If we lived in a different type of society, my comments on the protests against the inflammatory anti-Mohammed film would be different. I’m a civil libertarian and an atheist. Rather predictably, I have a strong distaste for those who respond to a movie they don’t like by calling for a beheading, especially if it’s driven by religious sensitivities. Thus there seems to me no question that freedom of speech should include the right to say offensive things about other people’s religions.
However, we live in Australia, and I live in Sydney. A 2011 survey found that NSW had ‘the highest levels of anti-Muslim attitudes (54.4 per cent). Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sydney’s central-west corridor … ran as high as 60 and 61 per cent.’ Only a few months ago, a bipartisan parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s acceptance of culturally diverse communities found that, in the words of the Australian reporter, there was a ‘crisis’ over Islam, with ‘the largest issue facing the nation’ being ‘the acceptance of Muslims.’
I think this is the most important thing to understand about the implications of the protests. Peter FitzSimons noted that, ‘Racists have said for years, “If you don’t like the way we do things here, go back to where you came from”’. He concluded that the ‘net result’ of the protests was that ‘much of the country now feels the same’.
This may be right, but I would argue that FitzSimons contributed to the sentiment. He expressed outrage that the protesters dared ‘take over the Sydney CBD’. Is it an outrage for a minority group to engage in a political protest? Protests which have more than a handful of people always take up room, and protests typically take place in prominent public areas, precisely so they can maximise attention.
Estimates of the crowd size range from 300 to 500 to the outlier of over 1000. According to the latest census, there are some 476 000 Muslims in Australia. If 4 760 Muslims had protested, that would make 1 per cent of Australia’s Muslim population.
But it seems unlikely that more than a few hundred people protested. Which makes about 0.1 per cent. Of that number, some were violent. Anyone with the most basic understanding of maths should realise this is hardly a large or representative sample of Muslims in Australia. That this will be taken to reflect on Muslims generally should be perceived as the traditional logic of racists. Every community has members which commit crimes, have extreme views and engage in violence. It is not as though Australia has never witnessed violence before. Indeed, violence is often admired in Australia, such as when it occurs during State of Origin matches.
The protest was, according to its organisers, intended to be peaceful. Available video footage has not yet established the nature and extent of police and protester violence. So far, eight protesters have been arrested. One man was charged with affray, another with having an offensive weapon in a public place, one with animal cruelty, and three with resisting arrest.
While it is widely noted that protesters threw bottles at officers, eight arrests is a rather small number, given the heavy police presence and the allegations of pervasive protester violence. Furthermore, given that police used capsicum spray and dogs on protesters, there are ample grounds for concern about what may well have been excessive use of police force. Six police officers were injured, and Fairfax Media saw ‘a number’ of ‘seriously injured protesters’. The Australian found six injured, and seventeen treated for capsicum spray. One person told ABC he was assaulted by police for no reason while trying to help control the crowd.
The protesters, it should be noted, were divided. There is footage of protesters helping police move back other protesters, even as police spray the crowd with what appears to have been capsicum spray. There is YouTube footage of a speaker trying to calm the more angry among the crowd.
And that’s just among the protesters. The violent protesters have since been condemned by Australia’s peak Muslim group, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. Vice-President Ikebal Patel said ‘Prophet Mohammed, peace and blessings upon him, promoted love and peace and deplored any acts of violence irrespective of circumstances.’
Leaders of Australia’s Islamic community condemn the violent scenes that were seen on the streets of Sydney yesterday.
The protest was not sanctioned or authorised by any Islamic organisation.
They also condemned the movie.
Some of the early responses by certain media figures have been predictable. Andrew Bolt’s first blog was headlined: ‘We let them in. Now they threaten.’ Bolt was found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act when he wrote a few columns vilifying Indigenous Australians. One imagines that some Indigenous Australians might express similar sentiment to Bolt’s headline when reading yet another hateful rant on his blog.
Meanwhile, Tim Blair from the Daily Telegraph blogged his ‘solution’: ‘Simply pack up your scimitars, wrap all of your womenfolk in their favourite freedom sacks, and get the hell out of Australia.’ Oozing with scorn for Muslims, Blair went from ‘A young Australian mother records her child’s first threat to decapitate infidels’ to ‘Beheading was a major theme at yesterday’s peaceful Islamic call for slaughter’.
