Debate on the merits of hate-speech laws

All Fired Up About Faith
The case of two preachers found guilty of vilifying Islam stirs debate on the merits of hate-speech laws

Daniel Scot and Danny Nalliah, both Pentecostalist Christians, are accustomed to taking risks for their faith. A decade ago, Nalliah, a Sri Lankan-born Australian, narrowly escaped being caught with 400 smuggled Bibles in Saudi Arabia, where preaching Christianity is a crime. Scot, who grew up Christian in Muslim Pakistan, fled to Australia in 1987 after he was charged with blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad, an offense punishable by death. In March 2002, the Catch the Fire Ministries, of which the two men are pastors, held a seminar on Islam in Melbourne. Scot, who presented the course, says its aim was to help Christians “understand Islamic beliefs and culture and, after the Sept. 11 attacks, why some Muslims engage in terrorism.”

Three Muslims attended the seminar and reported what they heard to the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV). Soon afterward, it brought suit against Scot, Nalliah and Catch the Fire under the state’s then-new Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal ruled last December that the respondents had “made fun of Muslim beliefs and conduct” and made statements “likely to incite a feeling of hatred against Muslims.” Last week it ordered the pastors to apologize publicly and banned them from making similar comments anywhere in Australia or online. Nalliah says they will go to jail rather than “compromise the truth.”

The Victorian Act – the first such law passed in Australia, in mid-2001 – makes it an offense to incite “hatred,” “serious contempt,” or “severe ridicule” of a person or group because of their religious belief. The Catch the Fire case, its first test, has drawn keen interest around the world. At a time when extremists commit mass murder in Islam’s name, many Muslims in the West are complaining that their beliefs are misrepresented and their communities unfairly targeted by anti-terrorism laws. The U.N. Human Rights Commission resolved in April to combat what it called “defamation campaigns against Islam and Muslims in the West.” In Italy, journalist Oriana Fallaci has been ordered to stand trial for vilifying Islam in a recent book. Britain is also considering a law against religious hate speech. Author Salman Rushdie, whom Iranian clerics once ordered killed for maligning Islam, called the law an “attempt to placate British Muslim spokesmen, in whose eyes just about any critique of Islam is offensive.”

The pastors say they were just telling the truth: most statements the judge found offensive were readings from the Koran and the Hadith, traditional lore about Muhammad. Scot, a lifelong student of these texts, claims his real offense was “talking about the parts of the Koran that Muslims want to hide from people.” But ICV director Waleed Aly says the quotes – and references to “a lot of cases overseas that have nothing to do with Australia” – were used to argue “that Muslims in Australia are disposed to violence and terrorism and that Australia faced danger as a result.” The Muslims at the seminar, he says, “felt genuinely scared.”

Helen Szoke, ceo of Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Commission, says religious vilification laws – also adopted in Queensland and Tasmania – are needed to “discourage the abuse of free speech,” which can be hurtful: “If a person is experiencing their belief system being publicly ridiculed or undermined, the psychological effects are very much to do with persecution and feeling marginalized and targeted. And some groups at the moment are feeling that quite acutely.” The ICV’s Aly says critics are overreacting: the law aims only to ensure that religious debate is conducted “reasonably, in good faith, in the public interest.”

“There’s a balance between free speech and reasonable protection of people’s sensibilities,” says Melbourne solicitor Murray Baird, a specialist in church law. “The Act does not achieve this. In my view it will lead to a general fear of speaking openly and plainly about religious matters.” In free societies, says Australian Family Association vice-president Bill Muehlenberg, passion is the lifeblood of religious debate: “If you’re serious about your faith and its truth claims, you’re bound to be offended at times, or to cause offense.” Elizabeth Kendal, a Melbourne-based religious liberty monitor for the World Evangelical Alliance, believes laws like Victoria’s will undermine all but the most anemic faiths, the kind that “never offend anyone or upset anyone, and never challenge another’s claim to truth.”

Amir Butler, head of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee, agrees. “The only way to fight offensive ideas is to confront them intellectually,” he says. “Legislation cannot make bad ideas disappear.” Butler fears that “if Muslims rush to the courts, some people will get the impression we can’t respond to the arguments and think there must be some truth in them.” Without the law, he says, the pastors would have been ignored. Instead, “they’ve become martyrs.” And their Supreme Court appeal will bring even more publicity. In silencing two voices, it seems, the law has provoked an uproar.

From the Jul. 04, 2005 issue of TIME Pacific Magazine

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
TIME Pacific Magazine, USA
June 27, 2005
Elizabeth Keenan

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This post was last updated: Friday, January 19, 2007 at 10:15 PM, Central European Time (CET)