By Amir Butler (Amir Butler is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC))
Peter Costello was quite correct in his National Day of Thanksgiving address to describe Victoria’s anti-vilification legislation as “bad law”.
As someone who once supported their introduction and is a member of one of the minority groups they purport to protect, I can say with some confidence that these laws have served only to undermine the very religious freedoms they intended to protect.
At every major Islamic lecture I have attended since litigation began against Catch the Fire Ministries, there have been small groups of evangelical Christians – armed with notepads and pens – jotting down any comment that might later be used as evidence in the present case or presumably future cases. (The Islamic Council of Victoria is suing Catch the Fire under Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001.)
The organisations being targeted by these evangelical Christians are neither involved in nor supported the legal action by the Islamic Council, and yet must now suffer the consequences of having their publications and public utterances subjected to a ridiculous level of scrutiny and analysis. The hope being, I assume, that some elements of the Christian community might exact revenge on the Muslim community by way of their own vexatious legal actions.
The problem is that as long as religions articulate a sense of what is right, they cannot avoid also defining – whether explicitly or implicitly – what is wrong.
If we love God, then it requires us to hate idolatry. If we believe there is such a thing as goodness, then we must also recognise the presence of evil. If we believe our religion is the only way to Heaven, then we must also affirm that all other paths lead to Hell. If we believe our religion is true, then it requires us to believe others are false.
Yet, this is exactly what this law serves to outlaw and curtail: the right of believers of one faith to passionately argue against or warn against the beliefs of another.
It is obvious that criticism of one’s religion is likely to offend but just as Muslims should be entitled to aggressively criticise other faiths, likewise those same faiths should be afforded the right to voice their concerns about Islam.
The idea that such speech – regardless of how wrong-headed or offensive it might appear – must be banned to protect these religious communities is a furphy: discrimination on the basis of religion was already outlawed; incitement to commit violence was already illegal; and slander was already covered by existing legal instruments.
All these anti-vilification laws have achieved is to provide a legalistic weapon by which religious groups can silence their ideological opponents, rather than engaging in debate and discussion.
In doing so, people who otherwise might have been ignored as on the fringes of reality will be made martyrs, and their ideas given an airing far beyond anything they might have hoped for.
And at the same time as extremist ideas are strengthened and given legitimacy by attempts to silence them, the position in our society of the religions themselves is weakened and undermined.
Who, after all, would give credence to a religion that appears so fragile it can only exist if protected by a bodyguard of lawyers?
This article was first published in The Age on 4 June 2004.