By Michael Bradley
November 25, 2015
It's true that the bigoted fringe of Australia's media and society is exacerbating the fault lines in our community. That's a terrible shame, but shutting it down by force of law is not the answer. We need more freedom of speech, not less, writes Michael Bradley.
"France is at war." French President Francois Hollande has been very clear about this since the terrorist attacks on Paris. The question is, with whom, or what?
"It is not a war between civilisations," he said, "we are at war with jihadist terrorism."
You can't actually fight a war against an ideology (Islam) or an abstract concept (terrorism). Islamic State we can destroy on the ground if we wish, but it will be replaced by something similar or worse. Whoever or whatever is to blame for Islamic terrorism within Western countries, it isn't going away any time soon.
To win the war at home, we have to be able to identify the enemy. Former Attorney-General's Department chief Roger Wilkins believes that's easy: "We know who they are and they do in Europe, too," he says. He was referring specifically to returning jihadis, but unfortunately it's only "We know who they are" which made the headline.
That language is picked up on the political fringe, where "they" quickly becomes the same "they" Pauline Hanson says "were telling the girls that 'we're going to rape you'" before the Cronulla riots. The same "they" who are now "infiltrating in with the refugees" from Syria, according to Senator Jacqui Lambie.
This language of bigotry and the generalised targeting of entire segments of the population is the lowest form of argument of all - it has less intellectual integrity than directly racist abuse.
So, the racists, xenophobes, and that strange minority who sincerely believe that Islam is not a religion but a mission of global conquest, are out in force and each terror attack makes them feel that much more licensed to vilify Muslims. Members of Parliament have called for our borders to be closed and Andrew Bolt helpfully pointed out that there are more Australian Muslims fighting for IS than serving in the Australian Defence Force. Dog whistle, much?
This rubbish from prominent people, coupled with an unsurprising increase in direct abuse of Australian Muslims (and, inadvertently, some Sikhs) on the street and social media, led Mariam Veiszadeh to establish the Islamophobia Register Australia. She has called for the anomaly in the Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits vilification based on race, ethnicity or nationality but not religious belief, to be rectified.
It's an anomaly not because religion is per se entitled to protection as much as race is, but basically because Jews are considered to be a race or ethnicity, as well as sharing a religion. So, the difference between being called a "dirty Jew" or a "dirty Muslim" is that the Jew can sue under the Racial Discrimination Act but the Muslim cannot.
I agree, that makes no sense. However, rather than rush to add to the categories of personal characteristics on the basis of which it will be illegal to offend each other, we should re-examine what we're trying to achieve.
One of the arguments against outlawing religious discrimination is that, unlike race, gender or disability, religious belief is a personal choice. But that's a false distinction. Very few people genuinely choose their religion; most are born into it and that's that. There's also the problem that race, as a scientific fact, doesn't exist. No two "races" are genetically exclusive of each other. Anyway, the primary determinants of "racial" discrimination are not bloodlines but your visual appearance, clothing and name. These may be connected to your family background, but equally they may relate to your religion or other personal choices.
Andrew Bolt was famously convicted under s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act for targeting certain Indigenous Australians by reason of their race. If he had targeted instead a group of Australian Muslims, should that have made a difference? It's hard to see why. Insult or humiliate me by reason of my size, colour, religion, sexual preference or religious belief, and there is no functional difference in either the intention or the effect. You are having a crack at me because of some personal feature of mine which is "different", and I feel the negative force of that attack.
Vilifying Muslims because they are Muslims is no better or worse than excluding fat people from dance class because they move too slowly. Neither action is currently illegal.
But I am not making an argument for adding religion to the list in s18C. I would prefer to be able to continue to express the view that Scientologists' beliefs are crazy and wonder aloud how Roman Catholics reconcile a lot of their church's actions over the last 1,000 years with anything Jesus ever said. On the other hand, I don't think there should be a difference between calling all people who come from a Muslim-majority nation on one hand, or all Muslims on the other, "terrorists". Both, or neither, should be illegal.
Personally, I'd go with more freedom of speech rather than less. Bigotry, unlike criminal acts of terrorist violence, will not be defeated by prosecution. The better response, as Rupert Murdoch copped on social media for his tweet suggesting that the US accept only "proven Christians" as refugees from Syria, is to call it for what it is – rank, ignorant prejudice – and treat it with the laughable contempt it deserves.
It's true that the bigoted Islamophobic fringe of Australia's media and society is doing exactly what IS wants it to, by exacerbating the fault lines in our community. That's a terrible shame and I wish it were not so. But seeking to shut the bigotry down by force of law risks the same outcome that we have achieved with our attempts to kill off terrorism by force of arms. Neither war will be won that way.
Michael Bradley is the managing partner of Marque Lawyers, a Sydney law firm, and writes a weekly column for The Drum.
New Age Islam, Islam, Islamic Online, Islamic Website, Islam, Terrorism and Jihad, Muslim and Islamphobia, Islamphobia, Islam and Society, Islam, Terrorism and Jihad, Islamphobia, Radical Islamism and Jihad, Australian Muslim, Islam in Australia