. Non-bigots don’t invade places of worship and terrorize people with items of religious significance for funsies.

  10. 13

    A. Noyd
    Ahhh, but I read a very convincing argument about this on Twitter yesterday. It went like this:

    1. Muslims have very stupid rules about pork
    2. If they didn’t have those stupid rules, the perps wouldn’t have thrown bacon
    3. Therefore it is very important that we now stop talking about the anti-muslim attack and spend a lot of time talking about silly food rules

    It also had a side argument that went:
    A) It’s a prank
    B) A prank is not supposed to be funny for the person it happens to, but the person who plays it and the bystander
    C) Who cares if that’s nasty as long as the person on whom it is played is “bad” enough.

  11. 14


    How do you imagine that people in a position of social advantage keep things working that way for their benefit? They have several levers to pull, one of which is to ensure that the version of story which gets around is the one which supports their understanding – whether or not that version is the most balanced account possible and without their necessarily intending to lie. Both JT and Richard Dawkins, people able to influence public opinion, have produced or responded to a version missing key facts.

    If you would care to pop across to FtB Butterflies and Wheels you can find a post called “Three hooded strangers” and read there post 32 as I attempt to put what we know for certain into a comprehensible schema which is based upon all I could find out for certain by tracking down and cross-checking the available accounts. I ask you to make this small effort as I am on a laptop with a creaky mousepad. I do not want to leave this room to use the “big” computer as I have to allow my cleaners to drop off equipment quickly, before they are nicked for stopping on a double yellow line.

    As for Europe. It’s not one place but 40-odd countries each with its own legal system. In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – you can see why we shorten it! – we have 2.5 legal systems, one of which operates in Scotland. It also has a common law base but differs in several ways from the one for England and Wales and the slightly modified version of that which holds In Northern Ireland.

    The significant differences in Scotland in this case are two and the differences in the legal system are not the most important here. One is that Scotland has its own long history of sectarian tension, bursting at times into violence and dragging in religion, politics, clan rivalry, the rise of capitalism and its effect on land use and the struggle for independence in Ireland plus, of course, the Industrial Revolution and the Scottish Enlightenment going on in various places including the university right beside this mosque. It’s not a matter of can it be explained? It can but only in a couple of full-length degree courses.

    The other is that, as of this date, Scotland is part of one of the members of the European Union. Whatever its failures in other respects the EU has been good for the securing of individual rights, including the right to protection from hate crime, and the rights of groups which might suffer a disadvantage either in the market or in trying to get their needs onto the political agenda.

    This Europe has tended to work by bringing everyone’s standards up to the current standards of the best and make that high and improving standard of protection a condition for membership. It’s one of the reasons some Tories hate the place – there is something standing between the citizen and the onward march of greed.

    Why would you leave the lone man praying in the mosque in the middle of the night out of this story? That’s all we’re asking, whose purpose does that serve?

  12. 15

    Thanks for that, Maureen. One thing: based on reports, this seems to have been between about 6.30 and 8am rather than ‘the middle of the night’ – although being January 31, I imagine it would still have been dark.

  13. 16

    I am no fan whatsoever of the religious ideology of Islam but I don’t believe in bullying Muslims or hurting others. The mosque is their place and they have the right to worship peacefully in it and feel safe from attack.

    The Muslims there (not just the lone one in there at the time but the rest of that, congregation / community / ummah is that the word?) weren’t hurting others or out to do so and thus they shouldn’t have been violated like that.

    It was a hate crime – not a harmless “prank” – and it shouldn’t have happened and it certainly doesn’t help the SDL’s already disreputable and ugly cause.

  14. 17

    Thanks for the additional information.

    The minimization of incidents like this by calling them simple pranks isn’t right or helpful. By all means we can mock the religious taboos if we want to, but this was a case of people trying to harass and intimidate a minority group into leaving a neighborhood.

    That is an attitude that atheists should want to discourage, out of self-interest if not out of common humanity.

  15. 20

    One good thing that’s come of this for me is that it is a rather specific and easy-to-understand example of the difference between “criticism of Islam” and “hate crimes”.

    I can walk around all day with a T-shirt saying “pork-eaters unite!” or somesuch and have all the right to do so. If I wear this T-shirt to work or school or post similar messages on colleagues desks or places of worship I may be harassing and intimidating people or creating an intimidating work environment for my non-pork-eating colleagues. In some jurisdictions and contexts this may be just offense dealth with privately, in some it may be a race crime, either way I am acting like a dickhead, because I am imposing my beliefs on others.

    I thought atheists are supposed to be against that!

  16. 21

    […] What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque–”A religious ban on bacon from shared secular space would have me up in arms. But one doesn’t have to accept religious doctrine to see desecrating private houses of worship as an intimidation tactic; look at how the Nazis went about it.” […]

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