Category Archives: islam

God’s law and the law of the State

What happens when you have a particular group in society who are not minded to follow the law of the State, but prefer to follow God’s law as they interpret it?

Recently this question has come up in relation to Sharia law, particularly after the Archbishop of Canterbury said that some aspects of sharia law would inevitably be adopted in Britain. But the question doesn’t just arise in relation to Islam. Many religions have a group within who prefers the laws of God to the laws of the State. For example, orthodox Jews in Australia may take some disputes between one another to the Beth Din, a religious court where rabbis hand out judgment. And some indigenous Australians may prefer that a dispute be dealt with under traditional law rather than “whitefella law”.

My personal opinion is that as long as the law of God does not transgress fundamental human rights, then parties can consent to that particular law binding their actions. It is rather like an agreement to arbitrate in a contract where any disputes are referred to a mutually agreed arbitrator. The problem occurs when a particular practice or punishment which is said to be required by the law of God or tradition is illegal under the laws of the State: eg, stoning, spearing through the leg, promise of child brides etc. My personal opinion is that such things should not be allowed. The issue is slightly more vexed with indigenous tradition than it is with other religious laws because indigenous people didn’t “choose” to move here and to be subject to our laws, they were imposed upon them from colonisers. Nonetheless, as I have explained in one of my very early posts, as a feminist, I just cannot countenance the assault and rape of a teenage “promised bride” by her tribal husband, for example. Cultural relativism be damned.

It is a difficult question however, because it is a balance between religious tolerance and universal human rights (which should apply to all, regardless of race or religion or anything else).

Consequently, I was really interested to read this article in Slate about the American legal system and the Amish and the Mormons. I hadn’t really thought deeply about the conflict that would arise between State law and the traditions and laws of these two groups.

Amish are Anabaptists of Swiss-German origin who live in separate communities. They dress in conservative dress, do not use much modern technology and do not educate their children beyond 8th grade because of the “worldly values” they might learn. Study is focussed on the Bible, and children are expected to work in the fields with their parents once they leave school. They do not believe in Social Security, and do not either make payments or accept payments from the government. The educational practices and expectation that children will work in the fields has brought them in to conflict with US education and child labor rules. In Wisconsin v. Yoder 406 U.S. 205 (1972) three Amish parents were fined by the Wisconsin authorities for taking their children from school before the age of 16, but the US Supreme Court ultimately upheld the right of the parents to do this. Amish refuse to participate in wars, and their conscientious objection has also gotten them into trouble. As the article in Slate observes, the Amish have been given a fair degree of latitude, in part because they are peaceful and because they have managed to broker compromises with the State.

Mormons are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. They believe in the Book of Mormon. The Church of the Latter Day Saints officially abandoned polygamy after pressure from law enforcement in 1890, but some other fundamentalist groups continue to practice polygamy. The practice of taking multiple wives and taking child brides has brought the Fundamentalist Mormon Church into conflict with the law. In the last few weeks, Texan authorities raided a Fundamentalist Mormon compound after a 16 year old girl called authorities to say that she had recently borne a child to her 50 year old husband. Other US States are concerned that this raid may ruin their efforts to make Fundamentalist Mormons trust them and cooperate with them. As the Slate article outlined, a large raid on a Short Creek Fundamentalist Mormon community in 1953 was ultimately counterproductive. The Slate article concludes that the Mormon groups are in a different situation to the Amish:

But the fundamentalist Mormons groups are in a state of evasion. The ban on bigamy functions as a zoning ordinance: Plural marriage is fine in isolated communities, but not in Salt Lake City, and certainly not on TV talk shows, as Tom Green found. So long as the fundamentalists remain in hiding, the extreme ugliness of conducting raids creates a form of tolerance. They are thus in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” state of legal limbo that could break open at any time. They are outside the law in a different way.

It will be interesting to see whether the Texan raid is counterproductive or forces the Fundamentalist Mormon church into submission.

These situations remind us that the conflict between God’s law and the law of the State has many facets, and there are different ways of resolving the issue. Have a read of the Slate article and see what you think.

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Filed under children, christianity, feminism, human rights, indigenous issues, islam, judaism, law, marriage, politics, religion, society, tolerance, USA


The other day, I watched the film Fitna on YouTube, a film about Islam by Dutch right wing politician Geert Wilders.  I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I had read some interesting reviews by Skepticlawyer at Catallaxy, Pommygranate at Australian Libertarian Society Blog and Saint at Dogfight At Bankstown.

I must say that I felt considerable ambivalence about it. I’ve waited over a week to write on it.

On the one hand, I support freedom of speech. Furthermore, there is no denying the fact that there are extremist Muslims who in the world who advocate terrorism or jihad (as I’ve argued previously). I think this kind of behaviour is unacceptable from anyone of any religion, and should be condemned.

