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Landmark Religious Vilification Case in Australia

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In the first case of its kind, the Islamic Council of Victoria is suing the Catch the Fire Ministries for religious vilification in Australia.

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Islamic Human Rights Commission
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22 December 2003

Briefing: Landmark Religious Vilification Case Brought by Islamic Council of Victoria in Australia

A. Introduction
B. The Seminar
C. The Newsletter
D. The Article
E. The Complaint
F. The Defence
G. The Process
H. The Law Explained
I. Islamophobia in Australia


A. Introduction

In the first case of its kind, the Islamic Council of Victoria ("ICV”) is suing the Catch the Fire Ministries Inc. ("CTFM”) for religious vilification under the recent Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001. The complaint is in regard to seminar held by CTFM in March 2002 in which several allegations were made against Islam and Muslims.

B. The Seminar

In March 2002, Catch the Fire Ministries Inc held a seminar which was advertised as providing a "tremendous insight into Islam and the future of Australia”. The speaker at the seminar was a Pastor Daniel Scott. Pastor Scott was described in the advertising as "a man of god saved from Islamic Sharia Law - torture and death.”

The Seminar was attended by about 200 - 250 people including at least three Muslims. During the seminar Pastor Scott made many adverse comments about Islam and Muslims. He suggested Muslim people will lie about their religion. He suggested that Muslims in Australia offer money to convert people to Islam. He suggested that 'true' Muslims, being those who understood and practice Islam, are terrorists. He implied that Muslims have a plan to declare Australia an Islamic nation. He suggested that the Qur\'an ordains Muslims to loot, kill and destroy non-Muslims. He suggested that when Muslims conquer a country they will impose a poll tax on non-Muslims or kill those who do not pay such tax. He suggested that Muslims are encouraged and required by their religion to participate in violence including killing and looting. He ridiculed aspects of the Qu'ran and Muslim beliefs.

The Muslims who attended the Seminar were hurt and distressed by Pastor Scott's description of their religion, and his description of the activities of Muslim people. They were also fearful of the reactions they observed in the audience to what Pastor Scott was saying. The Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) believes the seminar as a whole, and the particular statements referred to are capable on inciting fear, hatred, serious contempt and ridicule of Muslim people.

C. The Newsletter

CTFM operate an internet site too. That internet website contained a Newsletter (Summer 2001) which implied that Islam was the 'enemy' who planned to "take the land (Australia)”. It predicted that Muslims will rapidly increase in population and overtake "Aussies”. It predicted that Muslims will "infiltrate” all aspects of Australian public and religious life with the purposes of preventing the name of Jesus being mentioned and spying on western governments. It suggested that the "motto of Muslims is to convert the world to Islam by peace or violence” and that Muslims in Australia will engage in the same kind of violence as that which occurred on September 11. The website also claimed that "Terrorism is initially tied to Islamic ideals, and it is impossible to be divorced from it”. The tone of the page was clearly insulting to Muslims, suggesting that the Qur'an sanctioned the assault, rape and murder of infidels. CTFM later withdrew these statements from the website. The ICV believes the statements on the website were capable of inciting fear, hatred and serious contempt for Muslim people.

D. The Article

The Catch the Fire Ministries internet site also included an Article entitled "An Insight into Islam”. The Article suggested that Islam was an inherently violent religion and that terrorism was the very nature of Islam. It stated "Islam calls for the destruction of people wherever they may be found.” CTFM later withdrew this article from the website. The ICV believes the article was capable of inciting fear, hatred and serious contempt for Muslim people

E. The Complaint

The Islamic Council of Victoria ("ICV”) has made a Complaint about the Seminar, the Newsletter and the Article under the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001. The Complaint is made against CTFM, Mr Daniel Nalliah (the Public Officer of CTFM) and Pastor Daniel Scott.

The Complaint alleges that the Seminar, Newsletter and Article constituted religious vilification of Muslims by inciting hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, Muslims on ground of their religious beliefs.

F. The Defence

CTFM, Mr Nalliah and Pastor Scott deny that they have vilified Muslims. They also raise a number of other defences including that their conduct occurred reasonably and in good faith:

  • In the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work,
  • In the course of conduct engaged for a genuine academic, artistic, religious, scientific or public interest purpose; or
  • In making or publishing a fair and accurate report of an event or matter of public interest


CTFM, Mr Nalliah and Pastor Scott also allege that the sections of the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 which the ICV relies on are unconstitutional and therefore invalid laws, because they interfere with absolute free speech and freedom of religion.

G. The Process

The Complaint was initially made to the Equal Opportunity Commission of Victoria. The ICV took part in a conciliation conducted by the EOC. However, the conciliation did not resolve the Complaint.

