I recently read an article in the paper about Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Muslim group which is calling for a global extension of the caliphate to all parts of the world. According to the organisation’s own website, establishing the caliphate involves creating Dar al-Islam, a land where Islamic Shari’ah Law is implemented, even if its citizens are non-Muslims. According to this group, there is an obligation on all Muslims in the world to work towards establishing the Caliphate across the globe.
Apparently Australian members of Hizb ut-Tahrir are proposing to hold a seminar later this month in Sydney. A YouTube video of the advertisement for the seminar is available on the web (via the Herald Sun). According to the website of the organisers, Bankstown City Council has withdrawn the use of Bankstown Town Hall for the seminar.
It put me in mind of the recent case of Catch the Fire Ministries Inc & Ors v Islamic Council of Victoria Inc  VSCA 284. The case involved seminars and publications by members of the Assembly of God church, an evangelical and radical Christian group. Two of the pastors, Daniel Scot and Daniel Nalliah, had made various statements about Islam. The Islamic Council of Victoria alleged these statements contravened s 8 of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic), in that they were likely to incite hatred against Muslims.
The Vice President of VCAT had concluded that the statements were likely to incite hatred or ridicule of Islam. The Victorian Court of Appeal overturned the decision of VCAT. If you have time, Nettle JA’s judgment is worth a read. He goes through a very thorough rebuttal of various aspects of the VCAT judgment. He draws a pivotal distinction at  – :
The second difficulty, as I see it, is that…it [the Tribunal] did not give a great deal of consideration to the distinction between hatred of the religious beliefs of Muslims and hatred of Muslims because of their religious beliefs. The Tribunal appears to me to have assumed that the two conceptions are identical or at least that hatred or other relevant emotion of or towards the religious beliefs of Muslims must invariably result in hatred or other relevant emotion of or towards Muslims. In my view, that is not so.I do not overlook that Muslims are defined by their religious beliefs – as persons who profess Islam – and therefore that to incite hatred or other relevant emotion of or towards the religious beliefs of a Muslim may result in hatred or other relevant emotion of or towards the Muslim. But it is surely not to be assumed that it must do so. Muslims are not the only class of persons who are defined by their religious beliefs. So are adherents to other faiths, including Judaism and Christianity. And there are any number of persons who may despise each other’s faiths and yet bear each other no ill will. I dare say, for example, that there would be a large number of people who would despise Pastor Scot’s perception of Christianity and yet not dream of hating him or be inclined to any of the other stipulated emotions.
No doubt the purpose of the Act is to promote religious tolerance. But the Act cannot and does not purport to mandate religious tolerance. People are free to follow the religion of their choice, even if it is averse to other codes. One need only think of the doctrinal differences which separate the several Christian denominations or the Muslim sects in order to see the point. Equally, people are free to attempt to persuade other people to adopt their point of view. Street corner evangelists are a commonplace example. Rightly or wrongly, that is the nature of religion, or at least it is the nature of some religions as they are understood, and in this country it is tolerated. Accordingly, s.8 goes no further in restricting freedom to criticise the religious beliefs of others than to prohibit criticism so extreme as to incite hatred or other relevant emotion of or towards those others. It is essential to keep the distinction between the hatred of beliefs and the hatred of their adherents steadily in view.
I think His Honour is correct. Many religions and sects purport to be the true or best path. A person cannot be said to incite hatred merely because he or she tries to convince others who may be of a different faith that his or her faith is better. Personally, I find evangelism annoying, and because I am contrasuggestible, it tends to turn me off the religion or doctrine which is being promoted. But I also believe that open dialogue and debate about religion and moral questions is a very good thing. I am really glad that I studied a subject at university which involved looking at Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Expressing views about a religion which may be offensive to members of that religion must be distinguished from inciting racial hatred. When I was reading the Catch the Fire judgment, my mind went to some anti-Semitic statements I have seen in material by the Citizen’s Electoral Council. In comparison, the statements by the Pastors were tame. And, as Nettle JA notes, at least the Pastors repeatedly told the audience that they should love Muslims and not hate them.
I can understand that reasonable Muslims might feel irritated by stereotypes which do not distinguish between the great variety of practices and the variation in tradition depending on ethnicity. I was invited to an Eid al-Adha party a few weeks ago by a friend of mine. During discussions at afternoon tea, some of the guests said they were worried that some Australians might think all Muslims were religious fanatics and terrorists. As I was saying to the guests, I certainly don’t feel that way, although as we agreed, a minority of Muslims are religious fanatics or terrorists.
I don’t think suing the Pastors and the Assembly of God is the answer to countering those who have a negative perception of Islam. I think the best answer is to do exactly what my Muslim friend did: invite me (a non-Muslim) to her party to celebrate with her, her family and her family friends. I’ve never been much of a fan of racial and religious vilification laws, despite my strong hatred of racial and religious vilification. Suing someone doesn’t change what is in a person’s head. I think the best answer is to be vocal against conduct which is perceived as vilification, to rebut factual inaccuracies and to try to get people to withdraw incorrect statements, and to try to change societal perceptions of such conduct.
I move full circle now back to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said that Hizb ut-Tahrir could not be banned as a terrorist organisation under present laws:
“It doesn’t mean that we agree with what it’s saying, but there are strict criteria for banning organisations and when those enquiries were undertaken we didn’t have sufficient evidence.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir states on its website that it wishes to convert nations peacefully rather than by force, and that terrorism and killing innocent people is against Islam.
Obviously I don’t want Hizb ut-Tahrir to succeed in its goal of establishing a Shari’ah law regime in Australia. The group’s video is somewhat scary, and its aims are highly distasteful to me. However, as long as Hizb ut-Tahrir wishes to discuss such a notion peacefully, I support its right to do so, no matter how repugnant I find its view. I’m not a fan of evangelical Christianity, either, but I support the right of Catch the Fire and its pastors to discuss Islam and its perceived shortcomings from a Christian perspective (as long as the pastors are not suggesting all Muslims should be lynched or something like that). As I have said in my post on freedom of speech, sometimes it involves allowing people to do things or to discuss notions which are totally repugnant to the majority of people. Drawing that line can be very difficult, but it’s worth allowing discussion and debate.
The ironic thing is that often groups which need freedom of speech to discuss their ideas would severely limit freedom of speech if they ever came to power. I doubt freedom of speech is part of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s proposed global Shari’ah law. It’s all rather funny really.
I recommend Irfan Yusuf’s recent post on this issue. He puts Hizb ut-Tahrir in perspective without denying the deeply unsavoury nature of the group.