ANDREW Bolt writes: THESE exhausted pastors have been harassed, threatened, denounced as bigots and flayed in the papers and on the ABC.
AND so the witchhunt in Salem, Victoria, is over. At least for now.
But it is not enough to shrug at the persecution of Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot and say justice was at least done in the end.
It’s true, the Appeal Court last week overturned the convictions of these two Assemblies of God pastors for breaking the Bracks Government’s vilification laws at a seminar on Islam in 2002.
But the hunting down of these men by zealots, convinced we’re seething with racists, has cost them plenty.
“It’s been 4 1/2 years of carrying such a weight”, says Nalliah, president of the Melbourne-based Catch the Fire Ministries.
“It’s been terrible. There have been calls threatening my life, threatening my children’s lives . . . I felt panic. I’ve been stretched to the limit.”
And to the financial limit, too. Despite winning their appeal, the pastors must still pay half the costs of their challenge — around $150,000 — and probably also a share of the costs of the original hearing in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal that first found them guilty.
Some victory. Some justice. These exhausted pastors have been harassed, threatened, denounced as bigots and flayed in the papers and on the ABC, and are now deep in debt.
And why? Because they quoted the Koran to their congregation. Because in that congregation were Muslim activists, sent by a discrimination commissar hired from a Muslim lobby group.
How preposterous, how sinister, has been this saga.
In fact, right from the passing of the Government’s vilification laws, we’ve seen politicians and bureaucrats acting like hysterics on a hunt for witches the rest of us cannot see.
Let me describe, step by mad step, how the two pastors came to be so crucified.
The Bracks Government was just new when it decided to please its pet activists by giving us laws to punish — even jail — people who said nasty things about others on the grounds of their race and religion.
Just why we needed laws even tougher than the ones we had already was a mystery. Victorians are famously easygoing, and there was not a single sign of racists here getting out of hand.
In March 2001, for instance, just months before the Government passed its laws, the then chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission said: “I am not aware of any conclusive evidence that suggests that discrimination is increasing.” Even the discussion paper the Government put out then admitted “documenting (racism’s) extent is difficult”.
But the laws’ backers were so manic they were seeing racists in even our kindergartens, who might need to be treated like criminals.
I’m not exaggerating. The Uniting Church, in a booklet it published to “demonstrate why criminal sanctions are necessary”, gave as an example some five-year-olds who had teased a poor Chinese boy at kindergarten by calling him “ching-chong”.
Jail the tots!
Pity our discrimination police. In 2001, they finally got these juicy laws to jail racists, but small problem: Victorians still refused to be rude.
Indeed, we were so nice to each other that a year later the EOC conceded just five people in the entire state had complained of any religious vilification at all in the previous 12 months. Five.
The EOC couldn’t accept the obvious – that we are decent – and claimed instead that people must have been too scared to complain.
And, by heavens, it would fix that. Over the next year the EOC taught nearly 10,000 Victorians, particularly Muslims and Arabs, about the new vilification laws – and how to complain.
What’s more, it hired May Helou, head of the Islamic Council of Victoria’s women’s support group.
Her job, the EOC said, was to ensure “Arabic and Muslim communities are aware of their rights under anti-discrimination laws” and give “support to people wishing to make a complaint”.
The hounds had been set loose. Around the state were now people primed to take offence, and blast back.
In March 2002, Helou told Muslim converts at the ICV headquarters of a seminar on jihad to be run by Catch the Fire and asked them to go.
Said one later, she didn’t want the meeting to be held “without any Muslims present”. So when Nalliah and Scot got up to speak at their seminar about jihad, they had in front of them 250 born-again Christians – and three people they did not know were Muslims.
And back at the EOC, Helou waited for the three to call with their complaint.
THE STAKES RISE
The Government was blushing. Thanks to its new laws, a lot of harmless people were being accused of vilification by crooks, cranks and cause-pushers.
There was the Salvation Army minister who’d been dragged into the EOC to answer a claim that he’d offended a pedophile witch in Ararat jail by calling witches “satanists” in his introductory course on Christianity.
There was the Christian councillor who was sued by a nice transgender witch for warning about “covens” in the City of Casey.
And there was the well-loved columnist who’d been denounced by a former One Nation candidate in a single hand-written page for having “demeened” Anglos by being too nice to Jews and Asians.
Of course, I and the other victims all had those complaints against us dismissed, but not without cost, worry, sweat and embarrassment.
