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The misguided sheikh and free speech

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Monday, 15 January 2007


The response to the comments by the impertinent sheikh underlies the splendour of free speech to forging a progressive and fair community. At the same time, the hysterical over-reaction to his comments displays an underlying anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia.

A robust right to free speech is a key to advancing the social and moral health of the community. But for this to occur we have to be particularly tolerant to allowing loopy views to be aired and not seek to punish those who make unpopular comments.

That’s the most important message to emerge from the fury directed towards Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali for his comments on Egyptian television that Muslims are more entitled to be in Australia than Anglo-Saxons, who came here as convicts.

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While the comments of the sheikh are grossly misinformed, society is better off for the fact that the misguided sheikh continues to feel free to express his comments, as opposed to peddling them quietly to impressionable minds. This way the community has the opportunity to rebut his erroneous views on a range of important social issues.

The great thing about silly views is that they can be readily contradicted. The sillier they are, the easier they are to rebut. But to do this, we first need to be aware of them. The best way to neutralise misguided and extreme views is to douse them with copious amounts of realism, to the point where they are consigned to the realms of delusional fiction.

Forcing outdated and dangerous views underground increases the risk that they will in fact be adopted, and acted upon, by others. This is because in such an environment they are not subject to counter analysis.

This especially applies in relation to religious and other community figures who have the capacity to shape the values of others. As a result of the sheikh’s now very public ramblings one thing is for sure: his capacity to corrupt Muslim youth is significantly diminished. He has been publicly derided and ridiculed to the point where even the most hard core follower will at least question his warped views of the world.

This was not the case several months ago, prior to his now infamous remarks comparing skimpily clad women to uncovered meat. Prior to the public flogging he received in relation to those comments he was regarded by many as the most senior and influential Muslim figure in the country.

This is not to say that free speech is an absolute right. Not even close. Like all rights it must yield to the weight of producing good outcomes. There are many legitimate exceptions to the right to say whatever you want. Thus, we can’t shout fire in a crowded cinema or spread lies which defame people and cause them harm. It is also wrong to say things that incite violence.

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The benefits of free speech were nailed by late 19th century English philosopher J.S.Mill, who stated, “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race … If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” The latest sheikh controversy highlights just how readily truth trumps error.

The response to the naughty sheikh’s latest anti-teachings hasn’t, however, been altogether appropriate. It has been too heavy-handed and lacks perspective. He has not violated any of the limits on free speech. The hysteria generated by his views may in fact work to discourage other influential people publicly airing their silly views.

The sheikh’s recent comments have again been front and centre in the media. Lost in all this is the fact that he didn’t do anything which directly harmed another person. On a scale of harm, it is far less damaging to say something, as opposed to inflicting suffering on others.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is the author of 20 books and over 100 refereed scholarly articles. He is not connected with any political party or other interest group. He is the author of Australian Human Rights Law (forthcoming). Mirko is the author of Being Happy and Dealing with Moral Dilemmas.

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