The Complaint was then referred to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal for mediation and hearing. ICV took part in a mediation conducted by VCAT. However, the mediation did not resolve the Complaint.

The Complaint is currently being heard by Judge Higgins of the County Court, who is also a Vice-President of VCAT. On the 29th October 2003, Judge Higgins made a statement reassuring Americans that the Christian respondents would not face any imprisonment if found liable. He made the statement after the Department of Foreign Affairs contacted him about an intense lobbying campaign by American Christian groups and even the US Embassy. The hearing resumed on the 11th December and was adjourned on the 20th December until the 12th February 2004.

H. The Law Explained

Name of the Act: Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, 2001

Penalties: Under the act, individuals can be fined up to $6000 and companies $30,000. Criminal charges can result in six months jail.

Under the legislation there are civil and criminal sanctions for racial and religious vilification. The civil provisions apply to conduct that promotes vilification on the basis of race or religion and involves a conciliation process through the Equal Opportunity Commission. People will be informed of their options including the option of discussing the matter with police. The final decision about whether to pursue the matter as a civil or criminal matter rests with the person making the complaint.

Definition:

Serious racial vilification: A person (the offender) must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, intentionally engage in conduct that the offender knows is likely-

  1. To incite hatred against that other person or class of persons; and
  2. To threaten, or incite others to threaten, physical harm towards that other person or class of persons or the property of that other person or class of persons.


Exemptions: The act includes exceptions for conduct or discussion that is engaged in reasonably and in good faith in relation to:

  • An artistic work or performance;
  • A statement, publication, discussion or debate for any genuine academic, artistic, religious or scientific purpose or which may be considered in the public interest; and
  • A fair or accurate report on a matter of public interest.


Guidelines of banned behaviour:

Examples of behaviour that may be covered by the new Act include:
Writing racist graffiti in public places;
Making racist speeches at a public rally;
Displaying racist posters or stickers in a public place;
Vilifying racist or religious abuse in a public place; and
Offensive racist comments in a publication, including Internet and e-mail.


I. Islamophobia in Australia

The following information has been obtained from the website of Isma-Listen: National Consultations on Eliminating Prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians. It was prepared by the Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr. Bill Jonas, in September 2003 for the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Mr. Doudou Diene for his report on the situation of Muslims and Arab people in the aftermath of 11 September 2001.

There are approximately 281,578 Muslims living in Australia, making up 1.5% of the total Australian population. Of these, over 36% are Australian-born with the remainder having roots in Lebanon, Turkey, Afghanistan and South East Asia.

In 2001 several events in Australia combined to increase the readiness of Australians to scapegoat and demonise Australian Muslims and Arabs. Among these was a national debate about policy towards boat people arriving on Australian shores from the Middle East.

Events both within Australia and internationally since September 2001 have also affected domestic attitudes to Arab and Muslim Australians. Following the Bali bombing, for example, the Australian Arabic Council reported:

Whilst the vilification is not as immediate and widespread as it was following September 11 there have been attacks on Muslim spaces in Sydney and Melbourne over the past few days, as well as reports of verbal abuse.[i]

Consultation participants stressed how the cumulative impact of successive international events has fostered a domestic climate conducive to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab prejudice.

Before Sept 11 Arab and Islamic communities were treated like any other Australians. After Sept 11, Bali and the Iraq war we are treated like terrorists. Even Muslims who have been part of this country for many years all of a sudden were no longer treated as part of this country [Muslim students, Shepparton, 29/5/03].

Those identifiably Muslim, specifically women wearing hijab or chador, and those presumed to be Muslim, notably Sikh men, are particular targets. Offensive and abusive language has been experienced at work, at school, at tertiary institutions, on public transport, in shopping centres and in public places such as streets and parks.

In the following summary we provide a limited number of examples of abusive incidents in a variety of settings. These examples establish that incidents including physical assaults continue to occur to the present day. For fuller detail, please consult the consultation records on the Isma website.

On public transport

My friend was coming back from work and she had to travel by train. An old man sitting in front of her intimidated her. She was wearing the hijab and he said \'you\'re from Indonesia, you\'re Muslim right? Well you\'re a terrorist right?\' She started crying. She got off at Frankston station and the passengers all watched this happen. Another young passenger said \'old man shut up\'. This happened about a month ago [Indonesian Muslim Community of Victoria, 28/5/03].

On the road

Road rage incidents are disturbingly commonplace. The protection offered by a moving vehicle seems to embolden racists to hurl the most vicious abuse at pedestrians and fellow motorists. Sometimes this abuse becomes physical as in the following example.