But on the other hand, I wonder what this film will really achieve other than deepening the divide between the West and Islam. Among other things, it extracts news, film and photographs of all the worst instances of Islamist extremism and terrorism, and juxtaposes them against sura from the Qu’ran. It has a scaremongering feel which I do not like at all – it makes broadbrush generalisations and depicts the worst of a particular group. As I have said in a previous post, I find scaremongering propaganda to be problematic, regardless of whether it is on the Left or the Right, or from the West or Islam. It makes people behave in an irrational manner.

As Pommygranate noted in a post at the Australian Libertarian Society Blog, there is a rather odd dichotomy in this film – Wilders preaches Western values of tolerance and free speech, but he is essentially calling for intolerance of a certain religion. Pommy says:

He [Wilders] is essentially a hypocrite as on the one hand he champions Holland’s proud history of tolerance and freedom, yet on the other, seeks to introduce discrimination back into the Constitution (by banning further immigration of Muslims), wishes to ban the Koran as a fascist book comparable to Mein Kampf, and wants a complete ban on the wearing of the headscarf. 

The ironic thing, as with the Danish cartoons, is the way in which various Islamic groups and countries are claiming that the film is offensive and inaccurate for saying their religion is intrinsically violent and intolerant, but radical Muslims are also making death threats against LiveLeaks for posting the video… Don’t those guys who make the death threats have any sense of irony whatsoever? Any violent retaliation against Wilders will prove his point rather nicely.

The film makes me think of a book by Chester Porter called The Gentle Art of Persuasion. He argues that using fear to get your point across is not an intelligent way to put an argument. I concur. The central message I got from the film was “Muslims are terrorists, intolerant people, anti-Semites, bashers of homosexuals, genital mutilators and oppressors of women’s freedom.” But I am still wondering: what was the point? How are people (Muslim, Dutch and others) meant to respond to that message? How does this film fix anything?

If this film’s central message is that Muslims need to rethink the violent and unpleasant aspects of their religion, which is one of the film’s claims, then I don’t think a vehicle such as this would be the way to achieve it. It would immediately make even a moderate Muslim defensive of his or her religion, rather than open to reasonable criticism.

I suspect there were two responses Wilders wanted – to provoke a backlash among Dutch people to Islam (or at least, some extreme practices of some Islamic groups), and to make a point that the response to films or writings which criticise Islam is often violence (although I note that the Dutch Muslim population seems to have sensibly decided that the best response is to be moderate).

I’ve noticed in blog comments threads that a common response to the film is that “Christianity is just as bad” (see for example the comment thread which has developed at Iain Hall’s post). Yes, one could do the same with Christianity and find some nutbag Bible bashers who wanted to stone homosexuals or whatever, and intersperse it with Biblical quotes (particularly chapters like Leviticus). But I think that misses the point of the film. As Skepticlawyer has indicated in her post at Catallaxy, I think one of the particular concerns Wilders is focussing on is the interaction between Muslim immigrants in Holland and the mainstream Dutch culture, which is tolerant of homosexuality, prostitution, drug-use etc. Thus, it’s obviously not relevant for him to make a film on the shortcomings of Christianity, because the Dutch Christian attitude is generally tolerant; or at least, most Dutch Christians turn a blind eye to those things in Dutch culture which they disagree with. If a whole slew of US Southern Baptists emigrated to Holland and started questioning Dutch values, it would obviously be relevant to question Christianity, but that’s not the particular conflict he has in mind.

And ultimately, so what if you can do the same with Christianity? It doesn’t make the conduct of Islamists who espouse the same views right. It cannot be denied that there are a proportion of radical Islamists who believe many or all of the things in this movie. A plague on all the houses of those who seek to convert by the sword, kill and persecute those of different religions or oppress and use religion to justify violence towards women and homosexuals.

What is the best thing to do about Islamist terrorism and intolerance? I’m just not sure that this movie is a constructive solution to the problem: it may just make things worse. Yes, it is important to be honest about the problems of Islamist extremism, but it is also important to find ways to solve those problems rather than to inflame them.


Incidentally, I heartly agree with Skepticlawyer that many Muslim commentators, politicians and imams need to get over calling anyone who disagrees with Islam’s tenets “Zionist”. A Jordanian media coalition described Wilders as “extremist and Zionist deputy Geert Wilders” in a press release. Wilders is not Jewish, and I don’t know if he supports the establishment and/or expansion of the State of Israel or not. Even if he does, that wasn’t the point of the film anyway. As soon as I hear insane frothing at the mouth about Zionists such as this, I start to doubt the credibility and sanity of the source.


Filed under blasphemy, christianity, freedom of speech, islam, judaism, politics, racism, society, terrorism, tolerance

Dance of the seven robes

The title to this post could also be “Anything you can do, I can do better.” I’ve long believed that bickering and conflict between the three Abramic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) is a bit like sibling rivalry, as I’ve said before, and the story below just confirms that belief. The three are very similar, but the differences are all the more contentious because of that.

