The push to stifle free speech about Muslims
Australia is a multi-faith society where people of different faiths and of no faith have to relate to one another and develop ways of living together. Everyone should avoid being “uncomfortable” in robust conversations about religion. However, when any of our politicians ask the key questions about Islamic terrorism, and their staffers do research into the beliefs and commitments of religious communities without fear or favour, we constantly see spokespersons for the Muslim community summarily dismissing these concerns and accusing them of anti-religious hatred or bigotry.1 Such individuals seek to assure the Australian people that acts of terrorism are an aberration and not true Islam. When commentators not agreeing with such arguments quote directly from the Koran or another authoritative source that seems to support violent jihad, they are dismissed as “Islamophobic”.
One such Muslim commentator appears to be the Pakistani-Australian academic Samina Yasmeen. She is Director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, and a self-described specialist in “the role of Islam in world politics”.2 For Yasmeen bitterly complains that, in the post-9/11 years, Prime Minister John Howard dared to imply Muslim differences vis-à-vis the wider community with his focus on Australian values.
She goes on to criticise another Australian former prime minister, Tony Abbott, for merely “express[ing] the wish that more Muslim leaders would say Islam is a religion of peace and mean it”.3 On this basis she accuses Abbott of “supporting a negative view of Muslims in Australia and ‘othering’ them”.4 Ironically, what Abbott says has been fully confirmed in Shari’a Law in the West (2010), a seminal academic work on the subject and edited by the law professors Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney. These two leading academics in the field comment that:
Since September 11, 2001, governments eagerly awaiting firm denunciation by Muslim community spokesmen of … terrorist attacks have been consistently disappointed … The extent to which this silence represents tacit acquiescence and support for the radicals remains a moot point.5
When the media reported violent protests in Sydney by Muslims attacking the police, Yasmeen excused their behaviour by creating an appalling moral equivalence between the violence practised by those Muslims and the so-called “violence’ of YouTube videos that “inflame emotions across the Muslim world”.6 These videos “violate the special place assigned to Prophet Muhammad. Any disrespect is felt as an intrusion into this sacred space,” she said.7 By scapegoating a video criticising Muhammad, Yasmin is placing the onus upon the freedom of speech. The unmistaken implication is that if only we would not criticise Muhammad, terrorist attacks wouldn’t happen.
Professor Yasmeen notoriously claims it is the disrespect of Islam that primarily triggers the violent responses of Muslims against non-Muslims. Instead of addressing the appalling levels of intolerance and bigotry in the Muslim community, she proposes legal measures against those who “violate” the feelings of her fellow believers. She even recommends that Australians should be forced by law to respect these religious feelings, which, in her own words, cannot be “invaded” by infidels. Any criticism of Islam is, according to Professor Yasmeen, a primary source of Islamic terrorism and other kinds of violent Muslim behaviour:
I would argue that intentionally violating spaces sacred to Muslims or any other people falls within the space of violence. Though not obviously targeting anyone living today, deliberating inflaming emotions needs to be acknowledged as violence.8
Professor Yasmeen was born in Pakistan, the world’s second-largest Muslim nation after Indonesia. Pakistan has small pockets of Hindus and Christians, each group representing less than 2 per cent of the population of 197 million. The deterioration in the human rights of these minority religious groups in Pakistan has been directly linked to the worldwide Islamic revival and instatement of sharia law.9 As a result, Pakistan’s Christians have been killed, subject to forced conversions, enslaved, their churches destroyed, their property looted, the women raped and their fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech denied.10 They live a precarious existence and are constantly victimised by Islamists. They are legally “discriminated against in the sharia courts, terrorised under draconian blasphemy laws, demonised in classrooms, and often denied protection by law enforcement and the criminal justice system”.11
