Beliefs, Believers and Double-edged Swords

The Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) is back in court defending an appeal by Catch the Fire Ministries (CTFM) against a finding of religious vilification last year. For those that may be unfamiliar with the case and the law under which it is being prosecuted, I refer you to this piece in Spiked-Online which provides some background.

However, as The Age reports, there are some interesting arguments being raised in the appeal.

Justice Geoffrey Nettle asked Mr Woinarski: “There must be intellectually a distinction between the ideas and those who hold them?” “We don’t agree with that,” Mr Woinarski said. “But in this case it’s an irrelevant distinction, because Muslims and Islam were mishmashed up together.”Justice Nettle: “Are you saying it’s impossible to incite hatred against a religion without also inciting hatred against people who hold it?” Mr Woinarski: “Yes.”

The implication being, of course, that it is impossible for someone to vilify Islam without also vilifying Muslims because, as Brind Woinarski, QC told the court, “one is by necessary consequence vilifying people who hold that religious belief.” This is, however, not true and Muslims should recognise this distinction as well as anyone. Islam doesn’t automatically conflate people’s ideas with their person: although we might ‘hate’ polytheism, it doesn’t mean that we behave hatefully towards polytheists. And although we might ‘hate’ the act of drinking alcohol, it doesn’t mean we must demonstrate hate for each individual that drinks. Likewise, it is quite possible that people of other faiths might not like Islam, whilst still not hating individual Muslims or wishing them harm. To assume that hating an idea automatically leads to hating the people is just overly simplistic.

Emotionally, this idea does make some sense: nobody likes to feel their most deeply held beliefs are being ridiculed or attacked. However, before Muslims rush to support such laws and the ideas that underpin them, we should remember that every argument being made against the Christians by the Muslims can also be used by Christians (or Jews or Hindus or atheists) against us. If it is true that there is no distinction between Islam and Muslims, then it is equally true, for example, that no distinction can be made between what Jews may understand as vilification of Judaism and the offence of inciting religious hatred against the Jewish people.

For the last 1,400 years, neither Muslims nor Christians have been particularly precious about the other’s beliefs. Both are evangelical religions that seek converts and neither supports syncretism. As a result, there has evolved a broad canon of literature in both traditions criticising the beliefs of the others. Muslims, for example, have books such as Ibn Taymeeyah’s al-Jawab as-Sahih li man baddala Deen al-Maseeh or the more contemporary Ahmed Deedat; and Christians have books such as John of Damascus’ Peri Aipeseon (one of the earliest polemics against Islam written by a Christian scholar). It is quite conceivable, however, that some Christians may take offence to the aggressive style of, say, Ahmed Deedat and claim that his books and lectures vilify their faith (and therefore incite hatred against the Christian people). This is the unfortunate consequence of these sorts of laws: they are double-edged swords which might just as easily be wielded against Muslim leaders and clerics, as they are now being swung against Christian groups.

One fundamental problem is that there is no objective test for hateful speech, so such claims are heavily skewed towards the feelings of the offended. In other words, if someone or some group of people feels vilified by some speech or a piece of writing then that must be considered to be vilification of that religious group. The fact that the offending claims might be perfectly true and supported by evidence isn’t relevant because, as The Age reports, the truth isn’t a defence:

Justice Geoffrey Nettle said: “Surely that can’t justify restraining them from saying something that said by anyone else would be legal? In the case of the newsletter, for example, Pastor Nalliah says many churches have closed down. What’s wrong with saying that?”

Ms Mortimer replied: “The tribunal has found there is something wrong with saying it. Truth is not a defence, it’s irrelevant to contravention of the act.”

Given all this, it is only a matter of time before some Muslims find themselves in the courts answering charges of vilification against Christians, Jews, or any other religion because they have criticised or refuted these beliefs in such a fashion or in such a style as to cause offence amongst one or more adherents. It is also only a matter of time before Islamic books that criticise other faiths put the authors and sellers of such books in the crosshairs of the government. For this reason, amongst many, Muslims should think carefully about whether they support these laws.