By Stephen Chavura
Have you ever heard of someone who converted to another race? Did you ever meet someone who lost their race? Did you ever wonder whether your race was true or false?
It just sounds strange, doesn’t it?
On the other hand, we have all known people who found religion, converted to another religion, or lost their religion. Many of us have also wondered whether our religion – if we hold one – is true or not.
The upshot of this is pretty obvious: race and religion are two very different human traits. This is too often forgotten today.
For example, those who question the wisdom of mass Islamic immigration into non-Muslim countries are frequently derided as racist. It is as though Islam is a physiological trait like brown skin and not a system of belief and practice to be adopted or forsaken, believed or rejected.
This is the dangerous mistake being made by those – like Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, Grand Mufti of Australia – who wish to add Islam or religious identity to the already contentious section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Section 18C outlaws what is commonly called racist “hate speech” – that is, speech which seeks to “to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person based on race, colour, or national or ethnic origin.
But confusing race with religion is no trivial matter, especially when it comes to speech regulation laws. For example, it is hard to imagine how criticising a person or a group for belonging to a particular race could be a helpful contribution to public debate. Every reasonable person in a modern society accepts that criticising a person or group because of certain physiological characteristics – race – is unjust and unacceptable. But it is different for religion. Why?
Religion is about things: the universe, human beings, gods. It makes claims about what exists and what does not exist. Religion is also about right and wrong: what we should do and what we shouldn’t do, what is good and what is evil. In other words, religion assumes the right to teach us as human beings – whether we asked it to teach us or not – with assertions about existence and morality. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to speak back?
Many people will find the claims of religions ridiculous, stupid, offensive and immoral – even dangerous. Some of those people – not all – would like to say so publicly.
The obvious and fair response by defenders of expanding 18C to include so-called “religious vilification” is that attacking religions is fine, but attacking its adherents is not. We make a distinction between attacking the doctrines of religion and attacking those who live them out.
This is fine in theory but in the real world religion exists only when it is believed and lived out by real people. It is natural that someone who holds to religion “X” is going to feel maligned, offended, ridiculed and belittled when someone attacks that religion as stupid and evil. The attacker may even go on to add that anyone who sincerely believes it is equally stupid and evil.
And why not? True, it’s not polite watercooler talk, but the state does not endeavour to conform all public speech to polite chatter. One cannot attack religion without, at least indirectly, attacking those for whom that religion is central to their identity.
In an age in which self-esteem and a personal sense of well-being have achieved the status of human rights, many now feel that they have a right for their identity to be celebrated in public discourse. In his landmark 1971 book A Theory of Justice , John Rawls famously spoke of the “social basis of self-respect” being central to the concerns of any just government. But by this he meant a strong welfare state that guaranteed basic human goods for all citizens that enabled them to formulate and pursue a reasonable life-plan. In other words, self-respect was indirectly bestowed by the state by treating all citizens equally and giving them all roughly equal chances to make something of their lives. Rawls’s approach was classic social democracy.
It was when multicultural theorists from the 1990s onwards – theorists such as Charles Taylor, Elizabeth Galeotti, Bikhu Parekh and others – ran with this line of thinking that the state became much more directly involved in the business of self-respect. For such theorists, inspired by the earlier communitarian debates of the 1980s, self-respect was not merely a matter of having all of one’s material needs met. It was also a matter of feeling that one has the respect of others with regard to one’s religious and cultural identity.
The result was a new political doctrine to the effect that individuals and communities who identify with a particular culture or religion have the right to be respected by society at large. Put another way, other members of society have a duty to respect other citizens as bearers of a particular cultural-religious identity. We have come to call this “multiculturalism.”
In policy terms, this means that the laws and the education system should respect people’s cultural and religious identities. The multiculturalisation of education curricula is one manifestation of this philosophical shift. Another is speech laws that target speech critical of religious identities.
One of the problems with saying that expanding 18C to regulate religious “hate speech” is that there is no generally accepted definition of exactly what “hate speech” is, either among international law or among scholars of speech. Definitions range from incitement to hatred, threats and severe ridicule, and include speech such as Holocaust denial. The category of “hate speech” is far from clear in its meaning. This is problematic, for the danger is that advocates of “hate speech” laws will seek to ban speech that, outside of a multiculturalist paradigm, would be considered quite valuable.
Take the Danish Cartoons of 2005, the most notorious of which depicted Mohammed with a bomb strapped to his head – the message being that Islam is an inherently violent religion and mass Islamic immigration is a Trojan horse of terrorism and cultural corruption. Or Geert Wilders’s frequent tirades against Islam as a new form of Nazism and Islamic immigration as a cancer on democratic Europe. Most recently, we have Donald Trump’s assertions that Islam is radically at odds with American values, and that Muslim immigration should be stopped.
Such speech is derided as hate speech by many commentators. Wilders himself has been banned from entering several countries that would claim to be liberal democracies.
The problem is that the Danish cartoonists, Geert Wilders and many others are engaging in a form of social commentary and advocacy that is squarely part of liberal democratic tradition and has, until recently, been considered quintessentially valuable speech in a democracy. They are criticising religion and its adherents. More particularly, they are holding up a religion – Islam – and its adherents to the standard of their own civic values and find that it is wanting.
Think about most anti-Islamic speech that we hear on television. For the most part, it is the accusation that Islam and Islamic communities are radically incompatible with prevailing national and civic values. Whether this is correct or not is not the question. The point is that this speech is not mere abuse. It is a moral and sociological proposition that is deeply held and demands a response, not a legal reprisal.
The prevailing identity politics that demands that everyone respects everyone’s religious identity cannot but be corrosive of one of our most valuable liberties – the liberty to critique freely and relentlessly. As well as being unjust, the delegitimisation of anti-Islamic speech is bound to be counterproductive. It will only serve to confirm in the minds of many that Islamic immigration is indeed an enemy of traditional liberal democratic liberties, central to which is freedom of speech.
This article first appeared in The ABC Religion and Ethics Report Online and has been republished with permission from the author.