Policing Thought

The following article was originally published in the Herald Sun today. It is written as a response to the recent intervention of the Australian government to prevent two Muslim scholars from attending an Islamic conference this weekend.

THE Federal Government has decided to ban Canadian Muslim cleric Sheik Bilal Philips from entering Australia to attend a conference.

Dr Philips has not been charged with any crime, but does, it seems, have ideas that the Government and probably many Australians consider objectionable.

Therefore he is deemed a security risk and has been denied a visa.

In the absence of any stated proof as to involvement in terrorism or criminality, the Government appears to be banning Dr Philips on the basis of ideas the Government thinks he holds, not his actions.

However, let us assume the man is an extremist of some description and his ideas are indeed offensive. Is that really an argument to ban him?

For many, the instinctive answer is that we should not allow extremists of any stripe, including extremists such as Holocaust denier David Irving, to enter Australia.

Keep them out, the argument goes, and we keep out their ideas.

Of course, nobody would suggest we allow people who advocate criminality to enter this country.

Yet, perhaps we have more to gain from allowing ideas we might perceive as offensive or extreme to be spoken.

First, hearing ideas is a prerequisite to refuting them. If bad ideas are not made public, they still continue to be held.

The attempt to silence them will be interpreted as validation. So, while the Government is bolting the doors shut, the ideas come creeping through the window stronger then ever.

The only way to kill an idea, is to fight it with an opposing idea and that requires debate and frank discussion.

One can understand the Government’s fears but it should have confidence in the Australian people, aided by the scrutinising eye of a free media.

If someone’s views are genuinely silly or extreme, the marketplace of ideas will ensure their marginalisation.

Pauline Hanson went from being seen by some as dangerous to being largely ignored.

It is, for this reason, that Sheik Taj el-Din al-Hilaly is perhaps no longer taken as seriously as he once was.

All bad ideas, whether about science, economics, or politics, will eventually perish.

The organisers of the Melbourne conference say Dr Philips has been an avowed opponent of terrorism and invited him here to speak about values shared between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Government, however, says he is an extremist espousing dangerous ideas.

Even if the Government is right and Dr Philips’ repeated criticisms of terrorism would suggest they are not, these ideas should be brought into the open.

Some 200 years ago British philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that when we ban ideas, we deny people the opportunity to gain any benefit from those ideas.

To suppress the expression of an idea, he wrote, was to rob humanity.

And when fact defeats fallacy, he said, the fact emerges stronger.

When we engage in a kind of intellectual protectionism in silencing ideas we consider false, it strengthens falsehood.

It does this by creating the impression that our reluctance to engage in discussion IS a concession of intellectual defeat.

Communism and Nazism were intellectually demolished and refuted.

Freedom of speech and freedom of conscience have enabled and protected most of our liberties.

However, we have surrendered our freedom to offend others in the name of outlawing religious vilification.

And we have surrendered much of our freedom to hear, read and understand Muslim extremism in the name of fighting terrorism.

Much of this has been a reaction to September 11 and the potential for home-grown terrorism highlighted by the London bombings.

Last year, books were banned on the basis they laid the ideological foundation for terrorism. This centred on a book originally written to encourage Muslims to repel Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

Implicit in such banning is the idea that there are certain ideas so dangerously intoxicating that their mere utterance or publication may transform people into terrorists.

Aside from such books being freely available on the internet, banning them has denied society the opportunity to understand their arguments and develop counter arguments.