By Michael Rosie, member of the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism.

Three recent official reports on Hate Crime will be of interest to anyone interested in sectarianism in Scotland. Hate Crime in Scotland 2013-14 published by the Crown Office, and Scottish Government reports into Religiously Aggravated Offending and Offensive Behaviour at Football allow us glimpses into criminal behaviour motivated by prejudice. There is good news and there is bad news, since the reports are disappointing, encouraging, and illuminating in equal measure.

The disappointment is obvious: in Scotland today we still have citizens who think it acceptable to abuse or disparage individuals and communities (or often the world at large) on the basis of sexuality, race, religion, disability or transgender identity. There is disappointment, too, in that some hate crimes appear to be on the increase: racially aggravated crimes were 3% higher in 2013-14 than the year before; those aggravated by prejudice towards disability were up 12%; those through prejudice towards sexual orientation by 22%.

More encouraging, though, is the consensus that some of these increases represent greater confidence in reporting such offences to the Police, and Police willingness to act upon them. Encouraging, too, is news that offences motivated by religious prejudice have declined by 17%, and are at their lowest level in a decade. The Scottish Government said that this decline “was testament to [the] hard work taking place to tackle these offences.” The Scottish Government is investing £9m between 2012 and 2015 in work to tackle sectarianism including the delivery of community projects, commissioning of research and establishment of the independent Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland.

It would be gratifying to think that the framework provided by the Scottish Government and, especially, the very hard work done by its 44 community projects, have made such immediate, concrete and measurable contributions to reducing sectarianism. Closer appreciation of what the figures on religious hate crime can and can’t tell us, however, is illuminating. While Scotland can be justifiably proud that progress is being made, we should also be aware of the tasks still before us.

What can the Hate Crime statistics tell us about sectarianism in Scotland? Importantly we must remember that whilst ‘sectarianism’ and ‘religious Hate Crime’ are strongly overlapping things, they are not the same thing. Religiously motivated Hate Crime does not comprise all of sectarianism, and sectarianism does not exhaust the possibilities for religious hate crime. Consider that latter point first. Whilst the bulk of offences involving religious prejudice consist of “conduct derogatory towards” either Protestants or Catholics, a substantial number involve behaviour derogatory towards Islam, with smaller numbers aimed at Judaism or to Christianity in general. The other point is also crucial: sectarianism is a very complicated thing (hence the complex and evolving definition discussed by the Advisory Group) and not always criminal. Refusing to shake the hand of a work colleague just because she is Catholic; or forbidding your son to marry a Protestant are not crimes, but they would be regarded by most people as sectarian.

With these points in mind, what do the figures on religious hate crime tell us? We find some quite clear and consistent patterns over the last decade or so. Reports on religiously aggravated offences (in 2006, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014) have found that most such crime occurs in Glasgow or the surrounding West of Scotland (65% in 2013-14), that most offenders are young (in 2013-14 around half were aged 30 or under), and almost all (90%) male. Offences ‘spike’ in the evening, and very markedly at weekends, and are frequently recorded as alcohol related (59%).

A media narrative around ‘victims’ and ‘attacks’ fuels the impression that religious crime involves physical violence and is ‘targeted’. The statistics, however, suggest otherwise. Relatively few religious offences involve physical assault (6% in 2013-14) with the overwhelming majority relating to threatening or abusive behaviour (71%) or breach of the peace (12%). Where a specific individual was the ‘target’ of religious hate crime, it was most likely to be a police officer (victims in 48% of cases 2013-14) or someone else doing their job (11%). In only a quarter of cases (27%) were ‘members of the public’ the targets of abuse – just as often the ‘victim’ was the ‘community’ – the world – at large (26%).

In other words the bulk of Scotland’s recorded religious crime is conducted by young men, often drunk, in the west of Scotland. Offences are overwhelmingly anti-social, abusive and threatening, but are rarely – relatively speaking – physically violent. If any one group is being ‘targeted’ it is police officers and other public service and retail workers. This is a dismal picture of urban incivility, a reminder that rather too many Scots – and particularly young men – drink too much, fail to behave themselves, and become abusive when their behaviour is challenged.

Media attention has often headlined evidence of a supposedly disproportionate victimisation of Scotland’s Catholics in the statistics (see, e.g., BBC 2011; The Guardian 2006). However, the statistics do not record the religion of either the victim (where there is an individual victim) or the offender, although they do indicate the nature of the hatred or abuse.  In that respect, the figures have repeatedly shown that most religious crime is ‘anti-Catholic’ in nature – in 2013-14 63% of offences involved behaviour ‘derogatory towards Roman Catholicism’ whilst 29% involved behaviour ‘derogatory towards Protestantism’. But the seeming disparity here may have a different explanation than some media headlines would have you think.

Think again of what kinds of crimes are occurring and where they are happening. Given the broad religious demography of urban central Scotland (where almost all such offences occur) it would require only that roughly equal (and equally small) proportions of Catholics acted in ‘anti-Protestant’ ways as Protestants acted in ‘anti-Catholic’ ways to produce the supposed ‘disparity’. Let me put that in more simple terms: if in a town where there are twice as many Protestants than Catholics, each community has a one-in-a-thousand minority who behave in a religiously bigoted manner on an alcohol-fuelled Saturday night, then two thirds of sectarian offences would be anti-Catholic in nature and one third anti-Protestant

In the real world, of course, things are never so clear, and we simply don’t have the data to know whether Catholics and Protestants are indulging equally in sectarian hatred. We can say two things, however. First, the underlying disparity in the numbers of offences derogatory towards Catholics and Protestants is less indicative of the victimisation of Catholics in Scotland than may appear at first glance. Secondly, and crucially, none of this should detract nor distract from the seriousness of the crimes being committed. Hate crime is hateful, and can be sinister and frightening to those who suffer and witness it.

Any reduction in religiously-aggravated crime is, of course, to be welcomed. But we should not take such crime as a simple indicator of the broader issues around sectarianism. One key strand of the Advisory Group’s approach has been to emphasise the central importance of evidence. We published a review of the existing evidence on sectarianism in 2013; have commissioned three original pieces of research; and have helped shape new reporting mechanisms such that the funded community projects can themselves become a key part of the evidence base. Evaluating the impact of these projects will make a decisive contribution to how much we know about the extent and nature of sectarianism in Scotland, and how far we have come in addressing it.

We were, of course, very pleased to read of “A growing intolerance of intolerance itself”. This Herald editorial referred to the Hate Crime statistics and argued that: “What the latest evidence shows quite clearly is the value of the work done by the police, the Scottish Government and organisations representing the communities affected to tackle hate crime.” A testament to hard work, indeed: but a broader evidence base is crucial in judging just how much the hard work is really paying off.

Michael Rosie is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, and a member of the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism.