Offending Muslims is different: on the Sydney protests

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.’

A statement was put out by the leading Australian Islamic community organisations:

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.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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  1. Yay freedom of speech,

    I think this sums things up quite nicely,29553/

    This is another case of apologetics, it’s not because there is anything wrong with what Islam teaches it’s just:

    1) A small minority making them look bad
    2) Police brutality leading to backlash
    3) A anti-Islam conspiracy

    facts are this is not an isolated incident and needs to be viewed in context with the overseas protests. It makes it really hard to defend free speech by making excuses for a protest essentially against free speech.

  2. Thanks for the fantastic read, great insight and reliable sources. I as a Muslim have openly condemned the reactions and protests that occured in Sydney. My video can be found here- please support the cause.

  3. It is simply staggering that holding a sign in Sydney can be declared an act of violence, given Australia’s record on refugees, decade-long wars and treatment of Indigenous Australians (to name but a few). Welcome to Australia 2012, where, apparently, rhetoric is more violent than actual killing.

    But I disagree that this is about free speech. There is no such thing as free speech in Australia (or the US), unless you’re Alan Jones or somebody else with a microphone. The cases you cite above illustrate exactly that.

    This protest has been utterly decontextualised, as if the anger can be disconnected from more than a decade of Islamophobia, relentless war against the Middle East and a dehumanisation of Muslims more generally. Yes, we live in a society that is hostile to Muslims. But the racism here isn’t the reason Australia bombs Afghanistan, nor does it determine long-term foreign policy in the Middle East. It does help justify it, however.

    On the weekend we witnessed how racism can be used to warrant aggressive police tactics (we have in fact already seen similar police ferocity, albeit without the racism, in the Occupy protests and in some of the recent union pickets). In future, these tactics will most certainly be used to quash dissent more generally under the umbrella of ‘anti-terrorism’, all the while claiming that Muslims are the problem. As O’Farrell said on ABC News when asked if this protest will lead to more police powers: ‘[the police] need but ask.’

    I keep thinking we need a modern-day version of that Niemöller quote: ‘First they came for the refugees, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a refugee. Then they came for the Muslims, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Muslim …’

        1. Yes, of course. But I meant that it’s the responsibility of those who aren’t refugees, who aren’t Muslims to speak up as well.

  4. great piece, as always Michael. Not 100 percent with you on how free freedom of speech really should be (as you already know), but an outstanding window into the debate none-the-less.

  5. Thanks for that post Michael.

    Ironic the meme that is circulating on wingnut blogs at the moment that it’s only Muslims who have angry reactions to sectarian provocation…as if the Right had never heard of a place called ‘Northern Ireland’…

  6. Okay, you got me. I started pointing out the crude idiocies and hypocritical contradictions, then I got it. Great parody – a bit over the top, but I guess you’ve got to lay it on thick these days.

  7. I’m sorry folks. I am a little over all these statistics that are being thrown about here. What if it is only 0.1% of the Australian Muslim Society? It only took one man to start a war. It only takes One man to start a religion. Atheist or not, you have a belief. I agree with “Freedom of Speech” as well but I do not believe in the “Freedom of Threats” including beheading. I believe this country is one of the most beautiful and graceful places in the world but seeing even small outbursts like this, where children are involved, with an obvious threat, should be dealt with as quickly as possible. That is the Governments position, unfortunately, to rectify. I feel someone always wants to ‘showpony’ with big words and big numbers and not listen to the people of the country. More often than not, people are like sheep and will follow what they ‘think’ is the more popular trend. Grow up, I say, and stand up for your rights and it is my right to say ” I am over being threatened with barbaric actions in my own country where I was born and raised!” My 2 cents worth

    1. HOld on mate, Mr Jewels… you have lost all your pearls, you said ” I am over being threatened with barbaric actions in my own country where I was born and raised!” My 2 cents worth ” I hope you referring this to Andrew bolt, Allan jones and blair for their hurtful B Grade columns against 1.6 millions muslims of the world. I think you need to try ENSURE milk, it is good for brain. I am sure it will help. let me know the outcome.
      cheers Mate

  8. Apart from anything else, I think maybe the ‘shock’ registered by some at the public demand expressed by some at the rally — that those who insult the prophet should be decapitated — has something to do w:

    a) the collective memory of such forms of execution being visited upon people like Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg;
    b) the fact that a small child was among those making such calls;
    c) similar protests elsewhere in the world have resulted in violent deaths;
    d) the use by theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia of this form of execution and;
    e) its proliferation in sectarian conflict in warzones like Iraq.

