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Why I've changed my mind on vilification laws

(This legislation is undermining those religious freedoms it is intended to protect, writes Amir Butler executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee www.theage.com.au   June 4, 2004)


Peter Costello was quite correct in his National Day of Thanksgiving address ("The moral decay of Australia", on this page on Tuesday) to describe Victoria's anti-vilification legislation as "bad law". 


As someone who once supported their introduction and is a member of one of the minority groups they purport to protect, I can say with some confidence that these laws have served only to undermine the very religious freedoms they intended to protect.  At every major Islamic lecture I have attended since litigation began against Catch the Fire Ministries, there have been small groups of evangelical Christians - armed with notepads and pens - jotting down any comment that might later be used as evidence in the present case or presumably future cases. (The Islamic Council of Victoria is suing Catch the Fire under Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001.)  The organisations being targeted by these evangelical Christians are neither involved in nor supported the legal action by the Islamic Council, and yet must now suffer the consequences of having their publications and public utterances subjected to a ridiculous level of scrutiny and analysis. The hope being, I assume, that some elements of the Christian community might exact revenge on the Muslim community by way of their own vexatious legal actions.


The problem is that as long as religions articulate a sense of what is right, they cannot avoid also defining - whether explicitly or implicitly - what is wrong. If we love God, then it requires us to hate idolatry. If we believe there is such a thing as goodness, then we must also recognise the presence of evil. If we believe our religion is the only way to Heaven, then we must also affirm that all other paths lead to Hell. If we believe our religion is true, then it requires us to believe others are false.  Yet, this is exactly what this law serves to outlaw and curtail: the right of believers of one faith to passionately argue against or warn against the beliefs of another.   It is obvious that criticism of one's religion is likely to offend, but just as Muslims should be entitled to aggressively criticise other faiths, likewise those same faiths should be afforded the right to voice their concerns about Islam.


The idea that such speech - regardless of how wrong-headed or offensive it might appear - must be banned to protect these religious communities is a furphy: discrimination on the basis of religion was already outlawed; incitement to commit violence was already illegal; and slander was already covered by existing legal instruments.  All these anti-vilification laws have achieved is to provide a legalistic weapon by which religious groups can silence their ideological opponents, rather than engaging in debate and discussion.  In doing so, people who otherwise might have been ignored as on the fringes of reality will be made martyrs, and their ideas given an airing far beyond anything they might have hoped for.


And at the same time as extremist ideas are strengthened and given legitimacy by attempts to silence them, the position in our society of the religions themselves is weakened and undermined.  Who, after all, would give credence to a religion that appears so fragile it can only exist if protected by a bodyguard of lawyers?


Speak Up, I Won't Be Offended

 ( AMIR BUTLER executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee originally published in the Herald Sun, June 24, 2003 )


While multiculturalism has expanded the range of foods on offer, it has also expanded the range of challenges.  As a society made up of different races, professing different creeds, and adhering to different cultures, how can we possibly form a cohesive society that doesn't descend into conflict when pressured?

The answer, according to many, is political correctness -- the idea that multiculturalism can only work if certain types of speech are deemed too dangerous and banned from public utterance, with its speaker shamed and punished. But far from aiding multiculturalism and the minority groups it purports to protect, political correctness represents one of the most serious threats to minorities and social cohesion.  When an idea is met with opposition that attempts to silence it, it gains legitimacy, validating and reinforcing its message and encouraging others to rise to its defence.

Last year, after a Christian sect attacked the prophet Muhammed, some Muslims attempted to use the fledgling anti-vilification laws as a legalistic cudgel to bash these Christians into silence.  The effect was the exact opposite: the ideas were given an airing that they would never have received had the Muslims not responded in this way.  Others rose to the Christians' defence and we were left with the impression that Muslims, unable to respond with intellectual arguments, had resorted to a kind of bullying.

Indeed, the recent violence in Riyadh is the result of a society that has failed to talk to extremists, instead hoping that banning their ideas from public discussion would make them go away.  It is not that Muslims believe that their prophet or his religion are indefensible. Rather, the Muslim community remains hobbled by a belief that, as a relatively weak minority facing an irredeemably anti-Muslim media, our voices will never be heard without distortion.  While one may dispute how much anti-Muslim sentiment colours the media's representation of Islam, there is little doubt that Muslims lack a presence in the media and our more coherent voices are rarely heard.

INVOKING political correctness, although weakened with September 11 and Bali, is still seen as a suitable response to offensive ideas.  Yet, the only way to fight offensive ideas is to confront them intellectually.  Legislation, punishments and smear campaigns cannot make bad ideas disappear.  Instead, everyone must be allowed to express their views freely -- good ideas will drive out bad.

Political correctness has encouraged minorities to play the victim card, to vie for political influence by overstating and exaggerating being a victim.  It's undignified, ineffective, and only serves to build resentment among the broader community that will quickly tire of being lectured as to how terribly racist it is -- especially when that's untrue.  In reality, the outpouring of support for the Muslim community has dwarfed the handful of negative incidents, and the Australian people have demonstrated profound tolerance -- more tolerance than would have been displayed to a Christian minority had some Christian Europeans murdered several hundred Muslim holiday-makers in Pakistan.

Religious communities that buy into political correctness are buying into their own irrelevance. Religions codify morality and if that morality cannot be articulated, then the religion has rendered itself irrelevant to the society it purports to guide.  Likewise, one can justifiably doubt a religion that can only exist within a fortress of anti-vilification laws and political correctness, a religion that cannot stand up to public scrutiny or criticism.

A society based on this notion of political correctness is a society based on a foundation of lies -- that all cultures, races, creeds and genders are the same and equal and that the state can, through legislation and ham-fisted social engineering, create cohesion among vastly different groups.  The real key to social cohesion is honest dialogue. A dialogue, unfettered by political correctness, that is based on recognition that we have different ideas.

We will never have a unity of opinion, but all minorities must demonstrate they share a unity of purpose with fellow Australians: to work towards the betterment of this country, guiding it to what is best according to our conscience and according to our own ideas.


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