Sunday, June 26, 2005

Double Standards, Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

After hearing weeks of evidence from the Islamic Council of Victoria, Catch the Fire Ministries pastors and numerous theological experts, the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal had found that the Ministry, Pastors Daniel Nalliah and Daniel Scot had breached Section 8 of the Victorian Racial & Religious Tolerance Act 2001.

The merits of the decision and the Act itself have been well-argued elsewhere. What seems to have gone unnoticed is the gross double standards of some supporters of the three Respondents in that decision.

The 2 pastors were found to have made comments about Islam and Australian Muslims which were found to contravene the Act. Are they the first to make such remarks?

In September 1988, in a speech to some 250 Muslim students at Sydney University, Sheik Hilali accused Jewish people of trying "to control the world through sex, then sexual perversion, then the promotion of espionage, treason and economic hoarding".

As a result of those comments, leaders across political and religious spectrums rightly criticised the Sheik. His immigration status was re-visited, and he faced deportation.

Even when the Sheik joined Team Australia efforts to free Douglas Wood, tabloid columnists kept bringing up his 1988 comments. In his Herald Sun column on 11 May 2005, Bolt mentions the Sheik as calling “Jews "the underlying cause of all wars", using "sex and abominable acts of buggery, espionage, treason and economic hoarding to control the world".

Had the Sheik made the same comments today, he may well have faced the same proceedings not to mention being the targets of criticism from various circles.

The VCAT finding were summarised on pp 134-135 of the Reasons for Decision. The unlucky list of 13 offending statements included comments that: Muslims are demons, the Quran promotes looting and killing, Muslims use money and business connections to carry out their threats, Muslims plan to overrun Liberal Democracy with violence and terror, Muslims conspire to take over Australia, and Muslims have lots of babies and also dominate the DIMIA to manipulate migration rates in their favour.

Having read both the transcripts of Sheik Hilaly’s speech and the VCAT decision, it appears that the views expressed by the pastors about Muslims are even more offensive than the views expressed by Sheik Hilali about Jews. Yet whilst Sheik Hilaly was rightly condemned by leaders across all political and other spectra, the respondents in the VCAT litigation are being defended in the name of free speech.

Prominent Australian political leaders such as Peter Costello have defended the two pastors and criticised the Victorian legislation. Tabloid columnists such as Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt have defended the pastors, alleging their sole crime was (in Bolt’s words) “criticising the Koran”.

Akerman sees no problem with the comments made by the pastors. His innocent portrayal of Pastor Daniel Scot had him merely quoting “from the Koran to illustrate the points he was making about Islamic teaching on a number of matters including jihad and women's role in the faith.”

The depths of Akerman’s own understanding of Islamic beliefs was amply illustrated in these comments from his column on June 19 2005:

“Australian hostage Doug Wood bellowed "God bless America" when he was released from captivity in Baghdad after 47 days spent bound and handcuffed. He did not cry "Alu Akbar" as some in the Australian media may have expected given their feting of the Lakemba-based mufti, Sheik Taj Eldene Alhilaly.”

The correct wording of the devotional phrase is “Allahu Akbar”, meaning “God is always greater”. Mr Akerman’s version of this common devotional phrase has used “alu” which is Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and other Indian dialects for “potato”. Not even a C-grade Bollywood movie would ascribe such beliefs to Muslims.

Sadly, the double standards and ignorance of this tabloid tag-team suggest the existence of a deeper malice which exists even at the highest levels. The grossly offensive nature of Sheik Hilali’s 1988 remarks was obvious. Yet it seems that when even more grossly offensive remarks are made about Muslim Australians, they are viewed as the exercise of free speech. It seems that the 11th Commandment of Political Correctness in some circles is: “Thou shalt not offend any faith-community, but thou shalt definitely be allowed to offend Muslims”.

It seems rather strange that the critics of Sheik Hilali are silent on the comments of Pastors Scot and Nalliah. Why must anti-Semitism be unacceptable but Islamophobia defensible? And would current attacks on the Victorian legislation have been made if NSW had identical legislation in 1988 which was used to prosecute Sheik Hilali?

Sheik Hilali made his remarks when holding the position of imam (resident scholar) at 1 of over 40 Sydney mosques. He went on to be controversially appointed as Australia's first Mufti. He is still criticised by many even in his own community.

Daniel Nalliah very nearly became a Victorian Senator. The Prime Minister personally negotiated a preference deal with Mr Nalliah’s party which would have helped Mr Nalliah over the line. The same Mr Howard called for Sheik Hilali’s deportation after his 1988 remarks.

(The author is a Sydney lawyer and was endorsed Liberal candidate for the seat of Reid in the 2001 federal election.)