In their battle against Muslims, Hanson, Lambie and co put all faiths at risk, writes Max Chalmers.
In the lead up to the 2016 election, a quiet and deliberate attack was mounted on freedom of religion in Australia. It came from surprising political quarters.
In response to the recent march of LGBTI rights, public discussions of religious freedom have been dominated by a particular brand of right-wing politics: think Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton, the Australian Liberty Alliance’s Bernard Gaynor, or Cory Bernardi. While the panoply of Australian Christian thinking stretches far beyond men like these, they’re the ones who demand the most attention.
Yet for all the marriage equality hysteria and warnings that – God forbid! – somebody might have to bake a cake for a queer person, little attention has been paid to the fact one of the country’s largest political parties wants to alter the bedrock legal protections granted to citizens of faith.
As Pauline Hanson hurtled towards an ultimately successful 2016 election, she vowed to hold a referendum to change Section 116 of the Australian Constitution which protects “the free exercise of any religion”. The Section bars religious tests on public officials too, and stops the state from imposing observance.
It was a radical demand that One Nation refused to explain or elaborate on in any detail. In campaign material, the party pointed to the fact Islam is a “constitutionally protected” religion. The best that could be inferred was that the policy sat among their broader program to undermine the free exercise of Islam specifically.
Yet any changes to 116 would have implications far beyond the group Hanson intends to single out.
“We consider religious freedom to be a fundamental part of Australian life,” Peter Wertheim, Executive Director of the Executive Council of the Australian Jewry, told me before the last election. “We would therefore be opposed to any attempt to diminish religious freedom by altering Section 116 of the Constitution.”
Hanson’s low-key bid to change Section 116 is a dramatic exemplar of the way trashing the rights of Muslims to practice their religion harms everybody. But if Hanson’s nationalist attacks on freedom of religion seem unprecedented, they are not.
Like Hanson, Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie has for some time deployed a line of attack on Muslims that includes calls for the state to step in and prevent basic types of religious practice. In Lambie’s case, these radical policies are justified by an apparently deliberate confusion of the term “sharia law”.
In 2014, Lambie appeared on Insiders and made it clear she did not understand what “sharia law” was, while simultaneously calling for it to be banned. Host Barrie Cassidy tried to explain that sharia does not refer to the alternative legal system used in some parts of the Muslim world, but to the broader framework of an individual Muslim’s faith. His words echo those of the University of Sydney’s Dr Ghena Krayem, who at the time defined sharia as “the whole framework that Muslims live by, their day-to-day things like how they pray, their interaction with people, the food that they eat, all of the things that we don’t normally associate with any legal system.”
“It’s kind of like our moral code,” Dr Krayem told me.
In short, Muslims must follow sharia, but that does not mean they need to advocate for it to be embedded in their country’s legal code.
Once you acknowledge this definition you realise that a call to ban sharia is little more than a call to ban Islam. Dr Krayem, an expert in constitutional law, said that on this basis is may actually be unconstitutional to do so, given the presence of our old friend, Section 116.
Since her embarrassing brush with Cassidy, Lambie’s understanding of sharia has failed to evolve. This week on Q&A she made the same mistake again.
“Anybody that supports sharia law in this country should be deported,” the Tasmanian Senator announced. An argument then ensued with Sudanese-Australian Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
It’s unclear if Lambie actually understands the magnitude of what she’s arguing – that any practicing Muslim should be deported, including the young woman sitting across from her – but given the number of times people have attempted to explain what “sharia” means to her, there is no longer any excuse.
Either way, Lambie’s demand is in keeping with the spirit of Hanson’s anti-Muslim program and can rightly be described as an attack on religious freedom at its core.
Empty though it is, the argument that sharia defies Australian law is well and truly embedded in Lambie’s thinking. At the time of Lambie’s first sharia meltdown, I exchanged emails with her Chief of Staff Rob Messenger, a former Queensland parliamentarian and avid anti-Islam campaigner. Messenger believes “sharia extremists” present the same threat to the world that the Nazis did in the 1930s. He also believes that following sharia puts you in breach of Section 44 of the Constitution (it doesn’t) and is “possibly treasonous”.
The general attack on sharia and assertion that Islam is necessarily incompatible with Australian law – despite the fact so many Muslims live in Australia in keeping with the law, and have done for well over a century – underlies calls for specific intrusions of religious liberty.
Hanson wants no more mosques. Lambie wants deportations and the banning of religious clothing. Both want religious tests at the border, of some kind or other. Their message is this: it doesn’t actually matter how you practice your faith, it’s identifying with the faith that is the original, unabsolvable sin.
That same logic can be turned on any religion. Even if calls to alter constitutional protections of religious expression remain a pipedream, attacks on the freedom of Muslims to practice basic tenets of their faith equate to an attack on all other faiths as well.