I was picking up my children from the local Islamic school and on the way home a lady tried to run me off the road. She followed me home and then when I was in my driveway getting the kids out of the car the lady came up the driveway and physically assaulted my daughter and grabbed her very hard and continued to shout at her. She kept yelling abuses and swear words at us. My daughter was badly hurt. The woman yelled things like "we'll fix you, you nappy heads", and "get the f… out of our country you f…ing terrorists." She also called my daughter a "slut" many times. The whole time my neighbour was watching. Now I don't leave the house…. I am afraid that she will come back because she threatened us and knows where we live. I have only left the house when it was absolutely necessary for the last 4 months. I can't leave the house alone and I don't take my children to school anymore. I feel like I am a prisoner in my own home [Muslim girls and women, Melbourne, 28/5/03].

In shopping centres

In the shops they call us 'terrorists' and 'Osama bin Laden'. Sometimes people spit and shout and it leaves us feeling quite scared and shaken. No one helps or defends us [Muslim women, Perth, 30/6/03].

I was shopping and someone threw eggs at me, spat at me and took my veil off. Who was there to help? [St George Lebanese Joint Committee Women's Group, Sydney, 11/4/03].

In public places

Participants felt racist abuse is more likely to occur in suburbs with high Arab and Muslim populations. And it was generally agreed that, "It does seem to be happening more to women wearing hijab. They see women as easy prey" [Islamic Council of NSW, Sydney, 10/6/03]

Common and recurring experiences include being spat on, abused, punched and even bitten.

One day, I went to the CBD with a friend. We were about to cross the road when two men started yelling 'you are Taliban - go home!' I keep thinking about it. I don't feel safe when I go around places. One year after 11 September I crossed the street to go to campus and a young man gave me the finger [Indonesian Muslim Community of Victoria, Melbourne, 28/5/03].

A lot of the women while walking in the street have had bottles thrown at them in the centre of town during the day. Or they would have people abuse them very badly with obscene language - language that these women are not even familiar with and is highly offensive to say to them. Many people think and feel that a woman wearing the hijab is a moving bomb [Iraqi refugees, rural Victoria, 30/5/03].

Older people are the worst culprits. They walk past you and mutter 'disgusting'. My friend was lined up at the bank and the man behind her in the queue said 'disgusting'. [Muslim women, Perth, 30/6/03].

Men are less likely to be targeted but it does happen.

Men of our community have had people yell out at them in the street calling them 'Bin Laden'. These days, if you are Muslim or Arab, you are 'Osama bin Laden' [Iraqi refugees, rural Victoria, 30/5/03].

Other terms of abuse include 'terrorist', 'murderer' and 'towel head' and people are often told to 'get out of our country' or 'go back to your own country'.

Objects have been hurled from cars and cars have been used in attempts to ram others with Muslim drivers or to run down Muslim pedestrians.

Just yesterday for example my mum and brother were walking on the street and someone threw eggs out of a car at them [Muslim Lawyers Group, Melbourne, 27/5/03].

An Iraqi refugee in regional Victoria told of a friend's son who was badly beaten by a young Australian man who jumped out of his car and attacked him on the street. The boy was so badly hurt and traumatised that he was unable to speak for two days. A friend had taken the licence plate number of the attacker's car and the boy went to the police to complain about the assault but no further action was taken [Iraqi refugee women, Shepparton, 30/5/03].

It is also commonly reported that bystanders look on while these attacks take place, doing nothing to intervene or assist.

About 8 months ago my mother was crossing the road at the bus stop in Footscray and a girl about 25 years old kept staring at her, maybe because my mother wears the full hijab. The girl came from behind her and tried to steal her bag and my mother struggled with her. There was a long scuffle and everyone in the street and bus stop were watching. During the struggle, the girl sprayed pepper spray in my mother's eyes and she fainted. No-one picked her up and the bus driver kept going… My mother went to the doctor and she still can't see properly and is too scared to catch a bus. She was more upset with the inaction of others rather than what happened [Muslim girls and women, Melbourne, 28/5/03].

As a result, many Muslim women are still fearful of catching public transport and even of travelling in their own cars. Some women are too nervous to go out, particularly in taxis and on public transport. Many parents do not allow their daughters to go anywhere. Young women have become even more isolated for this reason.

Aside from more overt examples of racist abuse and vilification, consultation participants also gave evidence of more subtle institutionalised racism in the workplace, in educational settings, in law enforcement and in the delivery of goods and services.

Workplace discrimination

Women wearing hijab have reported being refused jobs and workplace training opportunities.

