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Respecting Australian law is key to religious freedom

  • 21 July 2017


The ‘shari‘a law’ straw man is being dragged out in public again. Oh, dear.

This time, all sorts of talking heads are outraged that Sydney Uni law students might optionally take a course introducing them to the code of living followed by somewhere in the region of 1.8 billion people. Wouldn’t you think our future drafters of international business contracts selling our Aussie goodies should understand the basic elements underpinning many overseas law codes? Or that possible future legislators might like to understand the issues that motivate a growing segment of the Australian religious landscape?

It must be a slow news week: time to dust-off the familiar Muslim whipping-boy and give him a good public beating.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham jumped on the bandwagon, waving a scolding finger at Sydney University and saying our tax dollars shouldn’t be used for That Type of Thing. Does he know that the government funds the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies? It is a consortium of three major Australian universities that teach all about Islam and Muslims.

As distasteful as the media’s attempted take-down of Salim Farrar and Dr Ghena Krayem’s law subject is, it raises an important question. To what extent should Australian law accommodate the needs of different religious and cultural groups that have their own codes of living?

This doesn’t just affect Muslims: Catholics have canon law, Jews have halakha, Baha’is have their shari‘a, and don’t forget Indigenous Australians have traditional law too.

Most of the time, religious believers can go about their lives happily following their particular codes of sacred law. Priests can decline non-Catholics communion, Jews can down-tools on a Saturday, and Muslims can refuse to eat pork sausages.

But occasionally, Australian law and a particular religious law conflict with each other. Under shari‘a law, for example, a deceased Muslim should be shrouded and buried directly in the ground as soon as possible. Until recently, however, Australian laws—based on Christian practices—required the body be buried in a coffin. After successful lobbying by the late Sheikh Fehmi El-Imam, Victoria became the first state to permit direct burial, with other states following suit.

"Those politicians and media commentators threatening to exclude Muslims from contributing to questions of law and governance undermine the very fabric upon which our liberal democracy rests."  

The notion of one law for all Australians is a furphy. What those wringing their hands should understand is that our social pact requires that we all assent