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Necessary tolerance of religious vilification


Kabah in Mecca'Islam is the second largest and fastest growing religion in America,' says the Muslim. 'And you people should FEAR US!'

The stereotypical Arab with a great bushy beard, dressed in flowing white robes, is addressing an urbane looking Christian man. 'We expect a Muslim flag to fly over the White House by 2010,' asserts the Muslim.

The Christian patiently assumes the role of teacher, explaining to the Muslim that Allah 'was just one of the 360 idols in the Kabah in Mecca'.

Surprisingly, the Muslim accepts the indisputable logic that his religion is a sham. 'Come into my heart, Lord Jesus,' pleads the sobbing ex-Muslim, now being comforted by the compassionate Christian.

I found the comic Allah Had No Son abandoned on a seat near a busy shopping strip in Coburg — a Melbourne suburb that has one of the city's largest Muslim populations.

The depiction of Muhammad in one panel, bowing low and engulfed in flames, is eerily reminiscent of the Danish cartoons that sparked a ruckus in 2006.

Putting this aside for a moment, the booklet is quite hilarious. Particularly the footnotes attached to the numerous claims, as if in some pseudo-academic sense, it makes them all true.

Then, there's a breathtaking switch from the application of reason to attack the foundations of Islam, to pure dogma, as the Christian imposes his faith on the chastened Muslim.

Material of this nature cuts to the heart of what constitutes 'religious vilification' and, conversely, 'freedom of religious expression' in public forums. In a pluralistic society, religious groupings cannot have total freedom from vilification (perceived or not) and an unfettered right to publicly assert the absolutist consequences of their faith.

Most Western societies have settled on a balance between these two extremes, otherwise known as 'tolerance'. The position of the fulcrum varies across time, and from country to country. Shifts may occur in response to pressure groups lobbying for greater freedom of expression and less 'political correctness'. A wave of anti-Semitic attacks, for example, could lead to a push in the opposite direction.

Since 9/11, the morale of beleaguered and stereotyped Muslim communities across the Western world has been in freefall. Material such as the Allah Has No Son comic certainly does not contribute to social harmony. The question of whether or not it constitutes religious vilification is less clear.

That's not always the case. In 2004 the Islamic Council of Victoria won the first ruling based on Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act of 2001.

The Act was designed to 'promote racial and religious tolerance by prohibiting certain conduct involving the vilification of persons on the grounds of race or religious belief'. The evangelical Christian group Catch the Fire Ministries had sponsored a seminar on Islam, attended by three Muslims. It was later found that two of the speakers, Daniel Scot and Danny Nalliah, intended to vilify Muslims, not simply discuss Islam.

To classify the anti-Muslim comic along the same lines could be extreme. Where would we stop? In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins describes religious faith as an 'evil', and asks: 'Isn't it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?' Is Dawkins guilty of religious vilification? At least, in his defence, Dawkins could argue that he vilifies all religions equally!

'Not all behaviour that offends religious feelings or beliefs necessarily constitutes advocacy of religious hatred,' notes the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. However, when freedom of expression results in unambiguous incitement to religious hatred, and particularly when violence is a likely short- or long-term consequence, a line in the sand has been crossed and action must be taken.

Short of such extreme situations, it is usually better to err on the side of freedom of expression; to foster tolerance by allowing mature, pluralistic societies such as ours to find, as much as possible, their own balance between freedom of speech and freedom from vilification. It is their choice to make, but I hope any Muslims exposed to the booklet I picked up simply laugh it off then toss it into the recycling bin.

Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001


Peter HodgePeter Hodge works as a teacher and freelance journalist.
Flickr image by de_ar




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Existing comments

Peter's advice to the Muslims to laugh off the booklet seems uncomfortably close to that once given to black cricket and football players to laugh off racist sledging. Does not the advice and the position of the adviser not ignore other important elements: the difference in power between the vilifying group and the vilified, and also the fact that even material that was not designed to incite religious hatred in fact works in that way among its readers?

Dan McGonnigal | 03 April 2008  

The article is incomplete. It omits any reference to the Victorian Court of Appeal decision in Catch the Fires Ministries v Islamic Council of Vic (2006) 15 VR 207 reversing the finding of racial vilification.

jltrew | 03 April 2008  

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