I have a friend who applied for a job and got it and the company rang her and she had to wear a uniform and she is not allowed to take off the scarf, but the interviewer gave her the job and told her to start the following Monday. The company then rang her and told her that '[they've] got someone else'. Another friend had the same experience too whereby the following day the company rang and told her that '[they've] got someone else'. The problems are for women who wear the scarf [Indonesian Muslim Community of Victoria, Melbourne, 28/5/03].

One young Australian-born Muslim woman qualified as a legal clerk was denied a job by an employment agency unless she could provide proof of permission to work in Australia.

I was born in Brisbane Mater Hospital, Queensland. I have never come across legislation of any sort that it is a requirement to have a letter of proof to work in this country if you were born here [written submission, 18/7/03].

Several consultation participants reported that professional workplaces were not immune from discrimination or prejudice and that Muslim women wearing the hijab faced particular difficulties in obtaining professional employment.

They would never employ you in a commercial law firm with the hijab. I've actually had people tell me, 'You take that [hijab] off and you can come'. In job interviews, I've had questions asked like 'Does your husband let you work?' or 'Do you have children?' [Muslim Lawyers Group, Melbourne, 27/5/03].

Even if they think, 'Well I'm open-minded', there is a concern at the back of their minds that, 'Oh my clients are going to run out the door terrified [Muslim Lawyers Group, Melbourne, 27/5/03].

I had a conversation with one of my managers once and he said 'Look it doesn't matter what I think, we have to react to the market. The market is not ready for this' [Muslim Lawyers Group, Melbourne, 27/5/03].

On the other hand, some employers have accommodated employees' religious needs.

Since 11 September and the Bali bombings, people at work are starting to learn about what is Islam. I pray in a special room at work and I am the only Muslim. Because of this I have been asked a lot about Islam [Indonesian Muslim Community of Victoria, Melbourne, 28/5/03].

Education

Despite the efforts of State and Territory education authorities, many teachers remain ill-equipped to deal effectively with racist bullying in the classroom and playground. In Shepparton, regional Victoria, a young Iraqi refugee described his experience at secondary school. Some Anglo-Australian students told him to "go back to your country". He told his teacher who advised him to ignore the teasing as there was nothing he could do to help. After that, the young man did not report anything more to his teachers and subsequently left school, taking work on a farm and studying part-time at TAFE.

Teachers are not immune from the racism they hear on talkback radio. Students say that every time there's another international event, their teachers look at them as another rapist in the making, another terrorist in the making. The fair go hasn't filtered down to the schools [Islamic Council of NSW, Sydney, 10/6/03].

Participants in consultations have also referred to offensive or insensitive language used by teachers and lecturers leading class discussions about terrorism or the situation of Afghani women and the like and also to Muslim students being more likely to be punished, including by suspension and expulsion from school, following incidents involving both Muslims and non-Muslims.

There has been a substantial increase in Islamic school waiting lists. Several participants at a consultation organised by the Islamic Council of Victoria explained that their children were in Islamic schools, despite the considerable expense, so they could be protected from what they would face in public schools. Participants were unanimous that their decision to send their children to Islamic schools was more about having their children educated in a safe, more respectful environment rather than a specifically Islamic environment.

We need to allow our children to focus on their education without being distracted by the racism [Islamic Council of Victoria, Melbourne, 26/5/03].

Unless our children are more highly educated than Australians they won't be able to get jobs. If an employer has to choose between a Muslim and a non-Muslim 'Aussie Joe' or 'Aussie Jane' - they will choose the Aussie because of the extra trouble and negative baggage perceived in employing a Muslim [Islamic Council of Victoria, Melbourne, 26/5/03].

Law enforcement

Community concerns and complaints about the use of profiling and the targeting of Muslims, including religious leaders, by airport security, customs, ASIO and the Australian Federal Police have been mentioned. Police have also been accused of unfairly targeting Muslims.

Guys get abused, they get called 'terrorists' and 'Bin-Ladens' by the police. I've actually heard of police prosecutors beating Muslims with the Yellow Pages calling them 'you terrorists' [Muslim Lawyers Group, Melbourne, 27/5/03].

Provision of services

Discrimination by bus and tram services has been mentioned everywhere. Throughout Australia we have heard of buses and trams failing to stop for women wearing hijab.[ii]

Conclusion

The role of the media, specifically talkback radio, tabloid newspapers and commercial television news and current affairs, has been identified by most participants consulted as creating community prejudice and fostering racial and religious hatred.

