In Freedom of Speech

The decision of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal earlier this month that two Christian pastors were guilty of religious vilification by their conduct of a seminar to explain Islam, should concern not only the faith community, but every Australian.

Political correctness has been something of a public joke to date.

Canadian sports commentators have been taken to task for referring to tree huggers. Seemingly neutral terms such as “chairman” have been exposed and flailed as some deeply sexist plot.

But for all the amusement, there has always been a sense that this was taking us somewhere unhealthy.

Comedian Billy Connolly described politically correct language as “political cowardice” and, anyone familiar with George Orwell’s novel 1984, had to be concerned that politically correct language bore a startling similarity to the state’s language, Newspeak.

With Newspeak, Orwell has the totalitarian state controlling the ability of the people to consider its overthrow, by changing and limiting the English language.

By this means, notions of dissatisfaction and rebellion were more difficult to articulate and therefore enact.

It was a proposition said to be related to that of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, that “the limits of my language mean the limits to my world”.

While we thankfully have no totalitarian state, we do have some frightening world views loose around us.

Unfortunately, this decision by VCAT stands to limit the scope of our world in Wittgenstein’s terms, at a very crucial time.

Religious fundamentalism—and particularly Islamic fundamentalism—is a real and growing phenomenon.

It would have to be a case of seriously inciting hatred, before we should risk limiting free speech.

Whatever the brand names, these world-views need to be discussed.

The two pastors in the recent Catch the Fire Ministries case would claim that that was the purpose of their seminar, but clearly Judge Michael Higgins finds this in conflict with the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act.

In his summation, the judge lists examples of Pastor Daniel Scot’s quoting from the Koran as evidence of vilification.

It seems it was unreasonable to quote from the Koran in a seminar whose purpose was to discuss it.

However literal, quotes from the Koran are issues of fact available for anyone to read. The statements in the Koran, on the treatment of women for instance, are well known and discussed in many academic publications and books.

The attitude of the Koran to Christians and Jews is a matter of fact.

Some Muslim’s interpretation of the term “jihad” is a reality for which many innocent people are paying literally with their heads in Iraq today.

Are we to ignore these facts of the Koran and its inspiration to some of its followers?

Are we to force ourselves into a state of denial to avoid being arraigned under a bad law?

While all Muslims don’t interpret the Koran literally, it is clear that some do, and its literal meaning must therefore be subject to public debate.

This should apply equally to the doctrine or religious texts of any organisation or religion, whether mainstream or not.

Such freedom of speech is essential when our laws now attribute the status of a religion to what is effectively any belief system.

For example, the Equal Opportunity Commission has already dealt with the complaint from a witch under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act.

After this latest decision, who would be prepared to expose a cult such as the Peoples’ Temple in the US, whose adherents were coerced into suicide in the Jonestown massacre?

Surely these people would have felt vilified by having the truth of their sect discussed publicly.

However, such exposure and debate might well have saved more than 900 lives.

The judge was also concerned that Scott and Pastor Danny Nalliah discussed other issues that have long been a point of public debate – for example, the existence of the fundamentalist Muslim schools, or madrassas, and their well-established links to terrorism, and the growth of mosques in places such as Britain.

He also cited the fact that they had discussed the realities of a Muslim birthrate that provides a rate of natural increase in Islamic populations in the West, well above that of the host populations.

As each of these subjects is freely debated in the public domain, it is difficult to see how anyone could judge their being raised in a presentation on Islam to be unreasonable.

Judge Higgins is critical of the way the Catch the Fire Ministries’ seminar was conducted, and particularly that it was seen to ridicule Islam. However, this view is generally not supported by those non-Muslims present.

Certainly we should expect that it would have to be a case of seriously inciting religious hatred, before we should risk limiting free speech to the degree this decision does.

Cults and aberrant world views are increasingly prevalent in society. They often have disastrous effects not only on the lives of our young, but through violence on the community.

The best protection we have against these is free speech. No world views—including those of Christianity and Islam—should be spared critical examination, and this decision exposes this law as flawed, because it discourages that essential public debate.

This article was first published in The Age (28/12/04) and is republished by permission. Jim Wallace is the executive chairman of the Australian Christian Lobby.

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