Apparently there is a new trend among ultra Orthodox Charedi women in Israel. Inspired by Rebbetzin Bruria Keren, these ultra Orthodox women wear ten skirts, seven long robes, five kerchiefs knotted at the chin, three knotted at the back of the head, hide their faces behind a veil and then cover themselves with several thin shawls. Whew! I’m surprised that these women can walk after putting all those clothes on.

The effect is somewhat like a niqab, or a full Islamic veil revealing only the eyes. I refer to and repeat my comments about the niqab (here and here). An outward show of inner faith, or a display of modesty before God are, to my mind, acceptable reasons for wearing religious costume. But as a feminist, I draw the line at religious costumes which impede women from interacting with the outside world. If a woman cannot engage in face to face communication, cannot drive, cannot run, cannot drink a glass of water in public…then I think it’s just plain wrong. It makes her less of a person than a man. I also dislike the idea that layers of clothing must be worn because a woman’s body is peculiarly seductive, or because it is thought that women’s bodies are unclean or lewd.

There are a number of interesting things about this phenomenon. First, the ultra Orthodox men tend to dislike the practice, despite their emphasis on tzniut, or modesty, in women. Thus it has been considered to be a kind of “counter revolution” – women saying, “Well, if you’re going to ask us to be modest, we’ll do that to the maximum degree possible.” I still don’t think that it can be considered “empowerment”, except in a very negative way.

The other interesting thing is that the women are apparently mistaken for Arab Muslims or Arab Christians, and are somewhat offended by this. They don’t feel any solidarity with their Arab sisters. I wonder, as foreshadowed by the alternative title to the post, whether there’s a sense of “oneupwomanship” here: “You Muslims think you’re modest? We Jews can be ten times more modest, and wear even sillier outfits, just watch us.” I’m waiting for some fundamentalist Christian women to start wearing old fashioned metal diving suits, just to show that they are the most modest of all.

In the end, it’s up to all these women (of whatever religion) to choose to wear whatever they please. I don’t really mind, as long as they don’t judge me for what I choose to wear, and don’t impose their standards on me or my daughter. My body is not dirty, thank you very much, and nor am I a harlot because I show my ankles. To me, empowerment is being able to move and communicate freely.

(Via Indyblogs)


And it’s stories like the one of Indian tennis player Sania Mirza which make me believe that requiring women to cover up cannot be empowering or “feminist”. Mirza is an Indian Muslim, and some radical clerics have issued a fatwa against her. She has just withdrawn from the Bangalore Open after receiving threats because she wears short skirts and sleeveless tops.


Filed under christianity, feminism, islam, judaism, sexuality, society, tolerance

The thought police are listening

It seems pretty ridiculous that Dr Haneef has been charged with supporting a terrorist organisation by leaving his SIM card with his second cousins in Glasgow. I was wondering how they could charge him, and decided to look at the terrorism offences. I’m not a criminal lawyer, let alone one acquainted with the Federal jurisdiction. I found it interesting to check out these provisions.

Section 102.7 of the Criminal Code makes it an offence to possess things connected with terrorist acts. The relevant offences are in 102.7(1) and 102.7(2):

102.7 Providing support to a terrorist organisation

(1) A person commits an offence if:

(a) the person intentionally provides to an organisation support or resources that would help the organisation engage in an activity described in paragraph (a) of the definition of terrorist organisation in this Division; and

(b) the organisation is a terrorist organisation; and

(c) the person knows the organisation is a terrorist organisation.

Penalty: Imprisonment for 25 years.

(2) A person commits an offence if:

(a) the person intentionally provides to an organisation support or resources that would help the organisation engage in an activity described in paragraph (a) of the definition of terrorist organisation in this Division; and

(b) the organisation is a terrorist organisation; and

(c) the person is reckless as to whether the organisation is a terrorist organisation.

Penalty: Imprisonment for 15 years.

So I presume that the police are saying that the SIM card is a thing connected with the planning of the Glasgow bombings, that Dr Haneef supplied it to his second cousins and was reckless to the possibility that it might be used for a terrorist act. Still, it seems like the AFP are drawing a long bow, charging him just so that he has been charged with something. I don’t know if there’s further intelligence as to whether he helped his second cousins in the plot, or whether he got out of the country because he knew about it but didn’t want to be involved. It’s hard to make a judgment without knowing all the facts.

But it seems to me that this kind of charge represents a worrying trend. Isn’t this the very thing the Western world should be against – a charge for the sake of it?

Check out Marcellous’ post on the topic for more insightful legal commentary.


I was looking at the wrong section, as Marcellous has pointed out. Now amended to Section 102.7. Told you I’m no criminal law expert. Especially criminal law involving statutes. Well, I guess that’s all of it…

Update 2

It seems the government has revoked Dr Haneef’s visa. Again, I suspect that there’s more to this guy’s actions that we’re hearing in the press. I don’t know the full evidence on which the Minister made his decision.