Media are responsible for the worst stereotypes, like Muslims are terrorists, when Islam means peace. If someone has an agenda to make Muslims appear bad then they have an agenda. People want to see Muslims as bad. Like women in Islam wearing the hijab is portrayed as a sign of backwardness. And people eliminate the fact that other religious or ethnic groups can be terrorists. People think that only Muslims can be terrorists. They single out 'terrorist' as equalling to 'Islam' [Indonesian Muslim Community of Victoria, Melbourne, 28/5/03].

Aside from portraying Muslims as terrorists, concern has been expressed about the inconsistent use of ethnic descriptors in crime reportage.

Every time if there is a crime committed by a Greek for example, they will not say his ethnicity. If an Iraqi committed a crime, they will say he is an Iraqi. If it is a European they will say 'a Victorian man' or a 'Sydney man', but if it was an Arab they will say 'Muslim man' or 'Middle-Eastern man' [Iraqi refugees, rural Victoria, 30/5/03].

It is widely believed that political leadership favouring cultural and religious diversity, tolerance, equality and respect for all religious faiths will be essential if we are to achieve our aim of reducing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice and eliminating racist discrimination, vilification and violence.

Isma participants have emphasised the significance of political leadership.

There is a lack of leadership among government departments and politicians when it comes to confronting discrimination against Muslims. There is a lack of anything Islamic on the part of the federal government. The government projects fear and there is a lack of understanding. It is not projecting an image of acceptance and inclusiveness. This reinforces negative difference and otherness [Islamic Council of NSW, Sydney, 10/6/03].

The 'fair go' motto we always believed in has been replaced with the 'fear go' where the individual sees themselves above the rest of society. When fear is embraced, we all cling to what we have and society is tilted in a direction where the majority rules without the slightest regard or respect for the rest of society. The culture of the dominant group becomes mainstream to the exclusion of all others. Minorities are being made to feel grateful for the right to practice their own culture; for being tolerated. Equity and fairness are rights; they are not privileges. Governments were created to provide equity and fairness, not to take it away. There has been a campaign to disenfranchise large sections of our society, especially in the last 2 years. This campaign is very short-sighted and could have long-term undesirable ramifications. The Australia which was the kind of society everyone would want to live in is slipping away from us [Australian Arabic Communities Council, Sydney, 10 June 2003].

During the NSW State election in March 2003, one candidate distributed flyers calling on the government to 'restrict Muslim movement to Australia' and his party sponsored a website warning about 'Muslim terrorists'. The following is an extract from the site:

Many Australians have related how they fear that Muslims will change our country if they get the chance. One particular Australian stated, "The biggest mistake a person can make is to think Muslims are people just like us - they are nothing like us".[iii]

The party's leader was reported as saying:
For many people, this is simply a matter that Islam is not compatible with Australian values or culture.[iv]

Better public education outlining the breadth of religious and cultural diversity among Australians is also regarded by consultation participants as essential to eliminating prejudice against Muslim and Arab Australians. Some participants noted optimistically that this education process is already underway and that it is having a slow but positive impact on the broader Australian public.

After September 11, the community was in a state of fear - you walked down the street and everyone was pointing fingers looking suspiciously. After this Gulf War, the community was braced again for these kinds of actions - but personally, and from what I've heard from speaking to other people, it hasn't been that bad because in the intervening period there has been a lot of discussion about how not every Muslim is a terrorist and about 'what is Islam'. The awareness is growing slowly - very slowly [Muslim Lawyers Group, Melbourne, 27/5/03].

It is important to note that the picture is not all bad and that there are very good people in Australia who do show respect for others. A person which is ignorant of difference and has no idea about others will discriminate and therefore can't respect others' religions because they have no knowledge of it including why they wear the hijab, etc. But an educated person is more likely to show respect for others [Refugee women's group, Melbourne, 26/5/03].

[A recent study revealed a pattern of growing Islamaphobia in Australia. In a survey of more than 5,000 Australians, researchers found that while there is persistent intolerance directed at aboriginal and Jewish Australians, anti-Muslim sentiment is also very strong. The study identified Muslims as one of the country's most marginalised religious and ethnic groups, with many Australians believing Muslims and people from the Middle East were unable to fit in to Australia.]

  1. Australian Arabic Council, media release, \'AAC CONDEMNS ATTACKS, WARNS AGAINST SCAPEGOATING\', 18 October 2002.
  2. See for example, consultation in Hobart, 14 June 2003; Al Zahra Muslim Women\'s Association, Sydney, 23 April 2003.
  3. Quote extracted 6 September 2003 in the fortnight following revision of the site as a result of conciliation of a complaint under Victorian religious vilification legislation.
  4. Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 2003.

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