As all Muslims everywhere are routinely expected to denounce anything a Muslim does anywhere that westerners don’t like, should we expect all Australians to denounce the sentiments of Bolt and Blair? The idea that Muslims must leave Australia if some of them somewhere commit a crime or have political views that other people don’t like should be considered rather astonishing, even as we may note its prevalence. This idea of conditional citizenship, for a nation that is almost exclusively made up of immigrants, should be considered outrageous and plainly discriminatory. Yet Prime Minister Gillard joined in the dog whistling, insisting that ‘this kind of conduct has no place on the streets of our country’.
There is a sense that Muslims just need to learn to put up with people saying things they don’t like. FitzSimons, for example, also expressed outrage at those who held up ‘such ludicrous signs’ as ‘Behead all those who insult the prophet’. Now, I don’t appreciate this sentiment either. However, in the United States at least, this would be protected under the First Amendment as freedom of speech.
I happen to agree that freedom of speech should include the right to offend others. As Chomsky said:
With regard to freedom of expression there are basically two positions: you defend it vigorously for views you hate, or you reject it in favour of Stalinist/Fascist standards.
Australia can hardly pose as a country which upholds the former.
Only a few days ago, the Daily Telegraph launched a campaign against ‘trolls’ on twitter. The story began:
HATE-filled Twitter trolls who anonymously taunt, threaten or urge their victims to take their own lives are on notice from today.
Today we launch a campaign to stand up to the faceless bullies and to urge Twitter to unmask them and turn them in to authorities so they can be prosecuted.
So people who taunt others should be turned in to authorities to be prosecuted. Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan endorsed the campaign, as did Nicola Roxon and Kevin Rudd.
This campaign was triggered by an offensive tweet directed at West Tigers player, Robbie Farah. Farah, as it turned out, had earlier made his own offensive tweet about Julia Gillard. Indeed, it passed unnoticed that Farah responded to his troll by saying he would rip the troll’s face off if they met.
Calling for someone to be beheaded has shocked much of Australia. Seemingly, threatening to rip someone’s face off is completely different. The deliberately offensive and hurtful thing said to Robbie Farah is understood as offensive and hurtful, but the deliberately offensive and hurtful movie about Mohammed is treated with indifference. Offending people on twitter is an outrage – because they’re like us and those causing offence should be held accountable. Offending Muslims doesn’t count, because not many Australians think Muslims should be treated with the respect and consideration we believe we are entitled to.
Indeed, a Muslim man is currently fighting a legal battle for the right to offend the families of deceased soldiers. He says he wrote to ‘offer his condolences and ask them to lobby the government to stop killing innocent civilians’. One may regard this as tasteless, even indecent. But Muslims in Australia can hardly take seriously our pretence that Australia treasures freedom of speech, regardless of who it offends. They can more rightly see that we have a double standard: it is only legitimate for some people to be offended.
It is not as though Muslims in Australia don’t already tolerate a lot of offensive hate speech. Many of us may have forgotten, for example, Alan Jones declaring:
Lebanese males in their vast numbers not only hate our country and our heritage …They have no connection to us. They simply rape, pillage and plunder a nation that’s taken them in … What did we do as a nation to have this vermin infest our shores?
As for the video in question, well it was made by a Christian convicted of fraud, who is also a methamphetamine manufacturer, who tried to claim it was made by a Jew. He also promoted the vulgar anti-Semitic stereotype that it was funded by 100 Jewish donors. It was directed by a soft-core porn director, and mostly shot at Media for Christ studios. Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz noted the film’s promoter
conducts protests outside abortion clinics, Mormon temples and mosques. He also started Concerned Citizens for the First Amendment, which preaches against Muslims and publishes volumes of anti-Muslim propaganda that Klein distributes. The Southern Poverty Law Center says they have been tracking Klein for several years and have labeled two of the organizations he is affiliated with as hate groups.
Klein calls Islam a ‘penis-driven religion’. The Daily Beast reported that the movie ‘depicts the Prophet Muhammed as a womaniser, pedophile, and homosexual’, because, in the view of its maker, ‘Islam is a cancer.’
In short, the movie was made by rather hateful and intolerant figures, who knew and intended the offence and hurt they caused – and a few of us consistently argue that even that kind of hateful speech should be allowed free expression.
There are some in glass houses, however, making confident declarations about the nature of Islam, while forgetting a certain Christian dictum about those who should not be throwing stones.
Those of us who take a strong stand on freedom of speech must also accept the corollary responsibilities that come with it, and condemn the ‘repellent cretins for producing this bottom-feeding, bigoted, hateful “film” that has no apparent purpose but to spread anti-Islamic hatred and provoke violent reactions.’
Because Muslims deserve consideration, respect and decency, just as much popular rugby league players.