Professor Yasmeen has been silent on the predicament of religious minorities in her native Pakistan. Rather than speaking out for those who face persecution at the hands of fellow Muslims, she advocates for the criminalisation of “Islamophobia” in Australia. By condemning “hateful rhetoric” in the same breath as physical violence, Yasmeen equates robust debate of the motives and goals of Islamists (who have vowed to destroy us) with violence against innocent people. The implications for free speech are ominous. Here we have the conflation of violence against innocent civilians with “hateful” comments which may be no more than an honest examination of how Islamists use the texts and teachings of Islam to incite real hatred and violence. And it is worth noting that “offence” in sharia law constitutes a much broader category than non-Muslims might suspect. Islamic law defines slander as “mentioning anything concerning a person that he would dislike, even if it is true”.12
Islamisation in Pakistan has done much to eliminate due process, to erode the independence of the judiciary, and to convert courts into instruments of repression and intimidation. Islamisation is directly associated in that country with a profound decline in human rights and the administration of justice. Since in Pakistan “defiling the name of Muhammad” is a crime of blasphemy that carries a mandatory death sentence, many malicious accusations have been made by Muslims against innocent Christians.13 There is no penalty at all for false accusations.14 The accuser knows that, as a Muslim, his words will be believed in preference to those of the Christian defendant, due to the tendency of some Muslim judges to believe the word of a Muslim over that of a Christian, in accordance with sharia.15
Professor Yasmeen has been notably silent on instances of Islamic persecution of Pakistani Christians. She represents the academic side in the ongoing Islamic war on free speech, warning that non-Muslims will continue to be “potential targets” of jihadists as long as they continue to offend Islam and Muslims. One might expect an academic in Australia to stand up for free speech and denounce attempts by radical Muslims to kill innocent people in the name of their totalitarian religion. Instead, Yasmeen has come out firmly for the censorship of Australians in order to protect the sensibilities of Muslims. In fact, she is promoting the deeply undemocratic idea of “co-ordinating financial sanctions” that “could help the Muslims deal with such attacks on religious feelings”. Yasmeen claims that a form of sharia should be imposed. According to her:
a billion dollar lawsuit against those who target religious beliefs, and engage in intense violation of sacred spaces, would shift the whole discussion to a different place. Even if the courts throw out the suit, it would focus attention on legal pathways to oppose such violence aimed at space that is sacred for a quarter of humanity. It may even create pathways that counter violence of this kind.16
Professor Yasmeen is the author of an article titled “Countering Islamophobia”. There she advocates the introduction of a blasphemy law in Australia. Yasmeen states: “Australian leaders have not always taken responsibility for countering Islamophobia. Politicians need to adopt a consistent policy of speaking out against acts of … negativity towards Australian Muslims when they happen.”17 She downplays the threat of terrorism by claiming that criticism of Islam is as dangerous to the community as the violent ideology of radical Islam. Any attempt to criminalise criticism of Islam to appease Muslim sensibilities would set a disturbing precedent, laying a foundation upon which criminalisation of certain kinds of speech would eventually be justified.
Islamic law presents a model for society that is in radical contrast to the one that currently prevails in the West. Essentially, the main goal of radical Muslims is to impose a key principle of Islamic sharia law—which forbids blasphemy against Allah, Muhammad and Islam—on the entire non-Muslim world.18 People making such proposals have an extraordinarily powerful ally in their effort to extend the principle that Islam must not be criticised: the Australian Left.
The Australian Left has come a long way from its former advocacy of free speech and today it is frankly authoritarian, intolerant of dissent, and increasingly intent on demonising its opponents rather than engaging them in a rational debate. The federal Labor Party apparently seeks to extend the reach of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to cover religion. Chris Merritt, legal affairs editor of the Australian, reports that Labor is considering a plan to extend the reach of litigation based on section 18C to include people claiming they have been offended or insulted because of their religion. In other words, Labor wishes to establish sharia law by stealth in order to prevent people offending Islam. Labor’s shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has confirmed that Labor would support such changes to section 18C.19 There appears to be a plan not only to consolidate all federal anti-discrimination laws, but also to extend the controversial section to religious grounds, among other things.