    In other words, there are reasons the threat, even if unreal, is viewed more seriously than Robbie Farah’s threat to rip some troll’s face off.

    For this and other reasons, I don’t think this is a very good analogy.

      1. The Right for Freedom of Speech is to open a topic for debate, it is not the right to enforce your views upon society.

        And what is with the comment about Australia bombing Afghanistan, you need to know what you are commenting on before you post a remark…

        Can anyone name another religion in this day and age that has such a radical belief and demands nations change their own values to cater for this belief ?

    1. 11 raids by ASIO with guns and 30+ officers to the houses where there wasn’t any eminent threats to our security in Melbourne. Apparently there were two to five young kids in every house. if the children can be traumatised like this then why one should be shocked seeing those signs in their hands.

  9. Dunno if anyone saw the 7.30 report last night but the transcript is here and it really is a piece of hysterical bed wetting.
    The text messages in the headline consist of someone urging people to attend a protest and someone else congratulating them for expressing their opinions. Quite literally, that’s what the texts say. OMG, international terrorism, amirite!
    Next a retired security ‘expert’ mutters sagely about how anonymous participants might have been involved in some unspecified way with ‘extreme views’ and anonymous terrorist organisations.
    Finally, the report caps off with a comment from ‘online editor and journalist Jamila Rizvi’ who warns that some Muslims are disenfranchised and ”something like this gives them somewhere to channel their anger, and that’s incredibly dangerous.’ The implication is that she’s some kind of expert on the subject — but, in fact, she’s an online editor at Mamamia.
    An extraordinary piece of reporting.

  10. Hmm, an interesting array of posts representing a range of opinions! Where to begin? How to respond to a specific question? How to respond generally? My response is more observation.
    After reading the posts once, a list of the issues/questions raised seems to be the following: Freedom of speech; Double standards; Possible excessive use of force by the police; The attendance of children at demonstrations; Children carrying hate placards; Islamophobia; Power of shock jocks; A poorly-made and ludricious film deliberately intended to offend; The possibility of an increase in police powers which may further erode democratic rights; The predictable jumping on the bad-wagon by some politicians. There maybe more issues and questions raised in the above posts that I missed.
    I think all religions are hateful ideleogies; all religions, including Buddhism, have blood on their collective hands. I feel all religions should be parodied and satirised.
    I wonder how the entire ‘debate’ may have unfolded if Muslims in general simply laughed at such an obviously ludricious and poorly-made film, giggled at the stereotypes and dismissed it as ephermeral and idiotic. The few shots of the film I’ve seen astonished me with its . . . well, stupidity, its pathetic nature.

  11. And further! I’m incredulous that this film is taken seriously at all. What might happen if it was ignored by everyone!

  12. Poor logic in this article. Yes there are many legitimate reasons for the Muslim community to protest, and they should certainly have the right to do so. Yes there may have been police brutality involved and Tus absolutely should be prosecuted. And yes, the violent among the protesters do not represent the Muslim community any more than a drunk on King Street represents Australia.

    But none of this changes the fact that some protesters were violent at that rally, or that some rallied in support of heinous ideas. Both the violence and support for these ideas should be condemned outright and I’m confused why Michael and other commentators can’t seem to make that step. Peter FitzSimons captured the situation perfectly; the facts of the protest are irrelevant. All that matters is the perception and the general public is equal parts scared and angry. The violent minority protesters have set back religious tolerance a decade, giving every bigot, racist and unscrupulous politicians fuel for years. The protest organizers should have shut the event down the second this became a possibility – they cannot be blamed for what happened, but it is still a massive tactical error that had cost them dearly.

  13. I dont know man. I happened to be there taking friends and relatives from England and Bangladesh to the city, and from what I saw, the protest was tense and aggressive from the start. I didnt feel safe for my friends and family. They looked like kids looking for a fight.

    I think you have missed the point of Peter Fitzsimmons article.

    Yes, we have to suffer the idiocy of Alan Jones, Bolt etc . But Waleed Aly expresses the same sentiment.