But if the Magistrate was satisfied with imposing strict bail conditions on Dr Haneef, why wasn’t that enough? It seems as though the government is using immigration detention as a method of imposing a punitive gaol sanction where the courts have decided that the suspect should be released. Doesn’t seem like due process to me.


Filed under Australia, courts, criminal law, islam, law, religion, terrorism

How can they do it?

Jane from Diversion Cubed was wondering how on earth people who had sworn the Hippocratic oath to heal other human beings could allegedly become involved with suicide bombing plots. I can’t fathom it myself. How can you work all day trying to heal people and help people, and then wish to wreak death and injury on innocent civilians?

In that context, I found this article by Shiv Malik on the London 7/7 bombers very interesting (hat tip to Larvatus Prodeo). Malik spoke with the family of bomber Mohamed Sidique Khan and others who lived in Beeston, Leeds. He found that the impetus to become radical is more complicated than one would think:

Khan may have felt indignant about western foreign policy, as many anti-war campaigners do, but that wasn’t the reason he led a cell of young men to kill themselves and 52 London commuters. At the heart of this tragedy is a conflict between the first and subsequent generations of British Pakistanis—with many young people using Islamism as a kind of liberation theology to assert their right to choose how to live. It is a conflict between tradition and individuality, culture and religion, tribalism and universalism, passivity and action.

When it is stated like this, the problem of Islamic extremism looks depressingly intractable. The government’s first reaction following 7/7 was to consult with a wide range of Muslim opinion, including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and similar bodies. The government now argues that the MCB and some of its affiliates are as much part of the problem as of the solution, and the new initiatives to tackle radicalism stress the promotion of British values at a grassroots level and working more closely with the few liberal modernisers in Britain’s Muslim community. But maybe all that we can do now is remain vigilant and wait for the tide in the battle for Islam’s soul to turn in the west’s favour.

Malik explores the fact that many first-generation Pakistanis in Britain have a very traditional approach to life – one in which Islam is important, but so too are tribal values. It is expected, for example, that young Pakistanis will marry according to their parents’ wishes, often to a cousin or relative within the larger tribe. Radical Islamism offers an escape from arranged marriages. Malik explains:

So while traditionalist mosques carry on recruiting imams from back home, keep their sermons in Urdu and other Asian languages and neglect to publish material to engage new members, the Wahhabis and the Islamists give their sermons in English and take their recruitment on to the streets of Pakistani or Bangladeshi ghettos such as Beeston Hill. They have also encouraged the schooling of British-born imams, have learned to use the internet and have generally come to understand what makes the second generation tick. The Wahhabis and Islamists win new members by contrasting their galvanising message of world Islamic justice with the inactivity and irrationality of the first-generation traditionalists. (Among those who turn to violence, such as Khan, their beliefs are often a mix of fundamentalism and Islamism.) And by arguing that the traditionalists—with their saint worship, mysticism and forced marriages—have been corrupted by weakness and Hinduism, they provide useful arguments to those Pakistani and Bangladeshi youths who want to cling on to Islam but throw off their parents’ constraints.

Part of what pushed Khan towards fundamentalist Islamism was his desire to marry for love, not to marry the bride whom his parents had arranged for him.

Furthermore, in poor areas such as Beeston Hill in Leeds (where three of the four 7/7 bombers lived) there was an increasing problem with drug use. Traditional parents had no response for this problem. It was not within their ken. Malik continues:

Ali told me that the older generation didn’t know how to deal with the drug problem. They were largely illiterate and didn’t know the system, so they would sooner move out than try to fight the dealers. The only people who seemed to do anything about the drug-taking were a group of second-generation Pakistanis called the “Mullah boys.” This was a fluid group of 15 to 20 members that formed in the mid-1990s, initially as a response to the drugs issue. Mohammad Sidique Khan was a leading member. Ali told me that on several occasions, the group kidnapped young Pakistani drug addicts and, with the consent of their families, held them in a flat near the Wahhabi-inclined mosque on Stratford Street—and forcibly cleansed them of their drug habits.

What we learned from Ali was later corroborated by an ex-drug user called Asim Suleman. He had been cold-turkeyed by the Mullah boys in 1996, and Sidique Khan, Khan’s friend Naveed Fiaz and Tafazal Mohammed, Khan’s line manager in his youth worker job, had asked Suleman back to help with another round in 2001. Following 9/11, the Mullah boys had become increasingly religious. Initially, this new-found godliness was welcomed by the older generation in Beeston—until the group began marrying people of their choice.

