Saturday, May 26, 2007

CRIKEY: Daily Tele damns an entire religion with a (bracketed) word

The editorial thick-Sheiks at Sydney’s tabloid Daily Telegraph yesterday issued a fatwa declaring that Islamic taxi-drivers are anti-guide dog.

Yesterday’s editorial, entitled "Faith dogged by shame’s shadow", concerned a story about Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commissioner Graeme Innes’ difficulties having his guide dog ride with him in a taxi to and from work.

The actual report was entitled "Taxi drivers refusing to carry blind passengers" said the following about Commissioner Innes and Sydney cabbies ...

Human Rights Commissioner refused service Blind being told 'against religion' to carry dogs NSW Taxi Council says problem 'worse in Melbourne'

TAXI drivers regularly refuse to carry blind passengers with guide dogs - including Australia's Human Rights Commissioner - with many citing religious reasons, or other excuses like allergies.

Human Rights and Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes, who is blind and reliant on his guide dog Jordie, is a regular Sydney cab user and said he was refused service on average once a month, including twice in two days recently.

He has been told on a number of occasions that it would be against a driver's religion to allow a dog in the cab.

Mr Innes has also been refused by drivers claiming to be allergic to dogs - or afraid of them - and was even left clutching at air on busy Market St by one belligerent driver who told him he had to take the non-existent cab in front ...

Mr Innes was compelled to speak out after the Daily Telegraph last week revealed how an intellectually impaired man had been slapped with $1000 in train fare evasion fines even though he cannot understand what the offence is.

He called for better training for all front-line public transport staff in NSW in dealing with disabled passengers.

"I'm a lawyer and I know exactly what my rights are so I force the issue but my concern is for those for whom a refusal can be a damaging experience and discouraging," Mr Innes.
Notice how no specific religion has been mentioned.

Here’s what Commissioner Innes told me on the morning of Friday 25 May 2007:

If religion was used as an excuse by a cab driver, it was maybe mentioned once out of twenty times. The cab driver never mentioned any particular religion and just said it was for religious reasons. I never mentioned any specific religion and never intended to cast aspersions on any religion. I have spoken to the Telegraph editor yesterday and expressed my concerns about how the editorial focussed on a particular sector of society while I expressed frustration with taxi drivers across the board.
The Tele report cited Vision Australia’s policy and advocacy head Michael Simpson:

Mr Innes yesterday received the backing of Vision Australia (VA), which said taxi drivers refusing to carry blind passengers with guide dogs happened with "too much regularity".

VA policy and advocacy head Michael Simpson said that the problem was worse in the Sydney metropolitan area where there were more drivers unwilling to carry dogs based on Muslim objections.

"It is fair to say that the (Islamic) religion has made the problem worse in the metropolitan areas than regional areas, where I've found taxi drivers are generally excellent," he said.

Mr Simpson, who has been blind for 30 years but uses a cane instead of a guide dog, said he was refused service at the airport because his two companions had dogs.

"We asked the driver for his accreditation number and he gave us the wrong one," he said.

"It was only because an airline staff member had accompanied us that we got the right number and could properly complain about being refused."
Has Mr Simpson mentioned religion? Yes he had. But read his quotations carefully. Notice how the name of a particular religion has been inserted.

I presume there isn’t much difference between how lawyers and journalists interview witnesses. In my 12-plus years in the law, I’ve never interviewed anyone who used brackets in their speech. I’ve seen brackets appear on SBS subtitles. If Michael Simpson is a native English speaker, and if he intended to mention a specific religion, he’d have said so.

The religion’s name is in the brackets because the story’s writer or editor inserted it, enabling Mufti Penberthy or one of his junior sheiks to issue the following editorial fatwa:

IN OUR pluralist and inclusive society, we accept cultural differences, and we value diversity.

And we believe in equality of opportunity - so that every member of the community is given a fair go irrespective of their age, their sex, their religious or cultural convictions, their physical capabilities and limitations.

That's our shared ideology for an equitable and decent society.

But there are limits to what we should be expected to tolerate. Some things are intolerable.

Such as the treatment regularly meted out to Human Rights and Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes.

By a bitter irony, Mr Innes - who happens also to be a lawyer - has himself been the victim of a particularly offensive and insensitive form of discrimination.

For Mr Innes is also blind and travels with his guide dog Jordie. But as often as once a month, Mr Innes is refused service by cab drivers on the basis that Jordie is unclean and some sort of affront to their faith.

Their faith? Islam - it goes without saying.

Now today, in all likelihood, there will be a response from moderate Muslims saying that taxi drivers guilty of that disgraceful offence against common decency and humanity should have known better, that they are wrong in their extremist interpretation of Islamic lore, and that they should apologise and mend their ways.

At least, it is to be hoped that such a response might be forthcoming. And if it does, it will be no more than we have a right to expect.

The great pity is that there is a need for such a response in the first place - a pity it is possible for such a shocking and degrading misapprehension to be held in the first place.

For the people who have refused to assist Mr Innes - who was only asking, after all, that they fulfil their professional obligation - have shamed themselves, and shamed their religion.

And if any suggestion is allowed to remain that such conduct is somehow acceptable under Islam, that shame will endure.
If the whole issue was about Islam, why didn’t Messrs Innes and Simpson just say it? Maybe because they know something I also know – that Islam isn’t the only religious tradition whose ceremonial and hygiene rules generally forbid proximity to dogs. Fear of dogs is common among Middle Eastern and African cultures.

So why is the Tele pretending it’s all about Islam? Why does their editorial read like so many of the comments left on the Tele Opinion Editor’s blog?

And more importantly, why did the Tele put words into the mouth of a Human Rights Commissioner as if to suggest he shares a common sectarian agenda?

A shorter version of this was first published in the Crikey! daily alert for Friday 25 May 2007.
© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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