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Reading The Koran

By Laurence Maher - posted Thursday, 11 April 2019


In the ongoing debate about free speech and freedom of religion in Australiathe following broad statement of principle by then High Court of Australia Chief Justice Latham in Adelaide Company of Jehovah's Witnesses Inc v Commonwealth (1943) concerning s 116 of the Australian Constitution is central to the reality of individual liberty in the nation's secular constitutional arrangements.

"It would be difficult, if not impossible, to devise a definition of religion which would satisfy the adherents of all the many and various religions which exist, or have existed, in the world. There are those who regard religion as consisting principally in a system of beliefs or statement of doctrine. So viewed religion may be either true or false. Others are more inclined to regard religion as prescribing a code of conduct. So viewed a religion may be good or bad. There are others who pay greater attention to religion as involving some prescribed form of ritual or religious observance. Many religious conflicts have been concerned with matters of ritual and observance. Section 116 must be regarded as operating in relation to all these aspects of religion, irrespective of varying opinions in the community as to the truth of particular religious doctrines, as to the goodness of conduct prescribed by a particular religion, or as to the propriety of any particular religious observance. What is religion to one is superstition to another. Some religions are regarded as morally evil by adherents of other creeds. . .

The prohibition in s 116 operates not only to protect the freedom of religion, but also to protect the right of a man to have no religion. No Federal law can impose any religious observance. Defaults in the performance of religious duties are not to be corrected by Federal law . . . Section 116 proclaims not only the principle of toleration of all religions, but also the principle of toleration of absence of religion."

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More recently, in Catch the Fires Ministry Inc v Islamic Council of Victoria Inc(2006), in the course of a long judgment dealing with the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001, Justice Nettle (then a member of the Victorian Court of Appeal) made the following (in my respectful view, unsurprising) succinct observation about one integer of religious freedom in Australia:

"I do not overlook that Muslims are defined by their religious beliefs - as persons who profess Islam- and therefore that to incite hatred or other relevant emotion of or towards the religious beliefs of a Muslim may result in hatred or other relevant emotion of or towards the Muslim. But it is surely not to be assumed that it must do so. Muslims are not the only class of persons who are defined by their religious beliefs. So are adherents to other faiths, including Judaism and Christianity. And there are any number of persons who may despise each other's faiths and yet bear each other no ill will. I dare say, for example, that there would be a large number of people who would despise Pastor Scot's perception of Christianity and yet not dream of hating him or be inclined to any of the other stipulated emotions. . .

People are free to follow the religion of their choice, even if it is averse to other codes. One need only think of the doctrinal differences which separate the several Christian denominations or the Muslim sects in order to see the point. Equally, people are free to attempt to persuade other people to adopt their point of view. Street corner evangelists are a commonplace example. Rightly or wrongly, that is the nature of religion, or at least it is the nature of some religions as they are understood, and in this country it is tolerated."

What then are Australians to make of the widespread impassioned use of the abstraction "Islamophobia" as a condemnation of all claims that belief in central elements of the unique politico-religious ideology set out inThe Koranis a root cause of much global terrorism nowadays? And what are they to make of then Prime Minister Julia Gillard's contradictory assertion in her address to the UN General Assembly on 26 September 2012, "Denigration of religious beliefs is never acceptable"?

The reality is that in our free and open society, every individual has the right to engage in well-informed or ill-informed controversial speech about religious ideas, beliefs and practices. The most obvious everyday manifestation of that reality is that it could not seriously be suggested (least of all by the Christian faithful) that such speech can only occur subject to a privileged exception for "Christianophobia". On the contrary, it is open slather on Christianity. But in a healthy combination of good old-fashioned fortitude, the bedrock courage of their religious convictions, the singular lessons of Australian sectarianism of old, and a genuine commitment to religious diversity, Australian Christians prefer debate to censorship in a secular Commonwealth of multiple competing one, true, revealed faiths.

However, within the Islamic world, The Koran is beyond critical scrutiny. It is said to record the final, complete divine revelation in the actual words of The Almighty. By definition, it is – for those who choose to believe – a perfect revelation. It explains why, as the Supreme Court of Pakistan makes clear in the recent Asia Bibi case, blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by death in parts of the Islamic world, which includes the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Moreover, although the Organisation ofIslamic Cooperation(IOC), which has observer status at the UN, has not yet succeeded in its objective of securing an international convention prohibiting blasphemy beyond the boundaries of its 57 member states, it does report regularly on "Islamophobia", and its concern about denigration of Islam, in Australia.

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The French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has argued that "Islamophobia was invented to silence those Muslims who question The Koran and who demand equality of the sexes".If Bruckner is right, it would help explain why in some segments of Australian society there is a sensitivity to any critical probing of the contents of The Koran. (As an aside, the misuse of the suffix phobia is to be deprecated because it trivialises the lived experience of every individual who is, in fact, afflicted with the actual medical disorder of irrational fear.)

In Australia, The Koranis no more and no less than a book of religious ideas, beliefs and practices. It competes for adherents with other even more ancient books (and later ones) of supposed divine revelation. As the judicial pronouncements excerpted above make abundantly clear, in Australia each collection of religious ideas can be praised or denounced depending upon any individual's attitude to the ideas, starting with the idea of religion itself.

The only sure way that Australians can form their own opinions about the highly controversial use of the censoring label "Islamophobia" is by acquainting themselves with the contents of The Koran via the English translations such as those of Pickthall (1930) or Dawood (1956).

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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About the Author

L W Maher is a Melbourne barrister with a special interest in defamation and other free speech-related disputes. He has written extensively on Australian Cold War legal history.

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