I had wondered how men who had grown up in the UK could do this. Malik’s analysis makes sense. The second generation did not want to live like their parents. They wanted to marry whom they wanted, they wanted to escape narrow tribal restrictions and they wanted to do something constructive about social problems in their community, such as drug use. But they did not feel part of the broader British community either. There were two paths for young disaffected men – either to embrace violence and drug use, or to embrace radical Islamism. The latter seemed more honourable. It offered an escape to the conundrum of trying to fit in with traditional Pakistani or English social norms – reject both, embrace Islam, then you’ll feel part of society. Paradoxically, the radical Islamist movement is in some ways more akin to a radical political group from the West than it is to traditional Islam.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the background of radical Sydney cleric Sheikh Feiz Mohammed resonates with this analysis. Sheikh Feiz was a street kid who drank and took drugs in his youth. He saw radical Islam as the pathway out of despair.

A more nuanced understanding of what drives these young men might help a more nuanced response to the issue. An analysis which simply concludes that Islam is evil or that the West is corrupt and decadent misses the mark. As always, it’s more complicated than that. Radical Islamism is a child of a terrible congruence of both Western and Islamic values.


An interesting piece in The Guardian by Hassan Butt, a former member of the British Jihadi network.


Filed under England, good and evil, islam, morality, politics, terrorism, war

Egypt and FGM

It’s awful that it has taken the death of a 12 year old girl to precipitate change, but it is good that Egypt is now looking at banning female genital mutilation outright. Even more positively, leaders in the Sunni Muslim and Coptic Christian communities have spoken out unequivocally against the practice, which is practiced by adherents of both faiths. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a cultural shift.

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Filed under christianity, feminism, human rights, islam, law reform, middle east, sexuality

Quick post on hijabs

I read today that legislation banning teachers from wearing a hijab in class passed by the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia has been upheld as legal. Obviously I can’t comment on the nature of the decision (I don’t know much about German law). But I do think that it represents a disturbing trend of intolerance.

What of Catholic or Anglican nuns, who may wear a wimple? Would they also be banned from teaching classes? I should hope so, for reasons of moral consistency. You can’t have one rule for one religion and another rule for another. What about a Jewish teacher who wore a yarmulke (Jewish skull cap)? What about a Sikh teacher with a turban? Where do you draw the line?

My suggestion is that the line needs to be drawn only where religious dress prevents a teacher from communicating effectively with students. As long as a teacher’s face is fully visible and she can do all the practical demonstrations which she needs to do, there should be no reason for her to be banned from teaching. As I have written previously in this blog, I do not think that niqabs (covering leaving only the eyes showing) or burqas (covering with gauze over the eyes) are appropriate wear for teachers, because it inhibits face to face communication and inhibits physical movement. And communication is an essential part of teaching. But as long as the face is visible, what’s the problem?

Have a look at RG’s post about recent allegations of school photos being doctored to remove evidence of a hijab from a student’s head (did they have to imagine what her hair looked like?…the mind boggles). Thoroughly recommended.

(Via Jurist)


Filed under education, islam, jobs, law, religion, society, tolerance

Now that’s far too late to wean…

I am all in favour of breastfeeding. But sometimes a good thing can be taken too far.

According to BBC News, Dr Izzat Atiya of Al-Hazar University in Cairo issued a fatwa as follows:

He said that if a woman fed a male colleague “directly from her breast” at least five times, they would establish a family bond and thus be allowed to be alone together at work.

“Breast feeding an adult puts an end to the problem of the private meeting, and does not ban marriage,” he ruled.

“A woman at work can take off the veil or reveal her hair in front of someone whom she breastfed.”

Apparently, according to sharia law, breastfeeding at infancy establishes a familial relationship between a woman and child even if there is no biological relationship. Dr Atiya sought to extend that principle to adults in order to get around the problem of segregation in the workplace.

Well, I’m glad he was thinking of creative solutions to  segregation in the workplace… That’s a good start to providing equal opportunity for women in the workplace in Islamic countries. But no, no, no, ugh! Allowing a colleague to drink from your breast seems a million, billion, trillion times worse than allowing him to see you with your hair uncovered.

I’m glad to say that this ruling has sparked outrage throughout Egypt and the Muslim world. It has been retracted as defamatory to Islam.


Filed under breastfeeding, crazy stuff, islam, law

National Day of Secularism

Bruce has tagged me for the National Day of Secularism meme.

He’s interested to see what I will say because of a comment I made to him when discussing those stupid citizenship questions…namely:

The Ten Commandments can be regarded as forming one of the precedents for modern law, canon law, and all kinds of other law. So to the extent, our legal tradition is based in part upon notions expressed in the Old Testament (which is broadly equivalent to the Tanakh), we can be said to have a legal system which depends on “Judaeo-Christian” values and notions.