  14. Well they would not be allowed to show any movie that was against the Jews. They are not allowed to build schools in Camden and certain areas because of racism. They can build Catholic Schools anywhere and look at all the sex offences/offenders. There is discrimination. Jews were given the Eastern Suburbs Hospital for Moriah College and part of Little Sisters of the Poor Nursing Home Randwick for Emanuel School, etc. No Muslims would be given such privileges. Majority of Muslims are nice and kind and friendly. Good and bad in all walks of life.
    Look at the Aussie Unions.

  15. Even as a huge supporter of freedom of speech, and a long time anti-censorship activist, I still condem the movie.
    Freedom of speech is one thing… but lying to and misleading the actors and other people involved, lying to the media about who produced and funded the movie, and even using an alias to cover your own tracks, all with the (seeming) intention of starting a fight between Muslims and Jews isn’t freedom of speech, it’s twisted insanity.

  16. Sadly your article is in accordance with fact & the reality is you have spoken the truth. Muslims are the people that most love to hate.

  17. “However, in the United States at least, this would be protected under the First Amendment as freedom of speech.” -from the above article

    This is not entirely accurate. It is illegal here in the States to make threats of violence or to encourage others to be violent. It gets a bit complicated because it has to be viewed as a ‘true threat.’ There is always debate over if a person should be prosecuted for a threat because ‘they didn’t really mean it.’

    “The Ninth Circuit concluded that a “true threat” is “a statement which, in the entire context and under all the circumstances, a reasonable person would foresee would be interpreted by those to whom the statement is communicated as a serious expression of intent to inflict bodily harm upon that person.” “It is not necessary that the defendant intend to, or be able to carry out his threat; the only intent requirement for a true threat is that the defendant intentionally or knowingly communicate the threat.””

    Generally it follows along the lines of, if a reasonable person may become fearful for their well being due to the language or if actual violence occurs as a result of the language it is not protected under the First Amendment to the US Constitution. I’m not a lawyer so that may not be 100% correct but it is certainly the basic idea that we in the States work under.

    Free speech is incredibly important. And all people of all beliefs, including those we find distasteful (to say the least) like the KKK here in the States. However, the use of language to attempt to scare people into not using their right to free speech is not acceptable.

  18. People are still missing the point. DON’T SAY ANYTHING MINUTELY DEGRADING REGARDING THE PROPHET MOHAMMED . (SAW) and there would be no hatred, no anger, no protest, no backlash, no violence, no one to comment……. IT’S A THOUGHT. so instead of asking why the Muslims got angry and reacted as such why don’t you all go the source of the problem.and ask the MUT, WHY HE CREATED SUCH A FILM. IT WOULDN’T SURPEISE ME IF IT WAS MADE TO CREATE THESE ISSUES THAT WE ARE FACING NOW. SO THEY MAKE ANOTHER REASON TO PAINT THE MUSLIM IN A WAY NOT BEFITTING FOR HIM.
    AND CREATE LAWS THAT CAN IMPROSON THE MUSLIM JUST FOR.HIS ./HER BELIEFS. MY OPONION IS TGAT WE MUSLIMS SHOULD ALL WORK TOWARDS MIGRATION. AWAY FROM ALL THE ILLS AND DISEASES that are so rampant among your lifestyles and seek the pureness that God wanted for all.of us. Some answeriy, and are saved while others refuse.

  19. The world understands that the content of the film was derogatory and hurt people. but the behaviour of the people of the rally was absolutely disgusting. Australia promotes free speech, yet the level of violence shown was totally unacceptable which resulted in policeman being injured. These provocative films occur from time to time, yet it shows the sensitiveness of a people as well as their culture to react in a manner like this.

  20. Adults behaving like three-year-olds shouldn’t be surprised by a three year old being prompted to act like an adult. Faux anger in response by so many people over what at its most basic should be ridiculed for its amateurish production values and themes and the film and its makers and promoters should have been laughed at for their ignorance.

  21. Hi michael your blog is truly moving, i almost cried because this is the first time i thought someone was neutral. I dont support anything that happened but the reaction and the need for all the minority to dispel it to prove that they are not involved is really insensitive. The real test for everyone is in the bad/worse times who supports what. The actions committed was by all knows young adults who were perhaps hot headed and definitely naive and stupid. but due to them why should everyone else have to justify almost like take an oath that we stand against these rogue actions. After all this hurtful and intensive actions and reactions I only pray more Australians start to think in an educated and broader way like you.

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