The proposal comes from Labor’s Anne Aly, an Egyptian-born Muslim MP who seeks to expand the scope of anti-discrimination laws to religion, while simultaneously imposing significant restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The prospect of an Islamic blasphemy law emerged when Dr Aly said there was “scope to reassess” extending section 18C, saying the racism debate now “extends to religion”. Her proposal aims at applying to religion the same formulations which are applied to race. Of course, the idea is utterly misguided because criticism of Muhammad or even of Islam is not equivalent to racism. Islam is not a race and the problems with it are not the product of fear-mongering and fantasy, but of ideology and facts—”facts that have been stressed repeatedly by Muslims themselves, when they have committed violence around the world in the name of Islam and justified that violence by the teachings of their religion”.20 Law professor Rex Tauati Ahdar correctly reminds us that the laws of a democratic society “should be less ready to protect people from vilification based on the voluntary life choices of its citizens compared to an unchangeable attribute of their birth”.21
The Labor Party appears determined to introduce a form of blasphemy law that protects Muslims from any criticism they personally may find offensive. As Dr Mark Durie correctly points out:
we are seeing the privileging of Islam in the public square, mandating of compulsory respect for Islam, erosion of the principle of reciprocity and equality, implementation of Sharia restrictions on freedom of speech and religious practice, denial and deception about the teachings of Islam including jihad and the Sharia, and denial about the religious motivations of some Muslims who engage in intimidation and criminal acts.22
I have done a careful Google search to find whether Professor Yasmeen has ever spoken out about the notorious case involving Asia Bibi, the Christian woman in Pakistan who, on utterly spurious grounds, was sentenced to death for blasphemy. I have found nothing and I can therefore conclude that Professor Yasmeen has been silent on the subject. I have found, however, that she often claims that Muslims have “sacred beliefs” that should not be violated by non-Muslims and that a federal law should be enacted to protect the sensibilities of Australian Muslims. As Robert Spencer points out, “once the principle that nothing offensive to Muslims should be allowed is established, then Muslims can always claim that they are offended by something new, until the entire society is governed by sharia law—because any deviation from it offends Muslims”.23
The freedom to criticise Islam in Australia may not last much longer. Victoria already has a draconian anti-free-speech legislation on religious grounds. The Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (2001) has been used in Victoria by Muslims to prevent Christians from teaching other Christians about Islam. If the concept of offence found in section 18C were to be extended to religious grounds, then a Muslim accusing another person of “hateful rhetoric” would wield enormous power over public discourse, a power that would amount to censorship of political speech. This would be the end of Australia’s democracy, which depends on freedom of thought and freedom of discussion, including on matters of religion, whereas Islamic jurisprudence explicitly forbids the discussions of decisions arrived at in accordance with sharia law. As noted by former US federal prosecutor Andrew C McCarthy:
Free speech does not exist in a vacuum. It is the plinth of freedom’s fortress. It is the ineliminable imperative if there is to be the robust exchange of knowledge and ideas, the rule of reason, freedom of conscience, equality before the law, property rights, and equality of opportunity … For all its arrogance and triumphalist claims, radical Islam must suppress speech because it cannot compete in a free market of conscience. To sustain their movement … Islamists deem critical examinations of Islam to be blasphemous, especially if they reach negative conclusions or encourage unbelief. Proselytism of religions other than Islam, particularly if it involves encouraging Muslims to abandon Islam, is also strictly forbidden … And truth is not a defense.24
To place Islam beyond criticism because Muslims are supposedly being discriminated against in Australia is, as Salman Rushdie puts it, to ignore “fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well-funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into cowed silence”. The idea that Muslims and any aspect of their religion should be sheltered from criticism is totally inimical to the principle of freedom of speech, which is the foundation of a free and democratic society, and an indispensable shelter against tyranny. It is simply impossible to protect any group’s right not to be offended without grievously infringing on the constitutional freedom of political communication of others who disagree with them. I do not trust any government—even the Australian government—to shield me or anyone else from certain types of speech that some intolerant Muslim may consider unacceptable.