Now, those of you who read my blog know that I was not brought up with any particular religion. I must confess to a bit of an obsession with millennial cults and heresies. I love it when people predict the end of the world or the arrival of a new Messiah and it doesn’t happen. Maybe I’m just mean. But I always wonder how the cult leader explains it away. I imagine, for example, the Fifth Monarchy Men during Oliver Cromwell’s rule of England, standing on a hill waiting for the Rapture to pick them up. Apparently they had their hands in the air all night, waiting for the Second Coming. What happened the next day? Apart from, of course, the fact that they had sore arms? How did they explain it? (“Oh, we must have made a mistake, the Second Coming is a month away….oops, no, a month after that…“)

So Bruce has asked me to put my money where my mouth is. Do I think religion has a place in the law? Do I think it has a place in our wider society?

As Paul at A Roll of the Dice has pointed out, s 116 of the Australian Constitution states:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

This is a good thing. I support the separation of church and state in Australian society and law. It means that everyone can be equal in Australia, regardless of whether they believe in one God, many Gods or no God at all. This is how it should be.

What position, then, does religion play in the law? On a practical level, the main way in which religion still comes into the law is in relation to the oaths people swear upon giving evidence. These days, you don’t have to swear upon the Bible. There are procedures for many different religions, and affirmations for those who choose not to swear an oath at all. Personally, I’m an “affirmer” which is always a little bit controversial, even in these secular days, but if I swore on the Bible I feel like a hypocrite. In the Victorian Supreme Court, sometimes the Tipstaff also announces “God Save the Queen! I now declare this honourable court open.” Those are the only two ways in which religion comes into the courtroom.

When I was young and angry, I used to be a staunch atheist. I would go so far as to say that I was a fundamentalist atheist. I think this arose in a number of ways:

  • The prominence of science and reason in my upbringing.
  • In Grade 2, a Religious Education teacher told Cherryripe and I that our parents were going to go to hell. It put me off religion big time (and, if I’m not mistaken, Cherryripe was put off as well). I decided that if the teacher was right, I’d rather be in hell with Mum and Dad than in heaven with her, and if she was wrong, well, it didn’t matter.
  • In Grade 4, a Religious Education teacher told me that Jesus resurrected her dead goldfish after she prayed to Him. She had placed the goldfish in a saucepan and stirred it with a wooden spoon, praying as she stirred. (No, I’m not being funny here, this really happened. Cherryripe will back me up. We had some doozies).
  • Some bad experiences with religious people who talked about holiness, but were all about hate and excluding others.
  • A dislike of groups, and a natural desire to be contrary.
  • A perception that religion led to hatred and war (the Middle East, Northern Ireland) as well as bad treatment of women, homosexuals and minorities.
  • That old chestnut: Why do bad things happen to good people? How can there be a just God or Gods if He/She/They let bad things happen to good people? (I’ve explored this a little already in my post on the Virginia Tech shootings)

It was only really until I got to university that I mellowed. I looked at my friends, who come from very varied backgrounds, and saw that religion can be both a positive and a negative. It can inspire people to great deeds and creations. Some religious figures can be truly inspirational and good people. But religion can also give people an excuse or a reason to do great cruelty. It can screw with people’s minds totally, for example, where someone who is religious discovers they are homosexual, but this is not sanctioned by their religion. However, atheism can also be both a positive and a negative. A fundamentalist atheist is as bad as a fundamentalist anything else. These days, I would say I am agnostic. I am accepting of all religions, as long as those who follow them are accepting of me and my traditions and background. I have found that people are very welcoming if you are open and ready to learn. I have been a bridesmaid at a Jewish wedding and a Muslim wedding in the same month. I have gone to Sunday lunches, Eid celebrations, Passover seders, Sikh weddings, Buddhist weddings, Christian funerals…you get the picture. I do think that religion has an important part in our society, and I would not want to deny that.

What of religion and the law? I see the place of religion in our law as a historical one. In Australia, we do not have religious courts or religious laws that we have to follow, unless we choose to submit to the dictates of a particular religious body (eg, the Jewish Beth Din in Australia). I do think, however, that religion has had an important historical impact on the development of the law. The thing which amazed me when I studied the halakah (Jewish religious laws), the hadith (Islamic religious laws) and a little bit of canon law is the similarity which they bore to modern day laws. Much of the subject matter was the same as that which comes up every day in courts today. When is it okay to break a contractual agreement? When is murder legal, if ever? What is the penalty for stealing a man’s cow? Is divorce permitted? How many witnesses are required to prove certain things? Funnily enough, they each developed in an organic way which is very similar to the English common law.

Religion has played a important part in the way in which our law has developed, and it cannot be fully understood without knowing something about that historical background. Many religions provide moral guidelines for how we live our lives, and I believe that the notions expressed in the Old Testament or Tanakh and the New Testament have been an important influence on the way in which our law and our notions of governance have developed, along with many other factors. I am not suggesting that we should rely on the Bible or the Talmud for legal precedent in this modern day and age. (Dare I say, “God Forbid!”? ;-D) I am just noting a historical fact.

