Belief in freedom of speech, to recycle a cliché, is a bit like pregnancy. Either you believe in it or you don’t. People can’t be “slightly” pregnant, and they can’t be “pretty” committed to freedom of speech.
The whole point of freedom of speech is that censorship is always directed at the views of minorities who are regarded as perverse, evil and insane by wide segments of the community.
Either you support freedom of speech for views that you hate – and you can thus say that you support freedom of speech – or you oppose freedom of speech. Even the most brutal dictators don’t try to suppress the speech of those saying how great they are. It’s the speech they don’t like that they regard as the exception – and it’s the exceptions that free speech advocates have to stand firm on.
It did not take long for the Abbott government – and its loyalists in the media – to reveal their repeatedly professed devotion to freedom of speech to be sheer and utter fraud.
Remember when Andrew Bolt lost his case for breaching the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), and the Murdoch press overflowed with outrage over the death of freedom of speech?
Remember the front page of the Hun declaring “THIS IS A SAD DAY FOR FREE SPEECH”? Tony Abbott was one of the many who beat their chests and cried about how they would fight to restore freedom of speech in Australia.
Of course, those who actually care about freedom of speech here should have other priorities. David Marr observed that “Nothing stifles public debate in this country as much as the fear of being sued for defamation.”
And indeed, our defamation laws are scandalously oppressive. But defamation laws operate to protect the rich and powerful from public insult. Section 18c of the RDA, which Bolt was found to have breached, only protects racial and ethnic minorities.
Unsurprisingly, the Australian right has expressed endless concern about limitations on their right to racially offend, but has been meek and quiet on the subject of defamation law. The Australian newspaper even expressed satisfaction with the state of Australian defamation law, whilst complaining about the oppressive “blow delivered against free speech” when Bolt lost his case.
Meanwhile, for all the bluster, Bolt was not, in any meaningful sense, silenced. The effect of Bolt losing his case was that he has been reduced to subtly hinting at his arguments on his blog, and a notification about the Federal Court judgment was attached to the articles he originally wrote.
Suppose however, that the government threatened to throw him into jail, and to ban his newspaper too. That would be undoubtedly a more serious threat to freedom of speech. The threat of serious legal sanctions for expressing one’s views constitutes an attack on freedom of speech, because it has a chilling effect, not just on the target, but on those with similar views.
This is not exactly what has happened, but is somewhat analogous to the situation of the Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir.
In an interview with Alan Jones, Tony Abbott discussed the problem of what to do about these “hate preachers”.
Alan Jones: the same Alan Jones who said “If ever there was a clear example that Lebanese males in their vast numbers not only hate our country and our heritage, this was it. They have no connection to us. They simply rape, pillage and plunder a nation that's taken them in. I can't believe what I'm seeing. What did we do as a nation to have this vermin infest our shores?”
Alan ‘Lebanese males are vermin’ Jones is concerned that “hate preachers” weren’t being banned by the Abbott government. And Abbott’s response?
“I am sorry we haven’t red-carded these hate preachers before but it will happen and it will happen quickly. We should have a system in place that red cards these hate preachers.”
Remember: Abbott went to the election fighting for Bolt’s right to say racially offensive things. George Brandis famously – and for what it’s worth, in my view rightly – said that Australians should have a right to be bigots. And then, seemingly overnight, they and their comrades on the right decided that maybe “hate preaching” wasn’t okay after all. And Abbott expressed this view on Alan Jones’s show.
However, there is currently a problem with attempts to suppress Hizb ut-Tahrir. They haven’t broken any laws. Abbott admitted this, and said that they were only campaigning against “Australian values”.
So will he simply tolerate speech that he doesn’t like? No. He explained that “The law is changing. Under the law that we are bringing through the parliament hopefully before the end of the year it will be an offence to promote terrorism.”
There already are offences which criminalise the expression of certain types of opinions, but clearly Mr Freedom Agenda doesn’t think enough speech has been criminalised.