- John Harrower, “Religious Policy, Multi-Faith Dialogue and Australian Values’, in David Claydon (ed.), Islam, Human Rights and Public Policy (Brusnwick West/Vic: Acorn Press, 2009), 249.
- See: www.futuredirections.org.au/people/professor-samina-yasmeen/
- Samina Yasmeen, “Countering Islamophobia’, in Derya Iner et al. (ed.), Islamophobia in Australia 2014-2016, Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation (Charles Stuart University, 2016) p 93.
- Ibid. 93.
- Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney, “The Topography of Shari’a in the Western Political Landscape’, in Rex Adhar and Nicholas Aroney, Shari’a in the West (Cambridge University Press, 2010), p 18.
- Samina Yasmeen, “Sydney Riots: Muslims Responses to Provocation Must Be More Considered’, The Conversation, September 17, 2012, at theconversation.com/sydney-riots-muslim-responses-to-provocation-must-be-more-considered-9607
- Mark Durie, The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom (Deror Books, 2010), 188.
- See: John L. Allen Jr., The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution (New York/NY: Image Books, 2013), 85-87
- Rupert Shortt, Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack (Croydon/UK: Random House, 2012), 64-86. “In the meantime, individuals who seek to reform the blasphemy laws continue to be killed. The governor of Punjab province Salman Taseer was murdered in January 4, 2011 and Minister Shabaz Bhatti was murdered on March 2, 2011 due to their opposition to the blasphemy laws … The blasphemy laws, couple with the government’s failure to address religious hostility or punish extremists, have fostered an atmosphere of intolerance and violence’. – Kiley Widelitz, “A Global Blasphemy Law: Protecting Believers at the Expense of Free Speech’ (2013) 6 Pepperdine Policy Review 1, 9.
- Ahmed ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller (Umdat as-Salik): A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law (trans.: Nuh Ha Mim Keller (Amana Publications, 1999), r2.2.
- Patrick Sookhdeo, Islam: The Challenge to the Church (Wiltshire/UK: Isaac Publishing, 2006), 62.
- Ibid. 67.
- Ibid. 96.
- Samina Yasmeen, “Sydney Riots: Muslim Responses to Provocation Must be More Considered”, Conversation, September 17, 2012, at theconversation.com/sydney-riots-muslim-responses-to-provocation-must-be-more-considered-9607
- Yasmeen, above n.3, 97.
- Robert Spencer, The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Free Speech (and Its Enemies) (Washington/DC: Regnery Publishing, 2017), 2.
- Chris Merritt, “Labor Eyes Extending 18C Complaints’, The Australian, March 23, 2017, at www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/labor-eyes-extending-18c-complaints-to-gender-disability-and-age/news-story/366d04d0d5efb5fc6ef575e4e3550afc?login=1
- Robert Spencer, The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Free Speech (and Its Enemies) (Washington/DC: Regnery Publishing, 2017), 7.
- Rex Tauati Ahdar, “Religious Vilification: Confused Policy, Unsound Principle and Unfortunate Law’ (2007) 26 University of Queensland Law Journal 293, at 301
- Mark Durie, The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom (Deror Books, 2010), 220.
- Robert Spencer, The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Free Speech (and Its Enemies) (Washington/DC: Regnery Publishing, 2017), 37.
- Andrew C. McCarthy, Islam and Free Speech (New York/NY: Encounter Books, 2015)
Dr Augusto Zimmermann is Professor and Head of Law at Sheridan College in Perth, and Professor of Law (Adjunct) at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney campus. This article was first published in Quadrant Online and is reprinted in Life News by permission of the author.