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Tuesday, June 28, 2005


Civil and Administrative Tribunal finding that two Catch the Fire Ministries pastors must apologise for vilifying Muslims raises substantial concerns. Outlawing religious criticism seems un-Australian: not because religious criticism is particularly important in itself, but rather because freedom of expression matters to Australian culture. However, freedom also raises the problem of excess. Where do we draw the line against excess in Australia now -- and are we drawing it at all? Australians (or Victorians, anyway) have always liked to abuse the umpire.

Religious abuse fits into this robust culture of free speech. The question is whether this culture should have any legal limits placed upon it, ever. The importance of the question goes well beyond the wrangling between two rather self-important religious organisations.

Take two other recent test cases: Channel 10's Big Brother and extremist Islamic hate literature.

My mental faculties have not yet deteriorated to the point where I find Big Brother necessary viewing, but I know many people are demanding it be curbed by regulatory authorities after on-screen depictions of genitalia and sexual activity. Clearly, stricter punitive penalties should apply in what is basically -- contrary to the bleatings of network functionaries -- an unregulated night-time television environment.

Stricter penalties are needed because free-to-air TV is basically a public space. Flashers and their producers can do whatever they want on a private subscription service, but this should be off-limits on free-to-air. This, however, would not represent a restriction on free speech.

It would merely be a recognition that certain expressions of freedom must be confined to the private sphere. Judging by Big Brother, freedom of speech in Australia is in more than robust health. Indeed, it's so healthy it has started devouring the moral landscape.

The second test case involves the hate literature sold at a Melbourne mosque, reported in the Herald Sun on Friday. The literature spells out ant-Semitic, anti-Christian and anti-Western themes. This fits with a worldwide pattern of self-styled Islamic literature distributed with the blessing and support of the extreme Wahhabist Government of Saudi Arabia. Much of this literature is full of messages of hate, not only towards non-Muslims, but even towards other Muslims whom the purist Wahhabists deem too soft. The key question is: should such hate-filled literature also be banned?

If two pastors can be charged for vilifying Muslims, extremists who distribute this kind of literature should also, surely, be charged. However, I am not sure that either group should be dragged before the courts.

This is because prosecution in a legal setting does not seem an effective way to get to grips with the underlying problem here. Unlike Big Brother, which is basically a problem of public obscenity, the underlying problem in this case is hatred.

American critic Stanley Fish,
author of the controversial book There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and it's a Good Thing Too, warns against the temptation to suppress hate speech by law. Citing the poet John Milton -- who defended "free speech", but did not want it extended to Catholics -- Mr Fish says no one really favours complete free speech. The problem is, speech you dislike must be defeated by better speech, not by law. "When something is suppressed, it does not go away. It just takes on a romantic underground life and flourishes."

The Catch the Fire Ministries case proves this. Some people genuinely believe that the only issue in the case is whether or not the two pastors quoted the Koran accurately. But this is not a mystery question. The Koran is freely available in public libraries around Victoria.

ANYONE concerned about what it says need not worry about Catch the Fire seminars. They can simply visit the library and read the book. What the Catch the Fire case has done is convince many people -- incorrectly -- that this entire topic is off-limits to free discussion and inquiry.

Prosecuting pastors Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot, I believe, has done nothing to improve understanding of Islam in Victoria. It has merely given people on both sides, the Islamic and the Christian, a nice fight to enjoy, with headlines. This does nothing to touch the most important issue, which is that in real life, there are some things which simply should not be said, or seen.

The problem we have is how to deal with that fact in a community where no one agrees what those things are. Banning hate speech by law is not the answer.


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