But no one was more embarrassed than the Government, whose laws had let loose this freak show.
Some of the churches were complaining the laws weren’t as harmless as they’d been promised. The Government made a few small changes, but badly needed a win.
THE PASTORS BURNED
The pastors were at long last tried at VCAT before Justice Michael Higgins.
Most of the case over the weeks that followed dealt with the lecture given by Scot, and some curious things soon became clear.
First, even one of the converts had to admit that Scot, who’d been born in Pakistan and got degrees there in theology and applied mathematics, actually understood the Koran far better than did the people complaining he’d misquoted it.
Second, as I wrote at the time, many of the complaints accused Scot of no more than quoting the Koran accurately. Yes, the Koran did tell men they could beat their wives. Yes, it did have verses calling on Muslims to fight infidels until they submitted.
The verdict was also odd.
The pastors were found guilty of vilifying Muslims even though the judge identified only one thing Scot had said that was factually wrong: he’d given the wrong birthrate for Muslims here. And, the judge, added, he’d failed to quote a verse that showed Allah was merciful.
Higgins said the real problem with the seminar was that it was not “balanced”, and neither Scot nor Nalliah had said clearly enough that the hard-line Islam they were talking about was, in the judge’s opinion, not followed by most Muslims here.
Here’s another strange thing: Scot and Nalliah were convicted of stirring up hatred – of being “hostile, demeaning and derogatory of all Muslim people” – even though they’d again and again told their congregation to love Muslims, however wrong their faith.
“We have to love them”, Scot had insisted.
“Love should be not only in theory, in word, but should be shown in practice. You invite them for (a) cup of tea. You invite them for dinner, for lunch.”
On he went: “Of course do not criticise their culture . . . We should not criticise their dress . . . Don’t be afraid of (the) Koran . . . there are a lot of things in (the) Koran, which are very similar from (the) Bible.”
What’s more, there was no evidence that those listening to him were a danger to a single Muslim. The worst the judge could say of them was they’d responded “at various times in the form of laughter”. Dear God – save us from the laughing Christian.
So, this is the kind of dangerous hate-preaching that had the pastors convicted under our new laws, and sentenced to apologise in expensive advertisements in the Herald Sun and Age.
And that was odd, too. Why did the pastors have to apologise to 2.5 million Victorians for comments they made to just 250? Why did the judge also ban them from repeating any of their claims from the lecture, no matter how truthful, in any state?
Mad, you say? Welcome to witch-hunting in Victoria.
Be grateful that at least some Court of Appeal judges saw this much as I did.
On Thursday, a panel of three of them overturned the verdict, criticised the sentence and ordered a new hearing by VCAT with a different judge.
It’s a confused ruling in that the judges disagree with each other over many things. But the longest, sanest and clearest findings are those of Justice Geoffrey Nettle.
His many objections to the way the pastors had been dealt with by VCAT makes me wonder just what was in the fevered air of Justice Higgins’s court back then.
According to Nettle, the biggest mistake Higgins made was to confuse an attack on a man’s faith with an attack on the man himself. As he put it: “It is essential to keep the distinction between the hatred of beliefs and the hatred of their adherents steadily in view”.
But Nettle also criticised Higgins for having brushed aside Scot’s many exhortations to love Muslims, and for poring over Koranic verses to decide whether Scot’s view of Islam was “balanced”.
“Who is to say what is accurate or balanced about religious beliefs?”, Nettle rightly asked.
But most astonishing were all the errors Nettle said Higgins had made in summing up the 19 different ways Scot had vilified Islam.
In fact, he said, Scot did not say Muslims were demons who thought it good to kill and planned to take over Australia.
And of the 19 examples Higgins had given of Scot preaching hate, Nettle found he’d misquoted Scot nine times and taken him out of context another nine.
In 15 cases, Scot had simply been quoting scripture or other sources. According to Nettle, Scot had been wrong only twice – in giving a wrong birthrate and misinterpreting a Koranic verse telling men they could take women captured in war.
And for this Scot and Nalliah have had to endure a legal torment that has lasted for more than four years, and is still not finished.
So that worked well, didn’t it? See what these laws to curb religious and racial tension have actually achieved.
Christians have been pitted against Muslims, and witches against Christians. Tensions were so high during the Catch the Fire case that scuffles broke out on the courtroom steps and the pastors took along guards.
And guess what? In the five years we’ve had these insane laws against free speech, not a single true racist has been convicted. What a dreadful farce.
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