I am glad our present-day law and our state are secular. If the state privileges a particular religious ideal, this means that those who do not believe in that ideal are somehow less a part of the state.

That being said, I am wary of relying too much on reason as a source of law. As a lawyer, I know how easily reason can be manipulated. After all, us lawyers make a living from trying to persuade people that the unreasonable is actually reasonable. Reason cannot be the be all and end all of our law. Even if we do not believe that religious ideals should presently inform our law, there must be some kind of moral basis to it. This tension is known in legal circles as the divide between positivism and natural law. Positivism says that the law is what you say it is. If a statute is properly enacted, it is legal, regardless of the content of that statute. Natural law says that the law is what is good and moral. If a statute does something that is immoral, it cannot be law, even if it is validly enacted. I do believe that there are some things which are fundamentally wrong or immoral. That is why I believe in human rights. To me, an element of morality or natural law is essential – not for religious reasons, but just because it’s the right thing to do.

Update – 27/5/07

Just watched the second half of Richard Dawkins’ television series, The Root of Evil. It was interesting. I think Dawkins is a little too hardcore for me.

I don’t have a problem with religion generally, as long as it doesn’t prevent people from questioning why things are. Some of those people in that documentary were pretty scary – they were so sure that they had the absolute truth, and that one could not question it.

Religion gives those with an inflexible mind a schedule to which to adhere, but I wonder whether religion is to blame. I suspect that if they didn’t have religion, they’d find some other doctrine to which they had to adhere (political or otherwise). I am reminded of a friend who was brought up in a very strict religious household. He rejected his upbringing, but kept seeking substitutes. At one point he was an evangelical scuba diver, and tried to convince me to become a scuba diver too. I think he was just evangelical in general, regardless of religion.

Update 2

Feel like having a bet both ways? Apparently a US Creationist museum has put two dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. Craziness.


Filed under Australia, christianity, history, human rights, islam, judaism, law, morality, religion, tolerance

Shock jocks and the politics of fear…

A recent report by ACMA found that Alan Jones had encouraged violence and brutality and engaged in racial vilification of people from a Lebanese Muslim background. I must confess that I didn’t know who Jones was until a few years back. In Melbourne, he doesn’t have any influence (at least, as far as I’m aware). It’s scary to think that he has a lot of influence in Sydney. Jones’ influence can be seen from the responses of John Howard and Kevin Rudd to the finding: each said they had no problem with Jones’ conduct, and would continue to appear on the program if requested.

The history preceding the findings against Jones should be set out before looking at the allegations in detail.

On 4 December 2005, two or three off-duty volunteer lifesavers were reported to have been assaulted by a group of Lebanese men at Cronulla beach. Jones mentioned the issue on his program on from Monday 5 – Friday 9 December 2005. It was alleged was that gangs of Lebanese men had been harassing beachgoers over a number of years, that it was a persistent problem and that the State government and the police were unwilling or unable to do anything about the matter.

On 7 December 2005, Jones read out a letter from a listener:

‘J’ has a good answer, he says police and the council are impotent here; all rhetoric and no action: “My suggestion is to invite the biker gangs to be present at Cronulla Railway station when these Lebanese thugs arrive, the biker gangs have been much maligned but they do a lot of good things – it would be worth the price of admission to watch these cowards scurry back onto the train for the return trip to their lairs…and wouldn’t it be brilliant if the whole event was captured on TV cameras and featured on the evening news so that we, their parents, family and friends can see who these bastards are…Australians old and new should not have to put up with this scum…

[offending statement emphasised]

On 8 December 2005, Jones mentioned a text message which was being sent around which stated, “This Sunday every Aussie in the Shire get down to North Cronulla to support the Leb and Wog bashing day, bring your mates, let’s show them that this is our beach and they’re never welcome.” He then said:

“And I say to all those young – hey, you’re not in charge of law and order, we do have law and order people. Boys, don’t get down there and come at this nonsense, this will only make things worse. The police are genuinely concerned now that the SMS is going to inflame things even further and we’ll – we’re talking about vigilante retribution.”

A caller, ‘B’, contacted Jones on 8 December expressed concern that the issue was not as one-sided as it had been portrayed, and that both sides were egging each other on. Jones responded as follows:

“Yeah, let’s not get too carried away ‘B’, we don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in Western Sydney. So let’s not get carried away with all this mealy-mouthed talk about there being two sides. I can tell you, because my correspondence here from mums and dads I am inundated, and I don’t hear people complaining about Catholics and Protestants and Anglicans, I’m sorry, but there’s this religious element in all of this and we’ve got to make sure that we welcome people into our community but we welcome them in on certain terms and certain standards and those standards are not being met. So let’s not have this mealy mouth talk about oh well, everyone’s to blame. All across Sydney there is a universal concern that there are gangs, the gangs are of one ethnic composition, and they have one thing in mind and I’ve read some of the correspondence from here…”

[offending statement emphasised]

On 11 December 2005, there was a gathering of people at Cronulla beach to “reclaim the beach”. Although the event started off peacefully, the demonstrators began to assault people of a “Middle Eastern appearance”. They also threw cans at and attacked police and ambulance personnel. On the evening of 11 December and the following day, there were retaliatory attacks by groups of youths of “Middle Eastern appearance”, in which vehicles and shops were vandalised, some people were assaulted and one man was stabbed. This event later became known as the 2005 Cronulla Riots.