Particularly alarming was Abbott flagging his concern not just about explicit, but about “implicit” support for terrorism. This concept has not gotten much attention, but deserves closer scrutiny.
Does supporting the overthrow of the Assad government “implicitly” support ISIS? If someone says that there were legitimate grievances of the Iraqis and Syrians that made their communities more sympathetic to ISIS, does that implicitly support terrorism? We do not yet know, but one can only shudder to consider what may come next.
As for Hizb ut-Tahrir, I am not a fan. I have described them as “reactionary Islamists”, and noted Wassim Doureihi’s speech where he urged Jews in Israel and Palestine to “return to the lands from which you emigrated, to do so peacefully before you will do so forcefully”.
However, just as I learn things and see a different take on the world when I read Andrew Bolt’s blog from time to time, so I occasionally see things of interest when I visit Uthman Badar’s Facebook feed. A recent post reports the geniuses from the Australian newspaper confusing cries of “takbir” (which invites crowds to respond by saying god is great) with “takfir” (“takfiris”, like the fanatics of ISIS, declare other Muslims apostates).
If there is any evidence that Hizb ut-Tahrir actually supports ISIS, none has been forthcoming. In July, they rejected ISIS’s claim of having finally established the Islamic Caliphate. The announcement, they said, “is not real. It does not have any elements of it on the ground, nor a known capital, nor clear authority, nor awareness of its people about the shariah or politics. This is, by Allah, playing with the emotions of the Muslims destroying their hopes, burning their nerves, sacrificing their youth, and a service to their enemies.”
When the leader of ISIS called on Muslims to kill Australians, Badar flatly rejected his call.
ISIS is calling for mass chaos and violence, anywhere and everywhere. It's wrong, it's nutty and most importantly it contravenes the Islamic position and the example of the Prophet (saw). It should fall on deaf ears.
Yes, the west has aggressed beyond what words can express and is responsible for injustice and violence that groups like ISIS could not do even if they wanted… but our deen guides us on how we must respond and it's not what ISIS is suggesting.
As noted above, I am not opposed to criticising Hizb ut-Tahrir. However, those who accuse it of excusing or providing apologetics for murderers would benefit from a quick glance in the mirror.
Take Emma Alberici, and her famous interview with Doureihi. She asked him whether he supported the “murderous campaign” by ISIS. Which, in my view, is a reasonable question. However, he asked her how she felt about Western occupation of Muslim lands, support for “barbaric tyrants”, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that devastated the country.
On ISIS, she was happy to harshly condemn them. On the crimes of Australia and the West, she practiced a studied neutrality, and even defended our latest invasion of Iraq (“The democratically-elected government in Iraq has invited us in”).
A Sydney Morning Herald editorial took this selective approach to condemnations even further. In response to Doureihi’s performance, they wrote “Killing is wrong. It is unacceptable to perpetuate some sick moral equivalence that downplays terrorist murders because Western governments made errors in Iraq 11 years ago and may do so again.”
Note: they begin with the premise that “killing is wrong”, and end with the premise that there is no equivalence between ISIS killing Iraqis, and the West killing Iraqis. It seems not all killing is wrong: the crucial question is who is doing the killing.
Just as we should expect Hizb ut-Tahrir to oppose the crimes of ISIS – which they do – so we should expect Australians to oppose our crimes.
Some may think Hizb ut-Tahrir should condemn ISIS more strongly. However, when one of Australia’s leading papers, supposedly on the more progressive end of the spectrum, can blandly refer to the “error” of our invasion of Iraq, it is blatant hypocrisy (and more) to demand that every single Muslim and Muslim organisation strongly condemn every bad thing any Muslim ever does anywhere.
Either we support freedom of speech or we don’t. Either there’s a Muslim exception to freedom of speech or there isn’t. If the right in Australia is going to continue its campaign to restrict or take away our rights, the least they can do is stop pretending to care about freedom of speech.
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