There was a perception that the NSW State government trod very lightly on this issue because of fears that they could alienate a certain sector of the voting public. It is worth noting that Lakemba is in Premier Iemma’s electorate. But this does no one any favours. In the long run, it increases tension and resentment. Jones was able to pick up the perception of preferential treatment, and use it to his advantage. If there is a problem with ethnic gangs in Sydney, it should be faced openly by all (police, government, Lebanese-Australians and other Australians). Gang members should be treated equally by police and the government, regardless of their ethnicity. It is not good to try and suppress concerns on the basis of “political correctness”.

I think it is a mistake to simply write off the Cronulla riots as “racist”. As caller ‘B’ said to Jones, there are two sides to every story. On the one hand, groups of young men (seemingly of predominantly Lebanese extraction) were coming to Cronulla beach to make trouble. But on the other hand, it is not fair if innocent people (Lebanese, Middle Eastern or just “of Middle Eastern appearance”) are prevented from coming to Cronulla beach or are abused because of their appearance. As I have always said on this blog, people should not be judged on the basis of their ethnic background or their religion, but by their behaviour. Each group needs to take a long hard look at violent, racist behaviour within their own community, and make it clear that there is no excuse for picking fights or harassing innocent beach goers.

It seems clear, also, that there was a failure by the State government to take the problem seriously until matters had escalated. If there had been more police available to patrol the beaches before the riots occurred, and to nip any fights in the bud, it may be that the riots would not have happened.

It seems to me that Jones’ comments were very ill-considered indeed, and he certainly inflamed tensions. The comment that really gets my goat is “we don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in Western Sydney.” This suggests that Anglo-Saxon men do not commit rape, but Middle Eastern and Lebanese men do. Anyone who looks at criminal law cases involving rape will know that rapists come from all ethnicities and backgrounds. One only has to look at this report about two recent rapes to establish this (one rapist appears to have been an Anglo-Australian man, born and bred here; the other appears to have been a dark-skinned man who originated from another country.)

To my mind, Alan Jones is no better than the Mufti, Sheik Hillaly. The Mufti suggests Australian women are asking for it; Jones suggests that all Lebanese Muslim men are rapists. Both comments are utterly irresponsible. Both pander to popular stereotypes held by their respective audiences, and do not admit any moderation. I believe that Jones should resign, just as I believe that the Mufti should resign. Rape is not about how much clothing the victim is wearing. Nor is it about the ethnicity of the perpetrator. Both of these things are excuses. Rape is about power, and a desire to degrade the victim.

The comment about “we don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in Western Sydney” refers to the Sydney gang rapes committed by the Skaf brothers and their associates. The perpetrators were of a Lebanese background. This underlying issue contributed greatly to the tension leading to the Cronulla riots. Bilal Skaf was alleged to have taunted his victims about their Australian background. He is said to have called one rape victim an “Aussie pig”, asked her if “Leb cock tasted better than Aussie cock” and explained to her that she would now be raped “Leb-style”. Another victim was said to have been told by a perpetrator, “You deserve it because you’re an Australian”. Although I apologise for the offensive nature of these comments, I have set them out in full to show that a passing reference by Jones to the matter was capable of creating great anger and distress in listeners.

As I have discussed before, if there was not a racist element to the crime, the background of the perpetrators would be irrelevant. But because of the racial motive, the ethnic background of the perpetrators should be mentioned, because otherwise the crime cannot be fully understood.

However, the media has to be responsible about the way in which it reports and deals with these problems. People who hold a great deal of power to sway public opinion should be very careful. Just because some Muslim Lebanese people are thugs does not mean all Muslim Lebanese people are bad. By the same token, just because some Australian people are thugs does not mean all Australians are bad. While one should not be bound by “political correctness”, and should be able to say that particular people within a group are behaving badly, it is irresponsible to suggest that an entire community is bad. To suggest that the problem only comes from one group or the other does not help matters at all. It just inflames tensions further, and increases resentment between the two groups. But I suspect that is how a demagogue like Jones gets his jollies.

I really dislike the politics of fear. It results in bad decisions. It allows an angry mob to jump to conclusions. It is difficult to control once released. I am very wary of appeals to mass prejudice – that way lies immense evil. I wish our political leaders had had the courage of their convictions to reject the siren call of people like Jones.


Filed under Alan Jones, Cronulla riots, islam, media, racism